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Coldwater Peak Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Mt. Rainier from Coldwater Peak (bobcat)
Lupine and paintbrush, Boundary Trail (bobcat)
View east to Spirit Lake and Mt. Adams from Coldwater Ridge, Boundary Trail (bobcat)
Mt. Rainier, The Dome, St. Helens Lake from Coldwater Ridge, Boundary Trail (bobcat)
Seismic monitor on Coldwater Peak (bobcat)
Western pasque flower seeded (Anemone occidentalis), Coldwater Peak (bobcat)
The hike to Coldwater Peak (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: Johnston Ridge Observatory TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End Point: Coldwater Peak
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: In and out
  • Distance: 13.8 miles round-trip
  • Elevation gain: 3360 feet
  • High Point: 5,737 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: Summer into fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: Only as far as Harrys Ridge

Contents

Description

The hike to Coldwater Peak offers some of the best panoramas inside the Mount Saint Helens blast zone. Beginning at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, the hike will take you along the eastern crest of the ridge to get commanding views across the Pumice Plain to the breach, down to completely displaced Spirit Lake, east to Mount Adams, and north to Coldwater Peak, The Dome, and Mount Margaret. Along the way, you’ll see a memorial to those who died, read interpretive signs about the cataclysm, experience the steep drop-offs at the Devils Elbow Viewpoint, and cross the Spillover, where the landslide flowed over the ridge itself. Turning north, you’ll start gaining elevation and, after passing through the Saint Helens Lake Arch, get continuous views of beautiful, secluded Saint Helens Lake. Ascending the slope of Coldwater Peak, Mount Rainier hoves into view and you can see to the coastal hills. In late summer, the huckleberries are bounteous along the trail, which is also used by elk and bear.

Johnston Ridge is named after David A. Johnston, the USGS volcanologist who was killed while monitoring the blast, and Harrys Ridge honors Harry R. Truman, the cantankerous 83-year-old owner of the Mt. St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake who refused to evacuate the blast zone and was buried, with his lodge and 16 cats, under tons of pyroclastic debris.

Take the paved path to the observatory to get your wristband (Everyone needs to check in here and pay the fee or present a Northwest Forest Pass). You can tour the exhibits if you like and then come out to gaze at the breach on the north side of Mount Saint Helens. Between you and the mountain is a debris plain, drained by the Toutle, that is essentially a 150-foot thick layer of pyroclastic material from the middle of the mountain and part of the largest recorded landslide in human history. A memorial wall here names the 57 souls who lost their lives in the blast.

Walk to your left to pick up the paved Eruption Trail, whose interpretive signs detail the cataclysm and some of the aftermath. The trail switchbacks up three times and then winds up this small knoll past explanatory signs. You will see the grasses, willows and alders that are revegetating the landscape some 36 years later. Wildflowers include paintbrush, lupine, penstemon, fireweed, and pearly everlasting. Reach the top of the rise and a compass that details the surrounding peaks. Then the trail drops in two switchbacks and reaches the Boundary-Eruption Trail Junction.

You are now officially entering the Mt. Margaret Backcountry, where you will need to get a permit to camp in a designated site. Head down the ridge, continuing to get great views across the Pumice Plain to the Sasquatch Steps that lead to the breach on Mount Saint Helens. Posts along the trail aid route finding when there is still deep snow. You’ll also get views across the head of the Coldwater Creek valley to Coldwater Peak; look also for the Saint Helens Lake Arch on the rocky ridge running south from the peak. Pass through a thicket of alder, and note the mats of little dwarf lupine, a nitrogen-fixing plant that was one of the first to recolonize the devastated area. Drop past a kiosk with a map of the area and switchback down. The trail then undulates up the ridge among huckleberry bushes that turn red in late summer. Pass a clump of undergreen willow and make a gradually descending then rising traverse along the steep side of a ridge that juts out to the south (Take care here - one slip and you can enjoy a long slide down: early in the season this stretch may not have been maintained and can be treacherous). You’ll reach the Devils Elbow Viewpoint, from which you can get a full-on view of the breach. Also visible are the south shore of Spirit Lake, Mount Adams, and some small ponds in the Pumice Plain. To the west, the Johnston Ridge Observatory can be seen above the devastated Toutle River valley.

The trail rises and then drops gently among alders, willows, and young noble firs to the Boundary-Truman Trail Junction. Keep left here and hike up a white alder/undergreen willow draw among mounds of pyroclastic debris in an area known as the Spillover, where the landslide from the May 18th, 1980, blast cascaded over Johnston Ridge. There are great views to Coldwater Peak from here before you drop into a depression and then make a traverse up the west slope of Harrys Ridge. Cross a footbridge that spans two erosion gullies and, at Harrys Saddle, come to the Boundary-Harrys Ridge Trail Junction.

You’ll get a great view of The Dome, which sits above Saint Helens Lake (not visible from here), and Mount Margaret. If you’re going up to the Harrys Ridge Viewpoint, go right here: this involves an extra 1.2 miles and 370 feet elevation gain (See the Harrys Ridge Hike). Otherwise, take a left on the saddle, and begin hiking up the slope of the ridge. You’ll make two switchbacks, traverse, switchback again and make another long traverse, all the while getting expansive views to Mount Saint Helens, Spirit Lake, and Mount Adams. The trunks of trees snapped off by the blast decay on the slope among a carpet of huckleberry, thimbleberry, bracken, and sedge, with young noble firs dotted about. Make two more short switchbacks and then traverse to switchback left under a rocky face. Switchback at the ridge crest, still getting views east to Spirit Lake and Mount Adams as well as back to Mount Saint Helens, with Mount Hood now appearing behind its left shoulder. Wind up and turn at the nose of the ridge to get a view to Mount Margaret and your first glimpses of Saint Helens Lake. Pass the bleached snag of a large old growth tree, snapped off in mid-trunk, and hike up to the ridge crest to get broader views of the lake, Coldwater Peak, and the Mount Venus Ridge as well as back to the Johnston Ridge Observatory Trailhead. Hike along a narrow ridge crest, and then switchback steeply down to pass through the hole in the rock known unofficially as the Saint Helens Lake Arch: this is the only trail in our area that continues through a natural arch! Traverse below a rocky buttress, cross over the crest of the ridge, and then hike down to Arch Saddle and the Boundary-Coldwater Trail Junction.

There are three signposts here for the directionally challenged: every year, some hikers entering the backcountry without maps mistake the Coldwater Trail as the destination trail for Coldwater Peak. Keep right at the saddle, and continue on the Boundary Trail. Especially in the late summer/early fall, you may see a lot of elk and bear sign in this section as these animals also take advantage of human trails. Make a lovely half-mile traverse above Saint Helens Lake, hiking through a thick carpet of sedges and seeing Mount Rainier peeking above the Mount Venus ridge. At the Boundary-Coldwater Peak Trail Junction, make a left and begin the three-quarter mile ascent to the top of Coldwater Peak.

Switchback left and traverse up through sedges and false hellebore. Make seven more switchbacks going back and forth to a rock face and getting eye-level views to the breach in the face of Mount Saint Helens at every outward switchback. Traverse up facing north to get clear views of Mount Rainier across Mount Venus. Switchback twice and turn a corner to get a view of the monitoring equipment and antennae at the Coldwater Peak summit. Make two short switchbacks up to reach the summit area. There are two rocky outcrops and a summit sign here, with a trail passing below the first summit (slightly higher by a few inches) to reach the second one. Beyond the second outcrop, you can find the old outhouse site for the 1936 lookout that once stood here. The views, of course, take in all the prominent snow-capped peaks around and extend west to the coastal hills: on a very clear day, you may actually catch a glimpse of the ocean.

Note:

There’s a hike and bike option for Coldwater Peak as well. This involves planting a bicycle at the Johnston Ridge Observatory Trailhead and then driving back to the South Coldwater Trailhead (See the Coldwater Peak from South Coldwater Hike). Hike up the South Coldwater and then the Coldwater Trails, turn left when you get to the Boundary-Coldwater Trail Junction, and proceed to the top of Coldwater Peak. Loop back to the Observatory using the description for this hike in reverse. Grab your bicycle and freewheel back to your vehicle at the South Coldwater Trailhead: 14 miles of hiking, 6 miles of two-wheeled coasting!


Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • $8 day use fee required. Pay inside the Johnston Ridge Observatory. A Northwest Forest Pass is good for one adult.
  • No dogs allowed.
  • Stay on the trail or you can get fined.

Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Spirit Lake, WA #332
  • 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 - Mount Adams

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • Day Hiking: Mount St. Helens by Craig Romano & Aaron Theisen
  • A Falcon Guide to Mount St. Helens by Fred Barstad
  • 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

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.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.