The Mount Margaret Backcountry
is part of the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
and is part of a ridge system located just north of Mt. St. Helens
and Spirit Lake. This area took the brunt of the blast in 1980 - the lateral blast leveled thousands of acres of forest north of the volcano and scoured the ridgetop down to the bedrock in places. Even some thirty years later evidence of the eruption is everywhere. Trees lie in piles tossed about like discarded matchsticks, ghost forests of snags claw skyward, and Spirit Lake itself hosts a massive floating pile of driftwood trees. The area is currently under scientific study watching as life returns to the wasteland.
Oddly the area is named for Mt. Margaret (5858' elevation) although the highest point in the area is actually Mt. Whittier
(5883') - a short distance away to the north along the Whittier Ridge. Mt. Margaret and Coldwater Peak
(5727') are probably the top two most commonly hiked destinations in the Backcountry.
Other points of interest in the area might include "The Dome" (5707') and a number of other unnamed scramble high points along the Boundary Trail. Other more technical destinations might include the towers
along the Whittier Ridge, and possibly Tephra's Pinnacle
located about a mile south of Norway Pass on the Independence Pass trail (#227).
St. Helens Lake and the Boundary Ridge (Brian Jenkins)
There are two general ways to access trails into the Mt. Margaret Backcountry. Note that both approaches are closed in winter -- check with the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Washington Department of Transportation for access.
From I-5, take exit 49 (Castle Rock) and follow Hwy 504 east for approximately 43mi to the first trailhead at the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. There are four trailheads on this approach:
- From the Coldwater Ridge visitor center a short spur connects to the Lakes Trail running along the north side of Coldwater Lake.
- Continue following Hwy 504 for another 1.8mi to the Lakes Trailhead.
- Continuing another 1.2mi you will pass the South Coldwater Trailhead.
- Continue another 5.6mi to the end of Hwy 504 at the Johnson Ridge Visitor Center to the Boundary Trailhead. The trailhead is located at the far eastern end of the large parking lot.
From I-5, take exit 68 and follow Rt 12 approximately 47mi to Randle. Turn off right onto FR 25 (signed for Windy Ridge) and follow it south about 13mi before turning right again onto FR 99 (also signed). Follow this road into the outer blast zone of the Monument for 9.2mi to a junction. There are three trailheads on this approach:
- To reach the Norway Pass Trailhead, turn right at the junction onto FR 26 and continue about 1mi to the trailhead on the left.
- The other trailheads are reached by staying on FR 99. Continue forward for 2.7mi to the Independence Pass Trailhead.
- Continue another 4.5mi along FR 99 to the Windy Ridge Trailhead at the very end of the road.
All trailheads in the Mt. Margaret Backcountry require a Northwest Forest Pass. Pets and stock are not permitted in the Backcountry.
To protect some areas and preserve natural features some areas of the Backcountry are off-limits to the public. These areas include the Boot Lake basin, St. Helens Lake, all areas south of the Boundary Trail.
The Mt. Margaret Backcountry is located directly north of Mt. St. Helens. You may want to check with the National Monument on current volcanic activity before your visit. Typically the Backcountry is shut down if there is a possible eruption concern.
Not shown on the map, but a short trail west of St. Helens Lake climbs to the summit of Coldwater Peak.
The Whittier Ridge Trail (#214) is not specifically closed, but the Monument does not advise its use as the trail has been washed out on the north end just before its meeting with the Lakes Trail. This may limit some loop possibilities; a short cross-country leg was forming to bypass the washed out section. The entire ridge is a fun scramble.
It is possible to do a 2-3 day loop around Spirit Lake by making use of the Truman Trail. It is not shown on the map, but additional trails from the Windy Ridge area and Truman Trail provide access to the Loowit Trail which circumnavigates the base of Mt. St. Helens. Loowit Falls and the Plains of Abraham are both accessible from Windy Ridge - worthy destinations in their own right.
Devastation near Coldwater Peak (Brian Jenkins)
Camping in the Mt. Margaret Backcountry is permitted. Backpackers must first obtain a free permit and can only stay at designated sites. To prevent overuse and impact in this recovering area, group size is limited to four. Permit applications
are available on the Mt. Margaret Backcountry website and must be sent via snail-mail or FAX to:
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Attn: MMBC Permits
42218 NE Yale Bridge Road
Amboy, WA 98601
Early submission is recommended per limited sites and as three weeks is generally required - unless applying in person. Apparently one's NW Forest Pass must also accompany the application, although it is not clear if one needs to send the actual pass or if a photocopy would suffice.
All campsites in the Backcountry are rather lux - equipped with tent pads and solar composting toilets. Sites may be snowbound into early summer - particularly in the lake basin areas. Fires are prohibited.
Camping is not permitted in the Mt. St. Helens blast zone - roughly the area between Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helens.
Panhandle Lake in need of some new trees (Oct 2003)