So after a couple of months of taking pictures of the major Cascade peaks it was finally time to visit one. Our most recent hike brought us to the volcanic landscape of Mt. St. Helens. Our plan was to hike a loop on the SW side of the mountain starting at the Blue Lake trail head.
For the second week in a row we spotted elk from the car on the way to the trail, but were skunked while actually hiking. We arrived at the current Blue Lake trail head (washouts occasionally relocate it) and headed across a rocky washout to the Toutle Trail. The washout provided a view ahead to the mountain while forest lined each side. At the Toutle Trail we turned left and headed toward Blue Lake. Coldspring Creek flowed along the edge of the washout creating a dividing line between the grey rocks and old growth forest on the other side. Shortly after crossing the creek and entering the forest we came within sight of Blue Lake. The forest here survived the 1980 eruption leaving old growth trees, but a mudflow dammed the creek creating the lake. The forest was peaceful and carpets of white flowers covered much of the ground.
After 2.5 miles in the forest we began to descend into Sheep Canyon. Here the Toutle Trail intersects the Sheep Canyon trail which climbs the mountain on the south side of Sheep Canyon up to the Loowit Trail which circles the entire mountain. We continued on the Toutle and crossed Sheep Canyon on a scenic footbridge and continued on toward the South Fork Toutle River.
This section of trail was not very well maintained so we had to do a lot of stepping over and under along the way. After 1.5 miles we made it to the Toutle Trail’s own jct with the Loowit Trail at the edge of the S. Fork Toutle River’s canyon. This wide canyon was affected by the eruption when snow from Mt. St. Helens’ glaciers rapidly melted sending a huge mudslide down the valley. The river now is a small ribbon of water in the wide canyon. Here we turned right on the Loowit and started to climb the side of the mountain.
As we climbed we left the forest and entered the blast zone where the trees did not survive the eruption. Here increasingly better views opened up of the mountains rim and to the north the top of Mt. Rainier. Wildflowers surrounded the trail taking advantage of the clearings created by the blast. We passed through some excellent bear grass stands and large numbers of orange tiger lilies, purple penstemon, red columbine & paintbrush, and various colors of phlox. Some small patches of snow lingered in gullies along the way.
The trail eventually leveled out and began traversing along the mountains flank to the south. We dipped in and out of the tree line passing a number of different landscapes. We passed the Sheep Canyon Trail choosing instead to continue to the Butte Camp Trail. As we traveled on we crossed several rocky outwash gullies and eventually worked our way far enough around to the south to see Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson in the distance. Pink mountain-heather and dwarf lupine bloomed along this portion of the trail.
When we reached the Butte Camp Trail we turned right and started our descent back to the Toutle Trail. This trail passed through a dry lodgepole pine forest before reaching the meadow at Butte Camp. Recent snow melt had left the meadow flooded. The trail got us down fairly quickly without being steep and soon we were back on the Toutle Trail ready for the last leg of our hike.
The Toutle Trail was mostly level as it passed through the forest which was nice because we were all starting to feel tired. We pressed on and eventually reached the washout and the junction with the Blue Lake Trail and hustled the final 3/4 miles back to the car. I had chalked our fatigue up to the 10k we had all run the day before, as we seemed to have been much slower than normal. I got a possible answer to why when we got home and I checked the GPS which had us going a total of 16.1 miles :). I’m still not quite sure where the extra 2.6 miles came in but the track from the gps looks right so all I know to say is “Happy Trails”.