An Accidental Half

Helens from the Loowit trail, 4600'

The truth about trails on Helens is that they are ever-changing. The pumice ridden landscape and loose soils are tenuous at best- they enjoy throwing washouts and reroutes in a hiker’s general direction. Sheep Canyon on the mountain’s southwest side testifies to the mountain’s fickle nature: in 2002, the original access road simply washed out, and the new Blue Lake trailhead continues to suffer the occasional reroute to this day. 

one of many deep canyons scoured by the mountain along the Loowit trail

Andy and I were looking for some decent exercise, nice views, absent crowds and maybe some elk sightings on the Sunday after his birthday. The Sheep Canyon loop on Helens seemed to fit the bill, bonus points included since we had never been before (we’re continuing that theme of exploring new-to-us local hikes that somehow seem to have never hit the radar).

Like all new hikes, curveballs happen. On this one, mileage seemed to be the main issue.

We started out from the Blue Lake TH under grey skies and cool wind…mountain weather is always fickle, especially during the shoulder season. The trail clearly has seen some abuse- evidence of washout after washout after washout was evident everywhere, the track strewn with boulders and scree and loose sand. Near lovely and charming Blue Lake, we crossed Coldspring Creek and immediately entered dark, deep, woods exploding with the remnants of fall color and bursting with more mushrooms than I have ever seen. I need to learn some fungi identification. I'm sure we passed more than a few edibles.

Blue Lake trail, hiking through the scar left from a washout

disappearing into big trees

last of the fall color on vanilla leaf

My guidebook says it is only 2.5 miles to the junction with the Sheep Canyon trail- although I don’t hike with a GPS, between new sign mileage and my standard hiking time, I’m putting it at closer to 3.5 miles. Yes, we were meandering, and yes, we stopped twice for horseback riders, but we weren’t going all that slow; still, it took us two hours to reach the junction. Taking a snack break at the creek, we pondered our loop (I’ve wanted to explore this area for some time), and decided to at least head up to the Loowit Trail before reassessing. From there, it took us only 45 minutes to hike the 1000 feet, 1.7 miles up to the Loowit Trail. 

Loowit trail junction- the dog *thinks* she can catch crows

So yeah, I’m going with the idea that there are some mileage issues on this one.  

Once on the Loowit trail, a plan took shape- instead of completing the traditional Sheep Canyon hike, what if we explored east, making a big loop utilizing the Loowit, Butte Camp Dome and Toutle trails? Mileage wise it didn’t look any longer than the original Sheep Canyon loop…

I admit, I’m fascinated with the Loowit trail, the round the mountain hike that circumnavigates Helens. I’ve spent little time on it, save sections. It’s dirty, hard on the feet and exposed. So I was excited to piece together this short section from Sheep Canyon to Butte Camp Dome. My guidebook said two miles.

I think it probably used to be two miles. Until we had to detour around this: 

green mossy trail

cairns lead the way...

places like this make you feel small

showing off my skills (not) (photo by AJP)

what you climb into, you must climb out of (photo by AJP)

The truth about Helens: she’s an artist. She remolds, reshapes, and rescores her landscapes annually. I suspect this section was closer to 3.5 miles with the detour, but who knows (probably people with GPS).  The wind was raging, dragging clouds across the summit. We watched the dog chase (and fail to catch) crows surfing the gale. We added layers, the temperature and wind chill significantly lower than when we began our day. We negotiated numerous washouts, one of the Loowit’s trademarks. The sun came out at our high point near Butte Camp Dome, backlighting the meadows in absolute splendor. This entire stretch along the Loowit was simply stunning- all high and wild, all gold and wind. 

yet another washout- see the Loowit is on the other side?

mesmerized by light & clouds
Andy, on the Loowit, taking it all in

it was an afternoon of juxtapositions: all clouds...

and light and clouds...

clouds and light and views and wind...

and finally, the mountain

From here, we left the high country, turning down the Butte Dome trail on the final leg of the loop. Just before entering the trees, Andy stopped to the sound of an elk bugling…close, very close. We turned, grinning at each other madly. Continuing down the trail, not fifty yards down, we heard the panicked woofing of a small herd seconds before they proceeded to thunder their way directly in front of us, cross the trail and careen down the hillside. Short, fleeting, and kind of awesome.
We made good time, continuing at a quick pace down the Butte Camp Dome trail, which loses elevation at a good clip; we were now racing sunlight (4:40pm) back to the Blue Lake TH.

leaving the Loowit & Helens
heading down the Butte Camp Dome trail

My guide and maps said 4 miles. Trail markers said ~5.5 miles. We made it back in just over two hours, so fairly sure it’s closer to the five miles. Oops. My grandiose “ten mile tops, I promise” day turned into about fourteen? Andy was a good sport about it, but most people I know don’t tolerate high alpine half marathons on accident. One of the many reasons I love my husband [GRIN]. 

He's such a good sport

Truthfully, it was a lovely loop- long and lonely. We were mesmerized by light, got to see some elk, wandered old growth and high alpine, explored some new terrain. The diversity of Helens always brings me back. 

Mount Saint Helens National Monument, Washington

No comments: