Loowit Trail: 2016 Circumnavigation of Mount St. Helens
I made an unofficial decision last year that each Memorial Day weekend would mark the beginning of my backpacking season with a hike around Mount St. Helens via the Loowit Trail. Mother Nature forced her hand on me last year to where I saw the mountain only once due to low hanging clouds, but this year I swore would be different. As Memorial Day weekend approached, I checked the weather reports and was disappointed to see rain in the forecast. Not wanting to hike another 30 plus miles in the clouds, I postponed until the following weekend which would turn out to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. For three days, a friend and I hiked in 80 to 90-degree heat. But hey, I could easily see the mountain!
Day 1: June Lake to the Toutle River
We began our three-day hike at the June Lake Trail Head on the south side of Mount St. Helens. Walking clockwise, this would provide us balance hike of roughly 11 miles the first day, 11 miles the second, and 6 miles the third. My estimate of the first day turned out to be off by about 2 miles, but I suppose it could have been worse. Still, it made me wonder if I was going crazy or not when my GPS told me we should have been at the camp site already.
Day 1 was just over 13.6 miles in total and I think it was likely the hardest section of the trail. Trekking to June Lake is a breeze but after that, it's either up hill, over boulders, or for us in this case, through snow. There was one section of snow that had a slight pucker factor to it because if I slipped, I was going to end up on a pile of rocks 75 feet below. We made great time given the conditions of the trail and soon found ourselves on the downward side of our first day.
On the far west side of the mountain, there was one washout that required an unassisted drop of about 10 feet that we had to take our packs off for. When we climbed back out of it, we found ourselves walking up hill for what seemed forever just to get back on the trail. Looking back now, I think the original trail was washed out and this was the new route. It was a surprise, but we did just fine with the rerouting.
The upper meadows on this side of the mountain are beautiful and they're remote enough that you have them all to yourself. This was where we first saw the Mountain Goats on Mount St. Helens and in this case, a family of six that were feeding way up on the hill. The last couple miles were straight down hill toward the Toutle River. I began to thank the heavens we chose to hike clockwise because this was probably the worst hill on the mountain. The trail was fine, but the grade was steep and didn't offer many switchbacks. After about a 1000 ft drop, we were on the Toutle River looking for our camp site.
It was hot so we decided to camp just steps away from ice cold snow melt that forms the Toutle River. The scene was incredible and Chris decided he was going to take a polar plunge to cool off from the day. He made it look easy enough that I decided to give it a go and nearly froze my ass off. You know that thing your body does when water is so cold that you can't breathe the right way? I kept gasping for air and finally had to call it a day before I hyperventilated. It was cold but refreshing! That night in the Seek Outside Redcliff tipi was excellent. I'm in love with camping this way and am going to be a sad man if I ever go back to a normal tent.
Day 2: Toutle River to Ape Canyon
The following morning we were on the trail around 7 AM and began our climb up to the blast zone. For fear of not doing it justice, I'm going to simply say that the blast zone is one of those memorable places you'll ever see. It's a mix of Land Before Time and something out of the book of Exodus. Elk sign was everywhere and just about every quarter of a mile, the landscape changes. Rocks, desert, grass, ash, rushing creeks. You name it, Helens has it. We bumped into a Nanny Goat and her Kid about halfway across the blast zone along with a bachelor herd of bull elk grazing through an open field at about 100 yards away. I thought for sure we'd see someone on the backside at some point, but I think the hot weather kept everyone in on this particular weekend.
If you plan to cross the blast zone, make sure you bring enough water to get you to where you need to be. There is only one fresh spring on the far east side that is worth grabbing water from so we did just that. After taking a nice long break we headed out to the Plains of Abraham.
One big climb after hiking through a desert all day was the only thing separated us from our future camp site. Having just filled up on water, our legs were a little tired going up the the Windy Pass, but before we knew it we were going back down the other side and headed to the Plains of Abraham. One thing to note, this hill going up to Windy Pass is basically a cliff. Steady feet are required.
I had originally planned to camp at a spot I'd camped at last year, but when we came across a clear stream with a grand view of Mount Adams in the distance, we decided we'd forego the next 1/2 mile and make camp for the night. We were both tired from the heat that day, so we pitch the tipi, grabbed dinner, and ate while we soaked our feet in the ice cold stream. Chris felt the urge yet again to take a dip in a perfect pool of water, but this time he wanted to wash his hair. How he stayed in there so long is beyond me. I was only able to last but a few moments.
As we sat there in silence eating dinner and taking in the view, Chris spotted a mountain goat down below us bouncing around on a cliff. We grabbed the binoculars and for the next few hours watched as this goat took a nap. Not long after we spotted her (I think it was a her), another goat appeared above us on the hill and eventually made its way down below us and over to the other goat. I was lucky enough to snap some pictures of him (yeah…I'm thinking it was a him) as he passed below us at about 60 yards. I'm officially a huge fan of Mountain Goats. These creatures are by far the coolest animals out there and have practically no agenda at all. They climb, eat, nap, and do it all over again. How they pick their way across what seems to be impossible terrain is beyond me. I loved every moment of watching them!
Day 3: Ape Canyon to June Lake
The following morning, we woke up a little earlier than usual and made our way down the trail to the truck. We had two big washouts to manage before the home stretch and if it was anything like last year, it was going to be a little sketchy. I can't say for sure, but I think Chris and I may have been the first ones through these washouts this year as there were no prints at all to be found on this section.
The first one wasn't too bad going through the Muddy River, but the second one had a bit of a pucker factor to it. The trail going down into the washout was nearly gone and the grade was so steep that we had to find our own way down without falling. Going up the other side proved easier than it looked at first until the last twenty feet or so. The pictures don't do it justice. The earth was unstable, the grade was REALLY steep, and there was one point where I told myself just to keep my feet steady and try not to lean out too much. We made it through without taking any spills, bounced over to a nice meadow, and on down towards June Lake for the final mile.
Final Thoughts on the Loowit Trail
The Loowit Trail is incredibly special. From old forests to desert landscapes, Mount St. Helens has it all and she's got quite the story to tell. Seeing both the life of a forest and the death of a forest is difficult to put into words. You have to see it for yourself first hand to truly get an idea of how powerful that eruption in 1980 was. The Loowit is not an easy trail, but I don't believe that anything this great should be easy. Mount St. Helens makes you work for it and though you can section hike the trail, I highly recommend taking a long weekend to hike the entire thing so you experience every corner of the mountain in one trip.
Cheers to a great hike and a beautiful mountain!
Spending 33 miles on a trail over a long weekend provides a good opportunity find out what works and what doesn't work with regard to gear. Here's a few highlights.
I’m officially sold on Exo Mountain Gear. The pack was just as comfortable on the last mile as it was on the first. It's also capable of doing so much more than just your average pack found at REI. Sure, it was built for hunting, but it doesn't HAVE to be used only for that. It's built to haul weight and it does so perfectly. It flexes with you, remains ridged when needed, and the hip belt is crazy comfortable. Since dawning the Exo pack, I've been so pleased with it that I have no reason to use anything else. Simply put, I never once thought about my pack in 33 miles on the trail. And that’s a good thing!
This was my second outing with this tent and I'm more in love with it now than I was before. At roughly 5lbs., it provides me a palace to sleep in and I actually enjoy being inside it. Moving to a floorless tent was hard to do at first, but after experiencing the benefits of it, I'm going to be hard pressed to move back to a traditional tent. It's versatile, roomy, and is a pleasure to live out of.
Hoka One One, Tor Summit Mid WP
These boots might look a little goofy, but they are awesome. I wore them only one time before this trail and had minimal hot spots after 33 miles. Most people are concerned about how high the foot sits for fear of rolling their ankle, but it's really not an issue. I only had a couple slight rolls but it was on really bad rocks and I don't think it was the boot that was the culprit.
These things are light, feel great on rough terrain, and hold their own against anything else out there. My only complaint is that they made my feet a little too warm but keep in mind it was in the 90's and these are waterproof boots. I'm a fan of this brand and can't wait to get them out on the trail again!