Friday, September 26, 2008

Coldwater Peak Feels Wild Within Sight of the Highway

This wasn’t going to be my first time up Coldwater Peak, but a friend at work showed interest in climbing the peak and dogged me throughout the summer for a hike to the venerable site of a now absent fire lookout. When our mutual schedules finally came together on a date, our group swelled from two to seven people including my two boys.

My youngest son Jared hikes up the last switchbacks on Coldwater Peak.

The hike to Coldwater Peak could actually start in two locations. The easiest begins at Johnston Ridge Observatory at the end of Highway 504, 52 miles east of Castle Rock. The second is the South Coldwater trail #230 at mile post 45 along Highway 504. I recommend the Boundary Trail #1 trail from Johnston Ridge over the South Coldwater route. The trail is in much better condition, especially as you enter the more remote areas of South Coldwater Ridge.

Two years ago, when I tried to reach Coldwater Peak from the western route, the trail had washed out in a glacial cirque. In addition, the trail can be difficult to find in a few places. One account I read this summer indicated that confusion led one hiker to go cross country by line of sight. Admittedly, it is tempting as pre-eruption logging roads carve up the landscape and appear to lead the unsuspecting hiker right to the base of the peak. By congressional legislation, the area is reserved for scientific use and by definition, any off-trail travel is against the law and subject to citation.

Mt. Margaret highlights the rugged country around St. Helens Lake.

This hike does require a monument pass (covered by annual and lifetime federal passes) which is purchased at Johnston Ridge. Rangers understand that hikers are often on the trail long before the tourist public, therefore it is considered an “honor system”. Simply explain that your hike started early and then go purchase or present your passes that support the facilities.

The easiest route leaves Johnston Ridge and winds around the Devil’s Elbow. A piece of trail that challenges phobias hikers might have with heights. After turning the corner onto a deposit of hummocks left by the collapse and landslide of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, the hiker climbs to a gentle plateau where the first significant views of Spirit Lake begin.

Kyle takes a break above St. Helens Lake and Mt. Rainier can be seen in the background.

It is from here to the top of a ridge overlooking St. Helens Lake that I consider the most difficult stretch of the hike. There is little to no shade and constant exposure to the sun as you climb near 1,000 vertical feet over a mile. Preparing for sun exposure in the rain forest climate is an important preparation component for any hiker. Once reaching the top of this crest, the trail finds a delicate route along the slender ridgeline and at one point, actually crosses through a natural void in the geology.

The trail finds a natural route through the volcanic dike. The view through the “Arch” includes a look at Mt. Adams, 35 miles to the east.

As our group spread out, some nearly took a wrong turn at the junction of the South Coldwater #230 trail. They couldn’t initially find the needed trail and saw the word “Coldwater” on the sign. They assumed that was the way to go. Due to a large area of compacted soils and wildlife trails that quickly disappear, it is difficult to find Boundary Trail. At the junction, continue straight, veer to the right slightly and the typical worn tread will come into view about 20 yards ahead.

From this point, it is only about another mile to the summit of Coldwater Peak; Half of that distance is gentle topography. At the spur junction. A smaller, less visible trail departs left and switchbacks up the side of the peak. It delivers you to a USGS communications station at an elevation of 5,727 feet and the former site of one of Southwest Washington‘s 33 fire lookouts.

Huckleberry Bushes present a rusty red that contrast the blues of St. Helens Lake. The silver logs in the lake were deposited by the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens.

In all, the out and back hike is slightly more than 13 miles and call me a fool when I asked my group what was the most difficult portion, to a person they all chose the last half mile.

On this day, the weather was perfect. 65 to 75 with a few fluttering clouds here and there. It was the sound in the air that made the trip predictably enjoyable. It was mid-September and the beginning of the elk rut combined with a availability of huckleberries to make the return hike just as enjoyable as the accent. Several bull elk produced annual calls that made you feel like you were in an extra wild place despite being in almost constant view of a state highway.

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