Backpack around Mount Saint Helens via the Loowit trail

June Lake Trailhead, Cougar, Washington, United States

  • Activities:

    Photography, Backpacking

  • Skill Level:

    Advanced

  • Season:

    Summer

  • Trail Type:

    Loop

  • RT Distance:

    31.7 Miles

  • Elevation Gain:

    6000 Feet

Easy Parking
Forest
Lake
River
Scenic
Waterfall
Wildflowers
Wildlife

From the stark, desolate blast zone to mountain views of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood, the Loowit Trail circumambulates Mount St. Helens crossing deep gullies, pumice and wildflower filled plains, and scrambling over rocky ridges. Stunning and unforgiving, this backpack is the best way to experience this landscape. 

This is a very difficult hike. Camp sites are scarce and access to water is very limited. Overexposure is a concern so be sure to pack a hat and apply sunscreen frequently. There are sketchy sections of the trail where you will be forced to navigate steep washed out gullies that are unstable due to loose rock and pumice. Additionally, there have been cougar sightings so be sure to be alert at all times. 

Despite the risks, the striking beauty of the area is sure to make it worth it. You can begin this backpack from numerous starting points with different lengths of access to the Loowit Trail, however, it is required to cross the entire area of the blast zone as it is prohibited to camp in the area between the South Fork of the Toutle River and Windy Pass. This guide will begin at the June Lake Trailhead and will circumambulate the Mountain clockwise as the most rugged section of the trail is the west side. This leaves the less difficult section of the trail for your final day.

Day 1: Lava Beds

From the parking lot, the June Lake Trail (216B) winds its way up the forest next to a stream. After around a mile and a half the trail opens up to June Lake and June Falls to the right. Head past the Falls and Lake and soon you will come to the Loowit Trail (216). Head west as you climb out of the forest and into the first lava bed. Carefully pick your way across the lava bed following posts, cairns, and orange tags until you regain an easier to follow path. You will cross Swift Creek, most likely dry, and you will see trail for the winter climbing route. Continuing on, you will find yourself following more posts and cairns through several lava fields and then climbing up and up through forested steps. There may be a small water source in this section if you hike early in the summer. If so, I would recommend filling water here as there will not be another one for the rest of the day. The next junction is with Butte Camp Trail, which descends almost 800 feet if you need to make camp. However, continue on for about 2 miles and you will come to a deep ravine. Head southwest on the bypass route to avoid a very treacherous scramble through the washout. The trail comes to a place to cross, and loose rock and very steep slopes make this dangerous. Take your time and make sure the rocks you use to descend and then ascend are solid as to not kick out any rocks towards people above or below you. Once you have passed the gully, will soon reach an intersection with Sheep's Canyon Trail and you can decide to take this trail in search of a place to camp or continue on the Loowit Trail. I took the Loowit Trail to Crescent Ridge where you will find one small campsite located near a massive cliff side with great views. Camp here if it is late in the evening or continue down the ridge line for around a mile until you see a few larger camping areas. 

Day 2: The Breach

Wake up early and eat a hearty breakfast. You begin by descending next to the South fork of the Toutle River. Ropes will assist you in scrambling down and up the gully. Crossing the Toutle can be tricky so take your time and be careful. Be sure to fill up on as much water as you can, you will need it. Head northeast, as you climb from the valley, you will find the trail to be sketchy as it is traverses sliding pumice and loose rock. Eventually, you climb to an open meadow and begin your journey in the Restricted Access Zone. Wild Flowers and dead trees dot the landscape and the meadow spills out of the base of the Mountain. As you continue to navigate multiple ravines, the crater begins to open up and you are squarely in the desolate blast zone. The area is exposed and little plant life exists. Keep trudging along, you can see Spirit Lake and Mount Rainer in the distance. Loowit Creek can be tricky to cross while staying dry, but offers a great resting point to fill up on water and have a snack while admiring Loowit Falls and the Mount St. Helens Crater. Shortly after the trail turns south and climbs up the Sasquatch Steps. A side trail leads to Loowit Falls if you would like a closer look. Continue on towards Windy Pass. The Trail up to Windy pass is more like a foot wide cliff with fragile rock. Be very careful, the pass lives up to its name making balance paramount. On the way down into the Plains of Abraham the trail is also difficult and dangerous. Once in the plain of Abraham, continue on to a beautiful outlook of Mount Adams. Here is where you camp for the night. There is a cold, crisp spring at the outlook. Continue just past the spring for the best campsites.

Day 3: The Plains of Abraham and Worm Flows

As this is the last day. Wake up early and watch the sunrise over Mount Adams, have a fire and a slower morning as the hike back to June lake is less than 8 miles. Head out from here heading south. You will soon run into the washout at Muddy River so carefully follow the trail through the ravine. A few smaller washouts await you further along and a couple miles later you will encounter more lava fields, known as Worm Flows, although easier to cross than the first day. Soon you will descend into the forest before coming to a final lava field. Back into the forest you will find the Junction with the June Lake Trail.

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This was my first 50k distance in a day, a manageable distance if you are fit and have done up to 20 miles in a day with no problem. I didn't find the trail to be overly difficult as it is well marked and doesn't have a TON of up and down. We were lucky to have a partly overcast day which meant we didn't overheat or have to drink too much water. The landscape is otherworldly and reminded me of Iceland in places.

5 months ago
5 months ago

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