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Loowit Falls via Truman Trail Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Looking towards Loowit Falls, Mt. St. Helens (bobcat)
Dwarf lupine (Lupinus lepidus) at the Devils Elbow (bobcat)
At the Devils Elbow, Boundary Trail (bobcat)
Pond below Langes Crest, Truman Trail (bobcat)
Paintbrush and strawberries on the Pumice Plain, Truman Trail (bobcat)
Coldwater Peak to Mt. Margaret from the Loowit Falls Trail (bobcat)
The in and out route to Loowit Falls from Johnston Ridge Observatory (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: Johnston Ridge Observatory TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Loowit Falls
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: In and out
  • Distance: 14.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2470 feet
  • High Point: 4,575 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: Mid-spring into fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No

Contents

Hike Description

This exploration of Mount Saint Helens’ blast zone takes you along the Truman Trail to the gaping maw in the mountain’s north face over which Loowit Falls plunges. First, you’ll hike down the Spillover, where the landslide from the May 18th, 1980, eruption crested the ridge and spilled over into the South Coldwater drainage. At the base of the Spillover, the trail passes along Langes Crest, the natural landslide dam that blocked Spirit Lake’s outflow. Much of the route here is along the old road bed carved in 1982, when the Army Corps of Engineers became concerned about the rising water levels of Spirit Lake, which had become an inland drainage basin. The thought was that the waters could rise to a point where they would breach Langes Crest and cause a catastrophic flood that would reach communities downstream. With surface waters of the lake already 260 feet above pre-blast levels because of displacement, the Corps of Engineers maintained 16 pumps on a barge that funneled lake water into the “Engineers Canyon” and thus to the North Fork Toutle. By 1985, they had lowered the surface level by about 60 feet. At the same time, work was begun on the 1.6 mile overflow tunnel that would maintain a constant water level in the lake by diverting any excess to South Coldwater Creek. Ironically, discussions began in 2016 about reopening the road down from Windy Ridge to study the natural dam as well as inspect the tunnel and decide whether to decommission it. After leaving Langes Crest, you'll pass over the Pumice Plain, with its thickets of willows, and eventually join the Loowit Trail to begin hiking up the slope towards the waterfall, enjoying close-up views of the breach as you go.

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 100 to 600-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 almost 40 years later. Wildflowers include paintbrush, lupine, penstemon, fireweed, and pearly everlasting. Reach the top of the rise, and check out 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. The more obvious waterfall pouring down the breach is Step Falls, which drained most of the meltwater out of the caldera in the 1980s through the deeply incised Step Canyon. You may be able to make out the top of your destination, Loowit Falls, which originally drained into Spirit Lake, but through the erosive power of rapid melt carved a new channel to connect to Step Canyon and thence the North Fork Toutle River. Posts along the Boundary 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: The trail may also be closed in spring, and you will need to take the signed detour). 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. Make a right here to begin your descent of the Spillover: This low point on the ridge is where some of the May 1980, landslide crested the ridge and spread into the South Coldwater Creek drainage. You’ll pass through a white alder/cottonwood thicket and cross a creek as you wind through a hummocky landscape with mounds of loose volcanic material. Paintbrush and lupine bloom here in spring. There are sections of highly eroded clay strata, and Harrys Ridge rears above, denuded of its former forest cover.

Pass from the Spillover to a low ridge of pyroclastic material known as Langes Crest. After the eruption, this layer of material effectively dammed Spirit Lake and deprived it of an outlet. You may notice signs of the three-mile-long 1980s access road constructed from Windy Ridge, the denuded spine that runs above Spirit Lake’s east shore. To your right, notice a shed and monitoring antenna stationed near one of several shallow ponds among the hummocks. In this area, scientists found unmelted chunks of a St. Helens glacier buried in the debris as late as 1983! Imagine, also, that you’re walking here above the tops of the tallest conifers in the pre-eruption configuration: the debris avalanche here is as much as 200 meters deep. Views across Spirit Lake extend to Norway Pass and Bismarck Mountain. Cross a creek, and then walk a narrow debris ridge to a crossing of a wide creek, from which you’ll hike up through a willow and alder thicket. Next, you’ll find yourself on an open stretch of the Pumice Plain where paintbrush, strawberry, pussypaws, dwarf lupine, and penstemon bloom in the springtime. A detour takes you around the next willow/alder thicket where the old trail used to cross a spring. Soon, enter an area of numerous springs concealed under low thickets. All of these streams drain into Spirit Lake.

The trail then takes you out into the open, where you step across a wide creek and then drop into a gully. Cross the creek here and, on the other side, you’ll pass one of the research plots set up to monitor revegetation of the landscape. After this, reach the Truman-Willow Springs Trail Junction, and go right.

Head up a ridge, and begin to get closer views of Loowit Falls and Mount Saint Helens itself, but also back to the ridge behind Spirit Lake, from Coldwater Peak and The Dome to Mount Margaret. To the west, steep-sided Spud Mountain rises above the North Fork Toutle River valley. Hike up a broad sloping plain, crossing several shallow gullies. When you reach the Loowit-Willow Springs Trail Junction, make a left.

The trail takes you up a ridge. Now is the time to look for mountain goats on the alpine pastures to the east and west (A pair of binoculars helps). Mount Adams’ snowy pyramid is to the east. A red-layered gully runs to your right as you ascend through a landscape scattered with black rocks. In one area, you’ll pass across actual bedrock with glacial striations. At the post marking the Loowit-Loowit Falls Viewpoint Trail Junction, head right.

This short spur conveys you up through a rubble-strewn landscape known as the Sasquatch Steps as you get ever-expanding views north. The waterfall plunges into its bleak but colorful defile, and Mount Saint Helens’ snowy rim forms a contrasting backdrop. Make sure you take care as you admire Loowit Falls: the edge of the ravine here is unstable and may give way. The falls, which drain the youthful Crater Glacier and are themselves only about 35 years old, cut back into the canyon at the rate of about 20 feet per decade. The waterfall was measured at 186 feet in 2011, but the dynamic landscape means this statistic is always changing.

Note:

Langes Crest is named after Robert C. Lange, who set up a homestead here in 1879. He began a trading post, the site of which is now buried under several hundred feet of volcanic debris, and also prospected in the area. A new mining district, the centerpiece of which was the Sweden Mine, opened up at the north end of the lake. A county wagon road, later known as the Lange Road, reached Spirit Lake in 1901. In 1907, Lange constructed a small hydroelectric dam on the North Fork Toutle River (which no longer drains Spirit Lake), the remains of which are now also buried under Langes Crest. On old topo maps the dam appears as Coe’s Dam, after Dr. Henry Coe, who was a major financier, mine owner, and developer in the region (Mt. St. Helens Land Management Plan: Final Environmental Impact Statement (Gifford Pinchot National Forest)).

Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Spirit Lake, WA #332 and Mount St. Helens, WA #364
  • Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (USFS)
  • 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

  • Day Hiking: Mount St. Helens by Craig Romano & Aaron Theisen
  • Hiking Waterfalls in Washington by Roddy Scheer with Adam Sawyer

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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