With a whole entire weekend off and nice weather, why not hike around Mt St Helens?!
The Loowit Trail circles Mount St. Helens in 30 miles. It drops into and climbs out of deep gullies eroded by the eruption and debris flows of St. Helens in 1980. The hike is challenging with sparse camps, little water and some sketchy sections of loose pumice. Since the eruption denuded the slopes of the mountain, you’re almost always in sun, so getting overheated and sunburned is a very real possibility.
Friday-Sunday, September 11-13, 2015. Hike: Loowit Trail. Distance: 34 miles. Elevation gain: 6000 feet. High point: 4800 feet.
Jared and I leave Seattle in the evening and make it to Mt St Helens just in time for a gorgeous sunset. Quick change into my hiking dress. We hit the trail with plans to hike a few night miles and set up camp just outside of the Restricted Zone.
We hike along Windy Ridge as dusk fades to dark. Pause to take pictures of the lingering colorful light on the horizon. We hear rustling below us on the plains. What is it? Jared turns on his headlamp. Elk! A huge herd of them. One of them, startled by the light, shrieks an elkish shriek. We turn out the light. Then we hear an elkish snort very close by. Yikes! Let’s go! The trail splits and we diverge onto the Loowit Trail which runs along a ridge.
The elk scare has my blood pumping and I’m a little skiddish by the night hiking. Will we see more elk? Bears? Mountain lions? Zombies?! We see none of these things and hike a few miles along the ridge before setting up camp at a flat spot before the Plains of Abraham. We cozy under the two person ultralight cuben tarp I just made and doze off. The air is dry and my throat is scratchy but I sleep well.
We wake in time to admire the beautiful sunrise. A huge bull elk sits on a hill a few hundred feet away. We gawk. Just then, a black tailed deer bouncily bounds between us and the elk. What is this magical land?!
After packing up our camp, we hike on down to a small gully. Boil water. Coffee. Oatmeal. Back on trail, we see another huge herd of elk. Two large bulls and a huge harem of lady elk. Fill water at a silty spring near the Ape Canyon Trail and hope for clear water ahead.
The scenery is beautiful as we walk clockwise around the mountain. Much barrenness. The north east side, where we started, is covered with trees flattened by the volcanic explosion 20 years ago. The Plains of Abraham, on the east side, are flattish section of trail unmarked by deep gullies or “the breach” to the north.
Between Ape Canyon and the June Lake Trail, we encounter several deep and steep gullies. Huge eroded stream beds. We run into a few hikers and a trail runner circling the mountain in one day. Where and in what condition the next water source is the hot topic of conversation. We pass an older gentleman and his friend who are tired and low on water and hope they decide to turn around rather than push on. The day is already hot. The trail is exposed.
Just before the June Lake Trail intersection, we hear water flowing below the trail. Down a steep and vegetated slope is a stream carrying clear beautiful water. Jackpot. We fill and drink to our hearts content.
We hike just a bit further and stop for a lunch break and siesta in the shade. Much better. After a bit, we continue clockwise toward the Ptarmigan Trail, the trail hikers take to the top. We hike over worm flows and past the Chocolate River. All this uphill and heat is crank inducing. Eventually the afternoon wanes and we cross the threshold back to normal temperatures and I feel so much better.
More worm flows, more gullies. Along to Butte Camp Trail. Our energy is waning so we drink maple syrup. Pow! Just the punch we need to get going again. Up and down more gullies. Toward Sheep Canyon. Some forested landscape. We lose a few hundred feet of elevation as we parallel Sheep Canyon. Cross down into and up and out of it. Precarious and sketchy.
Gain a few hundred more feet as we parallel the other side of Sheep Canyon. To fuel us into the evening, we boil water and eat the Idahoans we need. Up to a ridge. Where to camp? Hopefully we’ll make it close to the South Toutle River before dark. We’ve been hiking for 14 hours. Sunset and beautiful colors! The light is red. Amazing.
Hike down, down, down to the S. Toutle as quickly as we can. We can see the trail we’ll be on tomorrow – much climbing in the morning! The Sunset. Dusk. A campsite! Perfect. Set up, cook, eat, sleep.
We wake early. Pack up. The sky is clear but clouds are looming down valley, sneaking slowly up toward us. We hike a half mile to a fresh clean clear water source along a side trail. Back to the trail. The clouds are closer. Let’s cross the Toutle before we can’t see!
Down into the Toutle gully – the deepest and steepest yet. Ropes allow us to lower down the bank safely. Looking for a place to cross the fast moving river. The clouds are upon us now. Plunge through the fast moving yet surprisingly easy to cross river and onto the other side. We grab hold of ropes on the north side of the gully and pull ourselves up onto the bank. Flat ground again! Now uphill!
We switch uphill through trees then across pumice slopes. Along the northwest side of St Helens. Up onto flat ground once again. A picturesque angle of the mountain. Across flat ground for a while, through moderate gullies, then at last into the Breach. This is where the mountain exploded 20 years ago. Rediculous! Black, yellow, red, white, and gray rocks. We can see Mt Hood and Rainier. Such a volcanic landscape.
I have a nagging lethargy. Over the past few days, my throat has been very dry and scratchy. I thought it was the dry air but now I’m thinking otherwise. I’ve been blowing my nose constantly. I have that tingly sensitive feeling that preceeds being sick. And suddenly it hits in full force. Only a few miles left to hike and I feel like shit. The constant blowing wind isn’t helping me regulate my body temperature and I have the chills. There’s only one way out and it’s along the Loowit. Let’s go!
We hike up the Sasquatch Steps, past geology vans, along Windy Ridge (it’s really windy!), and at last back to the car. Whew. A whirlwind tour of St Helens. Beautiful, tiring, and well worth it.