Mount Saint Helens – Loowit Trail

Fourth of July weekend is a great time for a tramp. While the hoards head for the city to partake in the parades, fried food and fireworks, K and I prefer to travel in the opposite direction: to the parks.

This year we decided to celebrate Independence Day on the Loowit Trail, a 36-mile loop that circumnavigates the Mount Saint Helens National Monument. Mount Saint Helens (who will be referred to using the female pronoun) is one of the 160 active volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire. Located roughly 100 miles south of Seattle, Washington, Saint Helens is most remembered for the fateful day in 1980 she suddenly blew her top. The eruption sent nearly a cubic mile of debris crashing into 250 homes before most people had even finished their morning coffee. Fifty-seven people died. Today, this south Cascadian she-volcano is still active, inviting the risk-adverse hiker to her trails.

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Saint Helens was going to be a first for us in many ways. As individuals, we had much experience on the trail, but as a couple, this was our first tramp. Coming straight out of a 2-year grad school program, both our boots and bodies needed some breaking in. So to be safe, we opted to take our time and walk the circuit in four nights instead of the usual three. This would turn out to be a near life-saving (or more accurately, foot-saving) decision.

The best trail map we could find was from GreenTrails and only available for purchase at the REI store. We snatched one for $8.00 and debated whether or not a high-tech Steripen was a necessary supplement to our classic hand-pump water filter. Two hours and several hundreds of dollars later, we left REI feeling fully equipped for our first backpacking trip as a couple.

Day One: Windy Trail Carpark to Ape Canyon Campground (5.9 miles)

We started our trek from the Windy Trail carpark, a few miles from the Loowit trail. It was 3:00pm by the time we walked away from our car and over 90 degrees. That summer had been unusually hot for Washington, and although we found it disappointing to see Miss Helens so vacant of snow, we didn’t think too much more of it—until we reached our first river crossing.

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It was dry. Bone dry. Then we came to the next river. Dry again. Shit, we thought. Our trusty map with its abundant blue squiggly lines had told us where the rivers were, but we had failed ourselves by forgetting to account for the actual climatic conditions. We walked 6 miles, passing dry creek after creek, rationing our precious water supply to the point of discomfort. In the blazing afternoon heat, the thought of turning back became more appealing with every step. We passed no one.

Finally, as the sun’s rays were beginning to fall on our backs, we heard a slight trickle. Cresting the hill, our eyes confirmed: a thin gray, silty stream slithering between the rocky landscape. Our shoes were off and our pump was at work within minutes as we drank and drank the gritty runoff in pure relief. Less than a mile further, we came to Ape Canyon campground and pitched our tent atop a treeless crown, accompanied only by three distant peaks, one rising moon, and lots of (mostly) filtered water.

Day Two: Ape Canyon Campground to June Lake (5.5 miles)

By 8:00am the sun had converted our tent into a nylon sauna (which is the second fastest way, aside from freshly brewed coffee, of getting me out of bed). In attempts to outpace the soon-to-be-sweltering sun we were on the trail and amidst the wildflower fields by nine o’clock.

Traveling clockwise from Windy Trail and Ape Canyon, K and I meandered for five miles across lava flows caught in various stages of revegetation. Much of this east-facing section of the loop had been severely washed out in the 25 years following the eruption. So we found ourselves repeatedly sliding down steep scree ravines, jumping over water-filled rivers, scrambling back up the other side of the ravine, then traipsing through open meadows of wild blueberry. Eventually, this pattern ended and we descended into a small section of old growth forest, unperturbed by the blast.

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We reached the end of our descent at June Lake campground, AKA “the oasis”.  This time, all clothes came off as we scampered up to the base of a mossy falls, tucked so deeply in the woods it was barely audible from the lake. The snowmelt shower was a shock to our sunburned skin. But we stood beneath the misty moss as long as our naked bodies allowed. It was only day two, but already our muscles were feeling fatigued and the blisters were beginning to form. We had over-packed and under-prepared. And our backs and feet felt every ounce of it.

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Having arrived at June Lake by midday, we relished in our oasis for the remainder of the day. We saw a few day hikers—who had followed a short path from a nearby parking lot—but were otherwise alone and loving it, celebrating our independent day with whiskey and crib.

Day Three: June Lake to Toutle River (12 miles)

Spoiled by our water riches, K and I awoke the next morning without much care for what lay ahead. We filled our bottles with water and mugs with coffee before hitting the trail. It was early, but we soon regretted our mugs full of coffee as we rose quickly along the sun-scorched slope. Though the brilliant blue skies presented sweeping views of Helen’s sister (and brother) peaks—Lady Rainer, Boy Adams, and Mr. Hood—our attention once again was monopolized by our rapidly depleting water supply and the diminishing prospects of finding more.

We trudged our 45-pound packs 6 miles to the Butte Camp junction—our intended destination for the night. We had half a liter of water between the two of us and low confidence that the camp awaiting us one mile below had anything to offer. Looking up gradient at Saint Helens’ southern side we saw no ice, no signs of water. Only swirling dust clouds wiping the dry earth off its peak. The land was decidedly dry. K made the call I didn’t want to hear: we were pushing on to the next camp. It was our only chance at finding water.

I kept my mouth closed to keep the moisture in and the dust out. The air being sucked in by my nose was almost 100 degrees and there was no escape from the sun. The south side of the volcano was nothing but loose, exposed rock. So we kept going. When we weren’t path-finding our way across massive boulder fields, we were sliding down deep, gravely gullies and emerging with mustaches caked in dirt.

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This continued on for some time until (sweet Jesus) we came to an overlook of the valley. Water! We could see water! The Toutle River was flowing below, and to our left, the trail dropped quickly into a shaded forest (blessed be Moses). We were saved.

Arriving at Toutle River was like a rush of pure elation. Our nervous angst melted into giddy laughter as we pumped so much of the river through our filter it clogged with volcanic clay. We guzzled liter after liter and liter until we finally felt the urge to pee for the first time that day.

Day Four: Day of Rest at Toutle River (0 miles)

The next day we did nothing. Literally. Our double-mileage the day before had allowed us the luxury to take a break. Instead of packing up our campsite, we grabbed the essential items (our Steripen—since the clogged filter required brute strength to pump—blister-aid kit, and travel-sized cribbage board) and moseyed downstream until we found a small shaded area along the shore. All day we lounged in the shade by the river. Feet up, drinking water to our thirst’s content.

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Day Five: Toutle River to Windy Trail Carpark (11.6 miles)

Fearful of midday heat and scarce water access, K and I scurried away from our campsite at first light. In the sweet coolness of the Miss Helens’s shadow, we climbed out of the Toutle river gorge and onto the open plains.

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Eventually, our circumnavigation trail rounded again to the east and led us directly through the blast zone. With the sun high above our heads at this point, we passed through miles of purple lupine patches and—to our ignorant wonder—rivers too wide to cross without getting wet.

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Staggering up the final hill, the one that connected us back to the Windy Trail, our combined foot pain had reached a level-7 on the JK scale of tolerance. But we made it. In good humor and with plenty of water to spare.

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