Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Loowit Falls

Loowit Falls
9 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but crumbling road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Loowit Falls plunges out of the unearthly crater of Mount St. Helens in a raw, unfinished world of crumbling rock, one of the most remarkable landscapes crafted by erosion following the volcano's cataclysmic 1980 eruption. This hike gets visitors as close to the off-limits crater of the volcano as possible short of summiting the volcano itself and provides an extraordinary look at both the extent of the volcano's devastation and the remarkable recovery that has occurred in the intervening four decades. Far from Seattle and Portland and a hefty drive from I-5, this hike sees a fraction of the visitors that pack the trails around other volcanoes in the Northwest.

I hiked Loowit Falls with a good friend visiting from San Francisco. From Seattle, we headed south past Puyallup, Eatonville, and Morton, following US 12 east from Morton to Randle and then taking the bumpy and pothole-filled Forest Service Road 25 south to Forest Service Road 99, which led towards the Windy Ridge area of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. NF-99 was an unpleasant drive: at points, parts of the downhill side of the road had slumped, creating somewhat dangerous driving conditions. We followed 99 to its end at the Windy Ridge parking area.

From the trailhead, we followed the gated road (Truman Trail, No. 207) south towards the mountain. The old road- built to access the plains at the base of Mount St. Helens shortly after the 1980 eruption and still used today by researchers- hugged the east side of the ridge. The devastated slopes, having recovered minimally, were populated only with bushes and wildflowers, meaning that the trail had open views of the surrounding valleys and peaks. Mount Adams was semi-visible to the east, floating in and out of the clouds as we hiked. We passed a small structure by the side of the road that turned out to be an earthquake monitoring station, part of a larger USGS system for monitoring seismic and volcanic activity at Mount St. Helens.

At about a mile, the road rounded a corner and Mount St. Helens came back into view. From this perspective, Dog's Head, the northeast corner of the crater rim, appeared particularly prominent and much of the rest of the crater was hidden behind the closer features of the mountain.

Mount St. Helens

We also had views out into the forested ridges of the South Cascades that filled the space between Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. Notably, the degree of devastation experienced by any given area during the 1980 eruption could be determined by the degree to which that area had been revegetated.

Truman Trail View
Wildflowers have taken full advantage of the lack of foliage near Mount St. Helens: early each summer, the Devastated Area puts on one of the most spectacular flower shows in the state. We were lucky to catch numerous paintbrush blooming amidst fields of yellow and purple wildflowers on the otherwise barren slopes during our visit.

After the road cut across to the west side of the ridge, it descended down to the ashy plains created from the massive landslide at the start of Mount St. Helens' eruption in 1980. The once conical summit of St. Helens crumbled and slid down the north side of the volcano as the volcano erupted, resulting in the largest recorded landslide in history that filled in the valley of the Nork Fork Toutle River. The road ended here; two trails left from the parking lot. The Truman Trail headed in the direction of Spirit Lake, so instead we took the left fork for the Windy Trail.

The Windy Trail began heading across the volcanic moonscape. This was the heart of the most devastated landscape in the aftermath of St. Helens' eruption: the very soil beneath our feet had only been deposited in the eruption less than four decades before. After crossing a broad wash, the trail ascended onto a plateau and then wandered west across this surreal landscape for the next mile. But despite all the ravages of the volcano upon this landscape, life was renewing: in some areas, the ground was covered in sheets of paintbrush and lupine.

Wildflower bloom and Spirit Lake
Wildflower bloom
After a mile, the Windy Trail met up with the Loowit Trail, a 30-mile trail which circumnavigates Mount St. Helens. At the junction, we took the right fork to head in the counterclockwise direction around the volcano. We were so close to the mountain now that Dog's Head, the northeast end of the crater rim, towered to the south and we could no longer make out the shape of the full crater rim.

The trail continued climbing in and out of shallow stream valleys as it traversed the northern base of Mount St. Helens; we rockhopped over multiple stream crossings. One particular stream valley was discordantly lush, one of the few breaks of dense vegetation in this otherwise harsh and sparse landscape. Here, a stream cascaded among blooming bunches of monkeyflower in a surreal oasis.

Monkeyflower blooming by a stream
After exiting our verdant interlude, we continued across this Cascadian Mordor until we reached a junction with the spur to Loowit Falls. We took this left fork, leaving the Loowit Trail and heading uphill towards a deep ravine cut into the mountain's slopes. As we first spotted Loowit Falls plunging into its stark gorge, the plumes of dust, the harshly lit clouds, and the raw rocky cut of the crater rim rising above made for a menacing scene.

Approaching Loowit Falls
We arrived at the rim of the gorge after about a half mile of hiking from the Loowit Trail. Here, we had an awesome view of the waterfall's 200-foot plunge into a canyon cut into layers of landslide debris and ash. There was just one other group at the falls as we lunched to this awesome view.

Loowit Falls
The waterfall is fed by the Crater Glacier, a new glacier that has formed since 1980 in the St. Helen's caldera around its lava dome.

Looking out, there were excellent views down the slopes of the volcano to Spirit Lake and Mount Margaret and Coldwater Peak. The fill from the landslide had created desolate plains at the bottom of the North Fork Toutle River valley. By raising the level of the valley, the landslide raised the level of Spirit Lake and created Coldwater and Castle Lakes further downstream; this buried Spirit Lake's former outlet into the Toutle River. In the aftermath of the eruption, the surface level of Spirit Lake rose steadily and threatened to cause catastrophic flooding in the Toutle River Valley were it to top the debris flow and quickly erode into it. In response, the US Army Corps of Engineers dug a 1.6-mile drainage tunnel to provide an outlet for the lake by letting it drain into the Coldwater Creek. Approaching four decades, the tunnel is now in need for repairs for the safety of downstream communities.

Spirit Lake
From our vantage point, we were just high enough to gaze over Windy Ridge to the Goat Rocks. The high, snowcapped ridge of Old Snowy, Ives Peak, and Mount Gilbert Custis was visible.

Goat Rocks
After sufficiently absorbing this desolate scene, we retraced our steps and returned to Seattle for some deep dish at Windy City Pie.

If you wish to see Mt. St. Helens up close and personal without climbing it, this is your hike. Hikes across the Toutle at Harry's Ridge and Mount Margaret provide beautiful views of the crater but for close-up views of the volcano and the raw landscape it has crafted, you should hike to Loowit Falls.

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