Dances with Goats: an epic exploration from Loowit Falls to Toutle Canyon

Discussions and Trip Reports for off-trail adventures and rediscovering lost trails
Post Reply
User avatar
Chip Down
Posts: 2121
Joined: November 8th, 2014, 8:41 pm

Dances with Goats: an epic exploration from Loowit Falls to Toutle Canyon

Post by Chip Down » July 6th, 2020, 6:55 pm

There's a little 4 mile section of Loowit trail I haven't seen, from the Studebaker neighborhood to Loowit Falls. After 20 hours on the mountain with intentions of covering it, I still haven't set foot on that stretch. I got a little distracted.

I started at Windy, and lost the trail around Loowit Creek. No problem, I found my way across, and went looking. Ran into a trail and followed it up. Was surprised when I ran into an instrument station. Continued up, and found myself in the crater. Oh! I learned a little something about the topography of the crater: There's a big ridge that divides the crater into the narrow part that holds Loowit Creek (east side of crater) and a broader part that holds a couple creeks flowing from the western extent of Crater Glacier. So I found myself looking across that new-to-me broad expanse of the western crater. There was a trail ascending out of the crater to my left, way upstream, near the glacier, so I picked my way across the fairly flat crater floor, with just one slightly-tricky stream crossing. Then up the trail.

Another canyon crossing, this one much bigger. The trail on the other side was way too steep to ascend, confirming my suspicion that I was following a goat trail, not a human trail. Followed the canyon downstream, found a way out, ascended to a lovely broad flat sandy plateau. From a distance, I thought I had seen a trail sign here, but no, it was actually a solar panel. From the right distance/angle, its proportions (in silhouette) made it look like a trail sign.

I could see there was an easy descent to the Loowit Trail way down below, so I was greatly relieved. But first, I had to see where this goat trail would take me.

For the most part, it contoured around MSH at the perfect elevation for efficient travel: Not too high or steep, but high enough to avoid the rugged eroded series of gullies below. I followed it all the way to Toutle Canyon, which is too steep for goats. It turned up, following the canyon rim to a high point, where I stopped. Only options to continue: follow a steep crumbly ridge, or drop onto the headwall above Toutle Canyon. It was a satisfying place to turn back.

I was going to drop towards the Loowit Trail on a bit of a spiral, so as to avoid a couple canyon crossings on trail, but along the way I encountered a charming gully festooned with waterfalls and traces of snow. I followed it up, until the entire width of the gully was snow, until it took me right into the first snowfield I had crossed in the morning. I was virtually in the crater again.

I was surprised I was so high. I decided to cross the crater again, on a smarter route this time, and follow Loowit Creek down to Loowit Trail. I took some gambles on crossing the crater, and they paid off. I was back at the top of Loowit Falls in no time.

This is an extremely abbreviated account. If I shared all the details, it would put you to sleep. Speaking of that, I was up for 40 hours when I returned to my car at 11:30 pm.

Those of you familiar with my hiking style may suspect I wasn't really as confused as I report here. Surely I must have known I was way off the sanctioned trail when I headed into and across the crater. Well, sort of. I'll admit I exaggerate when I say I thought I was just following Loowit Trail. But really, most of my report is genuine: I really didn't know about the ridge that divides the crater, so was surprised to discover the 3/4 of the crater I wasn't expecting. And I really did think I was following a manmade trail, although I'll admit certain stretches of it I knew had to be for researcher use. And I really did think that distant solar panel I saw perched on easy sandy terrain was a trail sign.

Advice for anybody wanting to repeat this: Honestly, there were some scary moments where I wondered what the heck I had gotten myself into. And it's illegal anyway. Now that you've seen my report, you can't exactly pretend you were just looking for Loowit Trail when you're caught following a goat trail through the crater. ;)

regarding pics: I decided not to post things that are already well-documented. Just focusing on my route here. Also not posting pics of the scads of goats I saw in the blast zone. Have never seen so many. Not a single elk though.

My pic notes didn't survive. Will try again, very briefly.
Attachments
0.jpg
Overview from crater-divide ridge. Notice canyon in right distance, which I'll cross both ways, in two places.
1.jpg
A small intermediate gully. Trail skirts the green zone.
2.jpg
Now the crux canyon. Note red zone on far side.
3.jpg
Downstream of the red zone, ready to climb out.
4.jpg
Trail crosses ridge, then across snowfield on right.
5.jpg
High point overlooking Toutle.
6.jpg
Overview showing most terrain between crater and turnaround. Picture taken between goat trail and Loowit Trail.
7.jpg
Crossing crux canyon again, this time lower. Yellow X's on far side show goat trail.
8.jpg
On other side now. That obvious chute left of center was how I dropped in.
9.jpg
Now just have to head past those black cones (partially obscuring the lake), and continue briefly to top of Loowit Falls.


User avatar
Chip Down
Posts: 2121
Joined: November 8th, 2014, 8:41 pm

Re: Dances with Goats: an epic exploration from Loowit Falls to Toutle Canyon

Post by Chip Down » July 12th, 2020, 8:54 pm

Oops, I did it again. Missed Loowit Trail at dawn and somehow ended up on the goat/researcher/M$HI trail. Oh well, I wasn't going to head back and look for Loowit Trail. I headed up to the crater, with intentions of following the huge ridge that splits the crater, following it parallel to Loowit Creek above the falls, up to the glacier, then across the big canyon in the crater (I now realize it's named Step Creek Canyon), follow my goat trail CCW around the mountain a bit, and down to Loowit Trail. That's a pretty good Plan B, right?

Down on Loowit Trail, I decided to visit Studebaker Ridge. It's an obvious high point just north of Loowit Trail. The view was even better than imagined. And I was pleasantly surprised to find a monitoring station up there, which gave me a flat smooth surface to sit on. Windy!

Loowit Trail was insanely crowded. I'd been on the trail for 10 minutes, and I bet I saw ten people! So from Studebaker Ridge I decided to drop away from Loowit Trail and look for a shortcut to Spirit Lake. I knew that would be tricky, as North Fork Toutle is extremely rugged (deep canyon, vertical walls). On the way, the weather deteriorated very quickly, so I decided it would be smart to take a relatively direct route to Step Creek Canyon, and follow it to Loowit Trail.

Where Loowit Trail crosses Step Creek Canyon, it's a broad gentle outwash plain. I had expected it to be boring, but the heavy cloud layer and the dark mysterious mountain looming over me gave it a nice spooky feel, so I lingered and enjoyed the comfort of being on trail.

I finally continued CW on Loowit Trail, but soon veered upstream and followed a social trail. Met another creek, which didn't surprise me. This would have to be the middle creek that flows through the crater. I followed the creek up into some fascinating terrain, but poor visibility and fear of precip encouraged me to start looking for Loowit Trail again. I was amazed at how soon I found it, courtesy of a very abrupt change in direction where the trail turns south, so that it was ascending parallel to my route without my knowledge.

After following Loowit Trail again for just a few minutes, I saw a hiker above me coming down towards the trail, and shortly after that I reached a junction. Wait, how is that possible? I looked at the sign and realized the hiker I saw above me was on the dead-end Loowit Falls trail. How did I get here so fast? And where was Loowit Creek? Aha! That's when I remembered there are just two waterfalls spilling out of the crater, because the two on the west side of the crater converge near the rim. My head was spinning! It's funny to consider how I would have reacted if I had met trail a little higher, which would have meant I would run into the Loowit Falls Trail. That would have been just as surreal, but in a different way.

So now I know why I've had difficulty finding the Loowit Trail on the west side of Loowit Creek, multiple times, when ascending and descending. The trail follows the creek way down on the east side, and crosses low. It's actually pretty obvious if one looks at the damn map! It's easy to overlook that if you don't know your elevation, except for one little thing: The contour lines at the Loowit Trail/Loowit Creek crossing are very far apart, so the terrain should be very flat. I should have noticed that.

So, with mystery solved, I continued on my way through a foggy landscape. I didn't mind; this time of year it's a blessing to have a cool day. And I was close enough to the TH that I wasn't too worried about rain.

Watch for a bonus TR in next post.
Attachments
1.jpg
Looking north on the inter-crater ridge.
2.jpg
Gave a lot of thought to which side of this gully I should descend. Glad I picked the left side (or right side for me as I descended). When I reached this flatter greener zone, it became obvious I had come down a fairly young lava flow.
3.jpg
Same gully below Loowit Trail, seen from Studebaker Ridge.
4.jpg
Overview. With no clouds now, I can see that none of the tempting snow gullies go anywhere. I had left snow gear behind so I wouldn't be tempted, so it was satisfying to see this.
5.jpg
North Fork Toutle looking upstream.
6.jpg
...and downstream.
7.jpg
Step Creek spills out of the crater at that obvious breach to right.
8.jpg
Loowit Creek at left (but that's not Loowit Falls), and Step Creek Falls is barely visible to the right.

User avatar
Chip Down
Posts: 2121
Joined: November 8th, 2014, 8:41 pm

Re: Dances with Goats: an epic exploration from Loowit Falls to Toutle Canyon

Post by Chip Down » July 12th, 2020, 9:03 pm

A bonus TR, still on day two:

At a broad rocky gully, with time to spare, I turned off trail and followed the creek up. I knew it couldn't go anyplace, but it was scenic in its own way. I figured I'd get tired of it in a few minutes. Visibility was terrible, so I just focused on enjoying the immediate scenery. To my amazement, the clouds cleared. I don't mean just a little, I mean they were suddenly gone. Forecast said clouds would increase through the day, with precip expected by midnight. So this abrupt clearing came as a shock. I took advantage of it: I climbed out of the canyon (got lucky, there was an easy exit) and ascended along the edge. I was in hour 17 of this hike, zero sleep the night before, not exactly fresh and energetic...but I had a fresh chance at adventure, and seized it!

I reached a point where the ridge that forms the canyon edge was steep and crumbly, and I wouldn't want to follow it down, but I knew I was about to reach a high point above Windy Pass, and then I'd be able to drop to the pass and follow the trail down. Oops! Turned out I wasn't that far off in terms of elevation, but Windy Pass was a bit clockwise around the mountain. So I'd have to find another way down. Continued up, racing two things: The setting sun, and the rising clouds, now creeping up the mountain. Reached a high point, from which I could recognize some landmarks between Windy Pass and Sugar Bowl. Beautiful Spot. Satisfying place to turn back.

I didn't want to go back the way I came, so dropped into the clouds veering east and hoped for the best. On my ascent, the terrain below looked gentle enough, so I figured it couldn't get too ugly down there. I knew I was between my ascent route and the trails to Windy Pass, so getting lost was impossible. I was safe, as long as I didn't encounter difficult terrain. I tried to follow landmarks as best I could in the fog. In time, I felt like I should have reached trail, but I wasn't too worried. The slope was getting gentle, and I saw little trees here and there, so I figured I was out of the potentially steep zone. Finally reached my ascent route on the edge of the canyon, and realized why I hadn't reached trail yet: I had walked in a big semi-circle. Fortunately, I was below the sketchy portion, so an easy stroll took me back to Loowit Trail.
Attachments
a.jpg
The somber gully I casually wandered up.
b.jpg
Five minutes later!
c.jpg
Oh, hi there.
d.jpg
A little higher, following my guides up a gentler broader ridge.
e.jpg
Windy Pass over there, still visible as clouds are racing to swallow me.

User avatar
mjirving
Posts: 1110
Joined: July 5th, 2011, 10:40 am

Re: Dances with Goats: an epic exploration from Loowit Falls to Toutle Canyon

Post by mjirving » July 12th, 2020, 9:54 pm

Glad you made it back! Looks amazing in there.

Webfoot
Posts: 1343
Joined: November 25th, 2015, 11:06 am
Location: Troutdale

Re: Dances with Goats: an epic exploration from Loowit Falls to Toutle Canyon

Post by Webfoot » July 23rd, 2020, 12:11 pm

Chip, you're a legend. :mrgreen:

User avatar
Don Nelsen
Posts: 3823
Joined: May 28th, 2008, 10:03 pm
Location: Vancouver, WA

Re: Dances with Goats: an epic exploration from Loowit Falls to Toutle Canyon

Post by Don Nelsen » July 23rd, 2020, 3:33 pm

Chip,

Great TR! Neat that you saw so many goats. I've only seen them once in all my hikes in that area and they were on the south side.

dn
"Everything works in the planning stage".

Post Reply