Rip & Go: Loowit Trail - Mt. St. Helens National Monument, WA

Tackle a challenging, rocky route in the shadow of America's most famous volcano.
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Tackle a challenging, rocky route in the shadow of America's most famous volcano.

Do It

Circumnavigate 8,365-foot Mt. St. Helens on the 28.6-mile Loowit Trail, and you'll scramble over old lava flows, witness recovering flora, and peek into the infamous crater. The rewards are not free: Tough detours around trail damage from 2006 storms increase difficulty, making the circuit best for fit and experienced backpackers. From June Lake trailhead (1), hike 1.3 miles to the Loowit Trail junction (2). Turn right to commence a counterclockwise route ranging from 3,400 to 4,800 feet. In the next 4.7 miles, you'll cross the Muddy River and traverse Ape Canyon. Stay left at the Abraham Trail junction and set up camp near Pumice Butte (3), east of the trail at mile six.

Get moving early on day two to cross a 14-mile no-camping area to a tent site on the south fork of the Toutle River. The restricted area encompasses the 1980 blast zone that scientists still research. You'll cross the Plains of Abraham (4), a 2.1-mile moonlike expanse. Filter water just beyond–it's the last source for 10 miles. At mile 7.3, keep left and switchback up to 4,900-foot Windy Pass (5). See Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier to the north. From here, it's 1.9 miles to a side trip option to Loowit Falls (6). (Turn left to hike .7 mile to its 150-foot, latte-colored cascade.) Past this junction, the trail is poorly marked and obstacle-packed, leading seven miles to the Toutle River (7). It runs fast and deep; head downstream to scout a shallower ford. Turn right on the Toutle Trail to hike .2 mile to your second camp (8). Scree-filled gullies lie ahead on day three, opening to verdant, lupine-packed meadows (9) with views of Mt. Hood 60 miles southeast. Go straight at a four-way junction with the Ptarmigan Trail (10). From here, it's 4.3 miles to close the loop and retrace your steps to the trailhead.

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Trip Planner

Driving From Portland, take I-5 for 29 miles north to WA 503. Head east 34.4 miles through Cougar to a left on FR 83. It's seven miles to the trailhead.

Gear Up Find last-minute items at Ace Hardware in Woodland (1325 Lewis River Rd.; 360-225-6526).

Conditions Get current trail reports at fs.fed.us/gpnf/recreation/current-conditions/trails.shtml or call (360) 449-7800.

Map NWIA Trail Guide to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument ($5, discovernw.org)

Contactfs.fed.us/gpnf

Key Gear

Scree and other debris, river crossings, and often-soggy meadows make gaiters mandatory on this route. The extra layer also prevents volcanic sand from getting into your boots; left unchecked, the grit increases your risk of blisters. In summer, go for a lightweight, breathable, ankle-high pair, like the four-ounce, softshell Flex-Tex Gaiters from Outdoor Research. For shoulder seasons, we like the Gore-Tex-fortified Crocodile, which won an Editors' Choice Gold Award in 1999 ($35 and $65, respectively, orgear.com). Forgot your gaiters? Cut the toes off an old pair of socks and stretch them over your boots, with the elastic end around your ankle. The improv is not waterproof–and definitely not stylish–but it will keep debris and fine cinders out of your boots.

See This

Prairie Lupine This high-altitude plant, native to Washington, brings nutrients to the pumice plains by absorbing atmospheric nitrogen and transferring it to the soil, making it possible for larger plants to thrive. Prairie lupine also provides a food source for roaming herbivores, which transport the seeds of this and other plants with their scat. This small, sturdy wildflower is a key player in post-eruption reforestation.

Locals Know

Mt. St. Helens erupts once every century or two, making it the most active of the Cascade volcanoes. One very visible result: a relative dearth of high-country trees. The treeline on Mt. St. Helens is 1,500 to 3,000 feet lower than on other Cascade volcanoes like Adams, Rainier, and Hood. "It's a quick, easy way to eyeball how historically active any volcano is, not just in the Cascades," says Peter Frenzen, monument scientist at Mt. St. Helens National Monument. Between eruptions, various trees, including conifers, gradually reestablish themselves on the slopes. The southern section of the Loowit Trail runs close to the treeline, with bare spots marking 2,000-year-old lava flows. "If weather is dicey, stick to that side and do an out-and-back, since it's less exposed, which makes it easier to find cover," says Frenzen.

Camp Chat

Ape Canyon, at mile 4.7, isn't misleadingly named–it marks the site where gold prospector Fred Beck experienced an "ape-man attack" in July 1924. Three giant, hairy ape-men laid siege to the miner's cabin, banging and howling through the night. At dawn, the attack subsided and Beck emerged with a gun, allegedly shooting one and causing it to fall off of a cliff, never to be seen again. Discuss: Do you believe that supernatural creatures like Beck's "ape-man" live in the backcountry?

On The Menu

Breakfast 1

On the road

Lunches 1 & 2

Bagel and hummus

Dinner 1

St. Helens Meat 'n Potatoes

Breakfasts 2 & 3

Muesli with milk

Dinner 2

Explorer's Enchilada

Snacks

Granola bars, jerky, cheese

St. Helens Meat 'n Potatoes

Carbs to fuel a big day

2/3 cup potato flakes

3/4 cup dehydrated milk

1 tablespoon dried onions

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons butter

4.5 ounces dried beef

Put dry ingredients (except milk) in a zip-top bag. Boil 1 1/4 cups water. Pour into the bag and knead. Let sit for six minutes. Melt butter in pan, add rehydrated milk and beef. Stir until thick. Serve on potatoes.

Explorer's Enchilada

Add heat with this saucy south-of-the-border meal.

2 flour tortillas

1 packet Lawry's enchilada sauce

1 box Mexican rice

3-ounce pouch cooked chicken

1 tablespoon dried onions

8 ounces cheddar cheese

2 packets hot sauce

Cook rice, according to directions. Heat the enchilada sauce, dried onions, and chicken in a smaller pot. Fill the tortillas with the rehydrated rice, cheese, and enchilada sauce mixture.

The Grocery List (Aisle Number in Nearest Store Below)

2 Tbs. butter (2)

12 oz. cheddar (2)

4 oz. beef jerky (9)

1 box granola bars (11)

3 C. muesli (12)

2 C. powdered milk (12)

2 Tbs. dried onions (12)

1/2 tsp. garlic
powder (12)

4.5-oz. pack dried
beef (13)

3-oz. pack precooked
chicken (13)

1 pack potato
flakes (13)

1 pack tortillas (14)

enchilada sauce (14)

1 box Goya Mexican style rice (14)

2 hot sauce packs (14)
4 bagels (bakery)

6 oz. hummus (deli)

Nearest Grocery Store

Safeway

1725 Pacific Ave., Woodland, WA

(360) 225-4370

Pit Stop

Pull into the Backwoods Café, right outside the park entrance, for their 22-ounce rib eye. Too much? Go for the Logger Stew, a beef and veggie soup served in a sourdough bread bowl. (360) 255-1980; ecoparkresort.com/cafe-giftshop.htm