FATMAP difficulty grade
Like other prominent volcanoes in the Cascade Range, Mount St.
Helens has a circumnavigational trail.
This one––the Loowit Trail–– is not as well known or frequently traveled as contemporaries like Hood’s Timberline or Rainier’s Wonderland, however.
Loowit’s relative obscurity is in no small part due to its difficulty.
What this trail lacks in mileage it makes up for in sheer harshness of terrain.
Most of the 30+ mile journey is above the trees, on the desolate slopes of this recently active volcano.
Helens erupted in 1980, blowing out the north side of the mountain and covering every aspect in ash and pumice. Where the Loowit Trail crosses the north-side zone of destruction, you’ll walk in the wake of the blast and stare into the gaping crater that still fumes with heat.
You’ll also witness vegetation reclaiming the soil, and forest returning to the fringes.
On the rest of the circuit around the mountain, the trail traverses lava-rock boulder fields and freshly carved ravines, presenting hazards of unstable terrain and precipitous slopes, plus challenges of navigating impassable obstacles, shifting volcanic debris, and covering many consecutive miles without shelter or water.
There may be added difficulties of blowing dust, fresh washouts, or suddenly inclement weather.
Thus, it’s a route only for experienced backpackers, and maybe only for those with a certain affinity for punishment. The Loowit Trail itself is a ~28-mile loop with no trailhead of its own.
It is intersected by several feeder trails, however, so you’ll need to hike one of those to start and finish any distance on the Loowit.
This makes many versions of a loop possible, and the pros vs.
cons of different itineraries could be debated endlessly by veterans of the trail.
It’s advisable to research the various routes and options for access thoroughly when planning your trip, in order to choose the direction of travel and daily mileages that are right for you.
The track mapped here is a counterclockwise loop beginning from Windy Ridge trailhead, a route which lends itself well to a 3-day, 2-night itinerary.
You can use this description and GPX for general information and a navigation aid, whether or not you take the loop exactly this way. No specific permit is needed to hike this trail or camp along it, but a [recreation pass](https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/giffordpinchot/passes-permits/recreation) is required for parking at any trailheads.
It’s important to know that the 10-mile stretch from Windy Pass to South Fork Toutle River is a no camping zone.
This is the blast zone from the 1980 eruption, and because it’s so ecologically sensitive hikers are required to cross it in one day.
Though camping is generally allowed anywhere else, comfortable sites with water are few and far between.
When you do find an area suitable to camp, it’s important to minimize impact by only camping in well-established spots or on otherwise durable surfaces without disturbing vegetation. Beginning from Windy Ridge, the hike first follows Truman Trail, which is a dirt road closed to vehicles.
Though not particularly exciting, the trail grants a preview of the mountain ahead, and it’s easy walking.
After crossing a stream you’ll continue on Windy Trail for another mile to connect with Loowit Trail.
The route as mapped here then turns west to go counterclockwise around Mount St.
This portion of the trail is within the no camping zone, so you’ll have to continue at least to South Fork Toutle River before stopping for the night. On this section you’ll be walking through the scar of the 1980 eruption, which leveled the forests and buried the landscape with debris.
Grasses and wildflowers are the first plants taking hold, and swaths of them paint the ashen hillsides.
The trail dips in and out of several sharp gullies, where the path disappears in streambed rubble, and its emergence on the other side may not be obvious.
Pay close attention to navigation and look for cairns marking the route.
In one of these creeks is Loowit Falls, which requires a side trip to see, but it’s a must-do if you have the time. The trail continues in this manner across the blast zone, traversing barren slopes and crossing small drainages that are usually dry.
Fill up water whenever you get the chance.
The northwest side of the mountain is particularly arid, though trees become more common as the path rounds the west side.
Eventually the trail meets the rim of a dramatic gorge.
In the bottom lies the South Fork Toutle River, and on the other side camping is allowed.
The descent into the gorge is quite steep and loose in places, and on the final section you must lower yourself on a fixed rope.
Use extreme caution all along the way, because fall hazard is real.
Once in the bottom, you’ll still have to ford or rock-hop the river before choosing a place to stop for the night.
You might find a spot in the streambed, or climb ropes up the other side to find an elevated spot in the forest. Next the trail climbs steeply up a forested ridge before beginning a long traverse of St.
Helens’ south slopes.
In the many miles between South Fork Toutle and June Lake, the trail goes through a few washed out ravines and over long stretches of lava beds.
Fixed ropes aid the ravines in places, and scrambling is required here and there.
On the boulder-strewn lava beds no trail is visible, but cairns and posts mark the route for much of the way.
Don’t expect to find much water anywhere in this section.
A suitable camp and water source can be found down the Butte Camp Trail if need be. Excellent camping can be found at June Lake, which is just a short side trip from the Loowit Trail, and that detour is mapped here.
Beyond June Lake, the trail makes a long and steady climb above the timberline, with more lava beds and washouts to keep the terrain always challenging.
The trail dips down slightly to cross Ape Canyon near Pumice Butte.
Water is often easier to get on this side of the mountain, but if you find yourself dry you can find a spring and stream near Pumice Butte. The trail next crosses the Plains of Abraham, a desert-like expanse of ash and pumice that’s relatively flat.
It’s a welcome departure from the grueling miles on the rest of the loop, and if Windy Ridge is your finish it means the hardest parts are over.
Decent campsites can be found here as well, in case your itinerary justifies spending the night.
North of the plains, all that remains is a climb over Windy Pass on a nicely graded trail, then descending the final section to the junction with Windy Pass Trail.
From there it’s a quick return on this feeder trail to the starting point at Windy Ridge. Sources: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/giffordpinchot/recarea/?recid=41612 https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/loowit https://www.cleverhiker.com/blog/loowit-loop-trail-mount-st-helens-backpacking-guide