Circumambulating Mt. St. Helens: An UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge

Last week texts were flying as my friends and I tried to decide what adventure we wanted to tackle over the holiday weekend. Our first idea was discarded when we learned that our route was closed due to a wildfire in the area, and after some back and forth Marna and I landed on doing the Loowit Trail around Mt. St. Helens (another in the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge list of routes). Then Sarah had FOMO, and then Heidi jumped onboard, and then we convinced Wendy to come with us, and suddenly we were a group of five.

Mt. St. Helens is one of my favorite places in Washington. I vaguely remember news coverage of its May 1980 eruption (when I was in high school), but once I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2001 it was one of the first places I wanted to visit. Since then I’ve mountain biked up Ape Canyon, across the Plains of Abraham, down to the Windy Ridge Visitor Center, and back several times and three years ago I ran the Volcanic 50, which took me around the mountain on the Loowit. I’m fascinated by its landscape, which can shift from forest to moonscape in the matter of yards, and by its slow recovery to once again hosting glaciers up high and wildflowers, bushes, and trees down low. None of the rest of the group had done any of the trails, and I was excited to share it with them.

fullsizeoutput_3427We started south on I-5 around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and decided to stop in Chehalis for dinner. Ha! What a mistake! An hour after we ordered, our waiter let us know we were still four tickets out in the kitchen and offered us each one small complimentary fruit cup to make up for the inconvenience. We felt really sad.

We had hoped to arrive at Marble Mountain Sno Park, where we planned to sleep, before sunset but ended up not even leaving the restaurant until sunset. You know what they say about best laid plans, right?

Anyway, we got to Marble Mountain Sno Park around 10 p.m., set up a mix of bivvy sacs and tents next to our truck, and crawled into our sleeping bags. In the middle of the night I had to go to the bathroom and when I stumbled out of my tent I couldn’t believe how many stars I could see. Seriously, it’s good to get away from the city and remember how grand the universe is!

fullsizeoutput_3428The Loowit Trail is a 28-mile loop trail with multiple access points. We chose the June Lake Trailhead on the south side of the mountain as our starting point because, at 2 miles, it was the shortest “connector” trail. We hit the trailhead around 6:15 Monday morning, with the sun just starting to rise. It made for a glorious start, as our peeks of St. Helens through the trees were highlighted with early morning alpen glow. Once we hit the Loowit Trail, we headed west to start our clockwise trip around the volcano.

We were soon out of the trees, and our jaws dropped as we stood above clouds enveloping the valleys below us, with Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams visible to the south and east. Our first boulder field came up quickly, and we picked our way through the boulders by following wood posts that mark the trail periodically. With the black rock, the tan posts are fairly obvious and make for relatively easy route finding.

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Can’t get much better!
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So excited for our adventure!
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That’s Mt. Hood in the distance

After the first boulder field, we passed the winter and summer climbing routes going up Tubal Worm Trail and Monitor Ridge and then reentered the forest. When I did the Volcanic 50, there were three separate ground wasp nests with very angry wasps ready to attack the runners. I was stung five times; I heard one woman report 15 stings! I was on the lookout for the wasps here but didn’t see any. But as soon as I mentioned that we were in the area where I had been stung before, Marna stumbled upon a nest and was stung on her leg. After the forest and wasps, we hit our second boulder field and worked our way to the west side of the mountain.

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Boulder fields require lots of paying attention to where your feet are and where they’re going!

From here, the trail winds up and down, through sand and rocks and through forested areas. I don’t think the trail is ever flat. Fall colors are coming out now, and in some sections deciduous trees and bushes sporting reds and oranges contrasted beautifully with the black and gray of the surrounding terrain.

Our next milestone came at Sheep Canyon, where the trail has deteriorated significantly since I was last on it. It now features a steep and eroded descent that has been protected with a rope and ends with a 3+ foot drop off at the bottom. We “got to” climb up the other side with the aid of a rope as well.

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Wendy descends into Sheep Canyon

The trail climbs for a bit after Sheep Canyon, and then we began the descent to the Toutle River. There is a lovely forested and very runnable section that switchbacks downhill until you near the river. The final drop down to the river also involves a rope, but this descent was shorter and not nearly as steep at the Sheep Canyon descent. The Toutle captured my imagination the first time I drove across it on I-5 and my husband described the flow and debris carried by the river after the 1980 eruption. In a 1981 USGS report, the author describes:

“The hydrologic effects of the May 18 eruption have been both widespread and intense. During the eruption, a massive debris avalanche moved down the north flank of the volcano depositing about 3 billion cubic yards of rock, ice, and other materials in the upper 17 miles of the North Fork Toutle River valley. The debris deposits are about 600 feet thick in the upper reaches of the valley. Following the avalanche, runoff from the melted glaciers and snow, and possible outflow from Spirit Lake, caused an extraordinary mudflow in the North Fork Toutle River. The mudflow shattered and uprooted thousands of trees, destroyed most of the local bridges, and deposited an estimated 25,000 acre-feet of sediment in the Cowlitz River channel.”

Fortunately for us, the Toutle was much tamer on Monday and involved just a bit of rock hopping to cross.

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Toutle River

We filtered some water here, as water is scarce for the next 10 or so miles until we would hit a spring on the northeast side of the mountain. It’s another steep climb up from the river, and then more climbing took us up switchbacks through some trees. I had told everyone that there was a “sand ramp” after the Toutle and while I had forgotten about the switchbacking section the sand ramp was still there. Once we cleared the sand ramp, we enjoyed a nice runnable section that meanders up and down until the trail finally dropped us out in the blast zone.

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The sand ramp
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Nearing the blast zone

I’m not a geologist or volcanologist, so I can’t adequately describe the events of the 1980 eruption. What I can tell you is that as I have traversed this section of trail, I have been overwhelmed with a kind of primitive understanding of the power of the volcano and how small and ultimately powerless we are in the scope of the world. I do recommend checking out this time-lapse series of satellite images from NASA Earth Observatory showing the gradual “re-greening” of the area around Mt. St. Helens and how the blast zone remains an austere place as nature rebuilds itself on its own timeline.

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As we crossed the northern flanks of Mt. St. Helens we were able to peer up into the crater. We were treated to a little bit of geology in action as a rock slide avalanched from the crater rim and crashed down to the crater bottom. At points we were able to see Mt. Rainier to the north as well as Spirit Lake and all of the dead trees that still float in it today. The rocks themselves are mostly gray and black—some so shiny black that in the distance they looked white from the reflected sunlight—but are interspersed with terra-cotta-orange-colored rocks.

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Dust from the rock slide is visible on the left side of the crater; the lava dome and steam are visible in the center of the crater (with clouds behind)
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Up close and personal with Mt. St. Helens
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Spirit Lake: the white area on the far shore is not a nice sandy beach but instead is a “raft” of dead trees that were deposited there during the eruption
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Nearing the east side

Next we climbed up out of the blast zone to the top of Windy Ridge. There are a few trails here that lead to Spirit Lake, up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, and to Loowit Falls (which we could see parts of from our trail and look like they’re worth a side trip in the future). Once we ascended Windy Ridge we could look out to the Plains of Abraham spreading east and south of us, and Mt. Adams was back in view and dominating the skyline.

We had a brief discussion about why the Plains of Abraham are named what they are. A route description on the Washington Trails Association site describes them here:

“Here spread out before you is the Plains of Abraham, a near-level expanse named not for the father figure of biblical fame but after the famed battlefield in Quebec City. An early adventurer here saw some semblance, but certainly the plains in Quebec sont plus vertes! In early summer, the pumiced plains are painted purple thanks to a proliferation of lupine.”

The descent from Windy Ridge down to the Plains were some of the sketchiest of the trail. There’s a faint path that makes its way down a steep scree slope, and with each step the path slid downhill just enough to make it feel tenuous. We all made it down safely and were glad to leave that section behind us.

The Plains are open to mountain bikes (we saw none), and I know it well from my past rides on the mountain. We made good time as it’s flat and runnable, and it’s so wide open that the views of Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood (which was back again by this point) are simply in your face. This ended much too quickly after we passed Ape Canyon and the Muddy River.

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At Ape Canyon, with Mt. Adams in the background

Once again I had given everyone a heads up on what to expect—this time that there were ravines ahead. What I hadn’t remembered is how many ravines there are! It’s up and down on loose sand and rocks, again and again. About halfway through, we wished we had counted them so we could give future travelers a heads up and realistic expectations. Perhaps if you travel in a counter-clockwise direction and encounter these with fresh legs they aren’t so bad.

Finally out of the ravines, we traversed (with some ups and downs) through the absolute best blueberry patch I’ve encountered in the mountains. There were so many, and they were perfect—ripe, and sweet and tart at the same time. What a wonderful pick-me-up at this point in the day!

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So! Many! Blueberries!

As we spotted fairly frequent piles of bear skat, we discussed how bears actually eat the berries. Considering how long it takes for a human (with fingers and opposable thumbs) to pick a handful of berries, how on earth could a bear get enough? This discussion fed a lengthy, end-of-the-day-goofiness string of theories, and continues to entertain us even a day later as we discuss a bear’s prehensile lips. Here’s what we’ve since learned: “Black bears are efficient berry-eaters, consuming up to 30,000 berries a day in a good year. They gather berries quickly, using their sensitive, mobile lips and swallowing them whole.” If you want to learn more, you can read about it here.

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We did the Loowit! Now just 2 miles back to the car

After the berries, we entered another section of rocks and boulders, although we now had a more defined trail that didn’t require the same degree of boulder-hopping that the earlier boulder fields had. We hit a section of forest with a soft, plush trail that felt like heaven, and then some more rocks and boulders, and finally another forested section and the intersection with the June Lake Trail. It was a relatively quick 2 miles back to our cars, where we quickly changed out of our sweaty clothes and into sweats and puffy jackets and comfy sandals, and then sat down to a quick feast of leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.

Final Thoughts

As all of us have done the Wonderland Trail, it was natural to compare the two. They both go around a volcano. They both boast varied terrain. The Loowit Trail is quite a bit shorter—without the connector portion, it’s about 28 miles compared with Wonderland’s 93 miles.

However, I think it’s dangerous to compare them. We loved the constant gratification the Loowit Trail and Mt. St. Helens provide. The views are nearly nonstop, and the terrain is continuously changing. The Wonderland has long sections in the forest, where it felt like a lot of work for less return.

I think we must take each at face value. Running the Wonderland Trail is unique, and running the Loowit Trail is unique too. I absolutely love Mt. St. Helens, its stark demonstration of Earth’s power, and the opportunity the Loowit Trail affords those of us on foot to explore all its sides in a relatively approachable 30ish miles.

Stats (per my Garmin)

32.33 miles
7375′ elevation gain and loss (gross)
Total time 13:41
Moving time 11:10

In 2015 I did this loop in 9:50. That time it was raining much of the time, and it was a supported race. I took about three pictures. This time amongst the five of us we probably took around 400 pictures! You gotta come do this one … the views are amazing!

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Ravine number 982,543

All photos belong to either Sarah Brouwer or me. All text belongs to me.

 

 

 

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