The short version is that this is one of the more difficult trails I’ve run/hiked. But it’s also one of the more unique and spectacular.
Syd and I ran the Loowit Trail #216 in a day; this is the 30-plus-mile trail that circumnavigates Mount St. Helens, an active volcano that exploded on May 18, 1980. I’ve been to the top a dozen times and wanted to experience the mountain from a different perspective.
We set off at 7 am on August 16 from the June Lake trailhead and traveled clockwise. It was foggy—typical of the volcano—and cool. Heading westward, we meandered through the woods where the huckleberries that lined the trail soaked our feet with dew. We soon entered a giant lava field of gigantic basalt boulders, the trail marked quite well with 8-foot-high poles and cairns; a few times we paused to scan the fog for the next trail marker or quickly consult the map (We both use GAIA phone app). This was neither running nor hiking but rather boulder hopping, over jagged and sharp chunks of basalt.
In an hour we reached the blast zone, a spectacular area that from afar looked like alpine meadows, the sand and lava were covered with moss and wildflowers and sparsely dotted with alpine fir. We passed a lava heap of Butte Camp Dome and then descended into the headwaters of Coldspring Creek, a dry drainage of sand and lava. To get in and then out of the dry creek bed, we handlined down 50-foot ropes that had been placed by past hikers or rangers.
Another hour and 2000 feet uphill later, atop Crescent Ridge, we could see into the vast greenery of the Toutle River drainage. We descended 1000 feet through thick head-high huckleberry fields—the last lush green we would see that day— to the creek, at mile 13, our first water source. To get into and back out of the Toutle Creek bottom, we used another set of ropes as handlines.
Then, we zigzagged another 1000 feet up a wide-open sand moraine to the vast pumice plain of the north side, where we spent most of the afternoon, on the undulating trail, which stayed roughly at 4000-foot contour for 10 miles. The wildflowers of lupine and paintbrush were abloom, and we spied the occasional chipmunk, the crags of the Mount Margaret backcountry, and Spirit Lake. No trees: just remnant weathered stumps from the blast of four decades ago.
Here the trail was mostly sand, fairly well-marked by the trail tread, poles and large cairns. There was absolutely no shade whatsoever for the rest of the day. The temp was around 70, with a light breeze and occasional scattered clouds: perfect running weather. Here, unlike the south and west side of basalt and andesite lava, the surface was pumice: handheld sizes of round, lightweight, light-colored, sandpapery stones that crunched when we ran over them. Occasionally, we ran through patches of grasses in varied shades from tan to green. The crossing of the north pumice plane took several hours. We found a spring at mile 19 (it’s labeled on the USGS topo map) about 500 feet off trail, uphill, in a thicket. Soon thereafter, we crossed at least three more streams and one other spring. Since the northeast corner of the mountain is accessible from Windy Ridge visitor’s area, we saw a few day hikers and backpackers.
To exit the north pumice plain, we climbed another 2000 feet in a narrow, steep canyon to Windy Pass. This included a one-mile detour to the viewpoint at Loowit Falls—a 100-foot waterfall that comes out of the crater at Sasquatch Steps, a series of basalt cliffs. Still, no trees, no shade. And more pumice, now scattered with basalt boulders.
From Windy Pass, with a view of Mount Adams, we descended to Plains of Abraham, the east side pumice field by 4 p.m. I was nearly out of food, having consumed around 2000 calories, variations of compacted dried fruit, nuts, and oats plus one peanut butter-honey-banana sandwich. From here, I had mistakenly thought we had an 8-mile descent to the car. In reality, we had 10 miles. And it wasn’t a descent. We dropped down to the northwest side overlooking Ape Canyon and Muddy River drainage, and then traversed the south side back to June Lake. But the traverse was interrupted by giant chasms—dry streambeds of lava tubes and loose lava and loose sand—that were 100 feet deep. For Muddy Creek, we descended a steep sandy rocky slope to the bottom and then climbed back out. Then we repeated that four or five times, the chasms separated by alpine tundra of foliage and wildflowers. We stopped for water and to empty sand from our shoes where Shoestring Glacier gave us a small trickle of meltwater. Nearing the June Lake Trail, we traversed the Worm Flows lava field, more boulder bounding, ending like we began. The June Lake trail gave us the first shade since the Toutle River descent. We made it to the car in the beautiful mountain twilight.
34 miles, 10:40 moving time, 12:20 total time, 7500 feet gained, 7500 feet lost
Water, from June Lake clockwise
Mile 11, Toutle River
Mile 19, spring
Miles 19 to 21, multiple creeks and one spring
Mile 28, Shoestring Glacier drainage
Solomon running vest, 12 liters with two 500-liter soft flasks
Patagonia Comfort Tropic Hoody, Patagonia Nine Trails Shorts, Lululemon shirt, Smartwool socks, ball cap, Smith sunglasses, Inov8 Trailroc shoes
Extra layers I didn’t use: Nike running pants, Outdoor Research Helium II jacket, buff, Arcteryx hat (Syd carried lightweight gloves which I wish I’d thrown in my pack)
Biolite Headlamp, Dermatone sunscreen, iPhone w GAIA app, Goal Zero phone charger
Syd carried a small Katadyn filter bottle we used to filter stream water.