Sunday, October 26, 2008

Take in Loowit Falls and the View of a Volcano

The weather and my schedule gave me a break last week. My last adventure in the Enchantments as October began, ended in rain. Within 72 hours, it amounted to 2 plus feet of snow in the elevations above 6,000 feet. My favorite trails are now pretty much out of service for most people.

As the sun came out last week, snow in the lower elevations melted to a minimum. It was then, that I remembered a 1.75 mile section of trail that I had never hiked at the base of our neighborhood volcano.

Mt. Adams shows up behind the rocky slopes of Mount St. Helens.

It was in 2004, as a guest of the U.S. Geological Survey that I stood on the precipice of 200 foot tall Loowit Falls, one of two creeks that drain the crater of Mount St. Helens. While the non-permitted and credentialed individual is not allowed at the top of the falls, the purchase of a monument pass at Johnston Ridge Observatory allows an individual to hike to within 75 meters of the base of the falls.

The top of Loowit Falls taken on September 8th, 2004 when I was a guest of U.S.G.S. Scientists. Two weeks later, Mount St. Helens began its latest eruption.

The weather at lower elevations was perfect on the day of my hike, but the east winds of the Upper Toutle Lake Valley were in full force. The most defined canyons of the Cascades become funnels for air movement sometimes pushing 30 to 90mph, winds depending on the pressure gradient from east of the Cascades to the west. Occasionally, a beautiful day will have its challenges when the telltale haze shows on the north side of Mount St. Helens. On my most recent hike, the 30 to 40 MPH winds literally took my breath away in exposed locations and at one point made it very difficult to safely round the Devil’s Elbow.

East winds blow volcanic dust into the air in the Upper Toutle Lake Valley making my hiking conditions less than perfect.

From Johnston Ridge, hike east on the Boundary Trail #1, a little over 2 miles and around the Devil’s Elbow to the junction with the Truman Trail. Head down into the valley below using a natural route through a set of 1980 debris piles known as Hummocks that filled the drainage just west of Spirit Lake. It is now another 3 miles to the junction of the Willow Springs Trail #216F. Turn south (toward the volcano) for less than a mile, you will junction with the Loowit Trail #216 and turn east for a mile. All the trail junctions are well marked. A ¼ mile spur trail to the base of Loowit Falls will take you as close as the geology will allow to the base of the falls. Please be careful, as the banks of the canyon are extremely unstable.

Loowit Falls drops just about 200 feet from the crater of Mount St. Helens to the North Fork Toutle River Valley.

In all, the hike is 7 miles out and back (14 miles total). There are no alternate routes back to Johnston Ridge. Much of the route is gentle and flat as you cross the alien pumice plain at the base of Mount. St. Helens. While crossing the plain, I observed four elk and had a close encounter with a Mountain Bluebird.

Three bull elk dot the pumice plain landscape.

Here in this future rain forest, a Mountain Bluebird has found perfect, albeit temporary habitat.

You will have until November 9th to get this hike in as Johnston Ridge is slated to close that day. If weather allows, you could conceivably complete this hike from the Hummocks, but that adds another 8 miles and camping is not allowed anywhere along the route.

The headwaters of the North Fork Toutle River begins in the barren pumice plain just north of Mount St. Helens.

For those that can’t get to the base of the falls this autumn, start planning ahead for next summer. Just be warned, there is always a lot of water in the valley early in the hiking season.

The May 18th 1980 landslide scraped the upper ridge, denuding it of vegetation. Heavy rains continue to change the landscape.

If the wildlife, waterfall and harsh landscape doesn’t intrigue you, consider the magnetism a volcano has on people all over the world. The only person I encountered on the modestly traveled route was from Australia. He greeted me “there is another life form out here”. I asked him where he was going and he responded “as far up the volcano as I can get”.

Large Boulders slid several miles north of Mount St. Helens during the eruption and landslide of May 18th, 1980. Spirit Lake contributes contrasting colors.

Loowit Falls is the closest you can get to the crater of Mount. St. Helens. In fact, I found it fascinating that just a few hundred feet above you at the top of the falls is the crater of one of the most active volcanoes in recent years. I sat on one of the many dacite boulders along the top of Loowit Creek to eat lunch and took in the view of a volcano; the landscape that it created and will change again in the future.


EcoRover said...

Thank you for this incredible story and post about your "backyard" (volcano and all). I have a friend here in Butte, Mike "what's shakin?" Stickney, who is a seismologist. His work takes him to places (and at times of the year) where most of us just don't go. I love the newfound sense of place that I learn about from folks like Mike and you.

Gregg P said...

Thank you for your kind comments. I am so glad to have anyone reading this!

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