LOOWIT TRAIL – DAY 2 – TOUTLE RIVER TO APE CANYON
The drop to Toutle River cost us quite a bit of elevation. We were to gain most of it back during the very first couple hours of day 2. The trail was gentle at first leading us through forest of sparse short evergreens. Fragile layer of moss covered the ground around the trail, giving the area fairy tale like feel.
Eventually we walked into more mature forest and since the sun was already upon us we welcomed the refuge of their shade. The trail started climbing here, switchback after switchback, spitting us in front of an open sandy slope. The path led through the upper portion of the slope and from the height we admired the extremity of the Toutle River gully. We also spotted our first wildlife here, a lonely mountain goat on a rocky reach on the other side of the gully.
Our next wildlife encounter did not let us wait long. As soon as we crested onto a plateau of ripe and deliciously sweet wild strawberries, Dave noticed a movement on the other end of the expanse. It was a coyote and we got a good look at him before he vanished in bushes.
The next several miles were an easy stroll along a trail lined with wild strawberries. I have never seen so many in one place and they all grew large and juicy. Further down they gave way to meadows colored red and purple under the blooms of lupine and indian paintbrush. Above us Mt. St. Helens rose to the cloudless sky.
When we arrived to the blast zone, the vegetation disappeared. From afar the landscape seemed to be a large flat expanse through which we were to navigate on a faint booth path. Closer look revealed terrain marred by rough gullies, so raw and so beautiful but so hard to negotiate. Pathless drops into ravines oftentimes several feet deep and walls taller than us, all loose and crumbling, that we had to scramble up in order to continue in our direction. It was an amazing experience, yet a demanding one under the scorching sun.
Streams run plentiful from the mountain, murky, cold water that brought creative rock hopping and another ford to add some excitement to our day.
Close to the end of the blast zone, we were told, was a spring where clear water could be found, unspoiled by the mountain ash. We could tell it from a distance. The stream was lined by shrubs and grasses and wildflowers. It wasn’t until we happen upon it that we could see the water concealed by their foliage and just as promised it was running fresh from the ground nearby and it was the best water source we saw during the entire three days on the mountain.
On our way to camp we had to cross Windy Pass. It looked benign from a distance, not too tall or steep but appearances can be deceptive. To gain the pass, we took a narrow trail trending up a sheer cliff. The footing was mostly solid and the wall next to us provided some good hand holds in spots where the path inched to the drop off just a little too close. On the other side we were dropped without mercy onto the Plains of Abraham. The descend was sketchiest at the very bottom where the path disappeared and we had to figure out our way down a 15 foot cliff. A butt smear into a soft sand helped us to solve the problem.
I enjoyed strolling through Plains of Abraham. After the long tiring day the trail finally took an easier form and without the need to constantly look under our feet, we could now really appreciate the beauty of the mountain from her seldom seen side.
Our camp that we found at the end of the plain just before the trail descended towards Ape Canyon had the same amazing view. And as a bonus we could see south where the conical shape of Mt. Adams adorned the horizon.
Distance: appr. 11 miles
Water Sources: Toutle River, three murky streams in the blast zone, spring at the east side of the blast zone, stream at camp.
It looks very harsh but what a reward, especially when you see a starry night like this !