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Coldwater Lake Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Looking towards Mt. St. Helens from the Lakes Trail, Coldwater Lake (bobcat)
The Minnie Peak ridge, Coldwater Lake (bobcat)
Waterfall on Coldwater Creek (bobcat)
Coldwater Lake from the South Coldwater Trail (bobcat)
Elk lounging around abandoned truck, from the South Coldwater Trail (bobcat)
Map showing the Coldwater Lake Loop (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: Coldwater Lake TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Coldwater Creek Chasm
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: Loop
  • Distance: 11.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1840 feet
  • High Point: 3,900 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Summer into fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No

Contents

Hike Description

Only a generation old, 160-foot deep Coldwater Lake is one of the spectacular birth children of Mount Saint Helens' May 1980 blast. The lake was created by the huge landslide of debris that rushed down the North Fork Toutle River and effectively dammed Coldwater Creek, one of its tributaries. The entire hike here is on the northern edge of the blast zone, so you are treading on a new landscape. To make the loop, however, you'll need to navigate a couple of connectors between the Lakes Trail #211 along the shore and the spectacular South Coldwater Trail #230A. The first connector is the northern two miles of the Coldwater Trail #230, which rises from Coldwater Creek to the ridge crest. The trail here is very brushy with young alders and willows which do their best every year to obscure the trail route. The second connector is easier to navigate: a 1 3/4 mile paved road walk back to your car from the South Coldwater Trailhead. You're almost sure to see elk, maybe dozens of them, if you come here in the fall. Also, along the South Coldwater Ridge, you'll come across the rusting remains of logging equipment that had been stranded here at the time of the blast. Pay attention to the fact that there's a $100 fine for leaving the trail in this area of the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument - this to protect the fragile regenerating environments; also, note that no dogs are allowed on these trails.

At the trailhead, keep to the left of the boat ramp and pick up the Lakes Trail at the shore. There’s also a half-mile interpretive trail and boardwalk from the middle of the parking areas that details the formation of Coldwater Lake. Looking south, you can see the top of Mount Saint Helens above the South Coldwater Ridge. Note the large hummock, tossed here by the mighty volcano, in the middle of the lake. Less than a mile from the trailhead, reach the Lakes-Elk Bench Trail Junction. The Elk Bench Trail ascends from here to the Coldwater Ridge and the closed Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. Keep straight here along the Lakes Trail.

There’s a lot of overhanging brush and large stumps along the lake shore. The cottonwoods here turn bright yellow in the fall. In the same season, red huckleberries and fields of goldenrod adorn the slopes along the shore and the few small beaches. Pass a lake access path, one of two along here on which you can officially walk to the shore. See a shed on the left, and then cross a few small creeks to pass through another white alder thicket. The terrain becomes more open again. Blue elderberry, vine maple, willow, red huckleberry, pearly everlasting, bracken, Oregon grape and young cottonwoods populate the more open areas. Then there’s an extensive thicket of white alder with small creeks and trailing blackberry as groundcover. The trail rises on steep slopes and then descends into more alder and cottonwood thickets. Cross an extensive landslide. Soon enter the flat area at the east end of the lake and enter a large willow thicket, crossing a creek. There are small meadows and more willows. The second lake access trail goes toward the lake on the right. Then it’s more alders and willows. The pinnacles of the Minnie Peak ridge loom above. Pass a pond with a beaver lodge on the right. The trail rises a little in an extensive willow and alder thicket. Come to the Lakes-Coldwater Trail Junction and go right: the sign says it’s two miles to the South Coldwater Trail, which closes this loop.

Find yourself above Coldwater Creek and look for a waterfall up the valley. The rugged slopes, stripped of their cover more than three and a half decades ago, look almost alpine. Switchback down to a footbridge over the Coldwater Creek Chasm, with the creek tumbling down through a narrow cleft of reddish rock. The trail then begins to head up in Sitka alder/white alder thickets. Through breaks in the vegetation, one can see down on the east end of Coldwater Lake and the beaver pond. Trees flattened by the blast lie along the steep slopes of the Minnie Peak ridge. Rise into a thicket again before the terrain becomes more open. There’s much elk sign on the trail here: they definitely use the path far more than humans. Don't be surprised if large mammals, thinking they were peacefully bedded down for the day, go crashing up the hillside. Burrow through more Sitka alder thickets and pass through an elk bedding meadow. The trail makes a sharp left at a fallen log: this area can be very overgrown. Push your way through another willow and alder thicket. Eventually, join the bed of an old logging road. This is an area of open hillsides of old growth clearcuts under Coldwater Peak. Arrive at the Coldwater-South Coldwater Trail Junction and turn right. It’s a little over three miles to the South Coldwater Trailhead from here. If you wish to camp out and have brought water, there's an official campsite about a quarter mile east of here on the Coldwater Trail (Backcountry permit required).

Pass an upended tractor near the junction. If you're here in the fall, pause to listen for elk bugling and whistling in the hills. The trail follows the old logging track into a valley and then out to a point. Look down on the benches for elk. Farther along, you'll see an abandoned truck below on a bench. Come to a break in the ridge and see across to the maw of Mount Saint Helens with Johnston Ridge in between. Among the skeletal conifers toppled by the blast, there are several pieces of abandoned logging equipment: a trailer upturned down the slope, a cable winch, etc. Dropping down, one begins to get good views of the Hummocks, the valley of the North Fork Toutle and Castle Lake. You're now above the valley of South Coldwater Creek, on the south side of the ridge. The trail descends through white alder, willow, and cottonwood. Then there’s another lush thicket of white alders before you reach the South Coldwater Trailhead on Highway 504.

Walk right on the highway in the valley of the South Coldwater with its dense thickets of willows and alders. Again, do not stray from the road upon pain of a fine. Pass a pond, with beaver burrows in its banks, on the right. The road crosses the South Coldwater where it braids. Then pass a closed road on the left. After this, Road 340 leads left to the Hummocks Trailhead. Keep walking up and across the bridge over Coldwater Creek. You can see the top of a waterfall on the left and look back to get good views of Mount Saint Helens. After the bridge, the Coldwater Lake Road #5042 leads down to the right. Follow this, and where the road splits for a one-way loop, go left to the Coldwater Lake Trailhead and your car.


Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Spirit Lake, WA #332 (partial)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument & Administrative Area
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Gifford Pinchot National Forest
  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map: Mount St. Helens - Mt. Adams

Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • Monument Pass required (Northwest Forest Pass O.K. for one person)
  • Stay on trail: minimum $100 fine for leaving trail
  • No dogs allowed

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • A FalconGuide to Mount St. Helens by Fred Barstad
  • Day Hiking: South Cascades by Dan A. Nelson & Alan L. Bauer
  • Day Hiking Mount St. Helens by Craig Romano & Aaron Theisen
  • 100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon & Southwest Washington by William L. Sullivan
  • 95 Virtual Hikes of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument by Northwest Hiker
  • Pacific Northwest National Parks & Monuments: The Creaky Knees Guide by Seabury Blair, Jr. (partial)
  • Washington: The Creaky Knees Guide by Seabury Blair Jr. (partial)
  • Washington Hiking by Scott Leonard
  • Pacific Northwest Hiking by Scott Leonard and Megan McMorris

More Links


Contributors

Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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