backpack: Mount St. Helens – South Coldwater Ridge
South Coldwater Ridge at Mount St. Helens is in the former blast zone, with evidence from the 1980 eruption visible from the trail, including downed trees and twisted logging equipment from that fateful day.
- day 1 – South Coldwater trailhead to Ridge Camp: 5 miles, 1,653 ft. gain, 120 ft. loss
- day 2 – hike out: 5 miles, 120 ft. gain, 1,653 ft. loss
- best months: June – July (depending on snow levels)
- location: Mount St. Helens; nearest town: Toutle
- land management: Gifford Pinchot National Forest: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
- trail conditions: South Coldwater Ridge Trail
- hike description: Washington Trails Association – South Coldwater Trail
- permits: Mount Margaret backcountry campsite permits required
- trailhead pass: none required
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and in normal times, this area would be crowded with hikers on the trails and busloads of tourists at the visitors centers. But due to COVID-19, the visitor centers were all closed and the main road was gated at milepost 46.
For a last minute trip, I managed to get a permit for two nights at Ridge Camp. This is probably the least desirable camp in the area due to being the farthest from the scenic sections of the Mount Margaret Backcountry – and the fact that there’s no water at the camp area. On the plus side, the hike in is short, and there’s plenty of day hiking to do from the camp area (see the trail map at the bottom of this post).
Our route took us up the middle ridge in the center of this photo:
To begin our trip, we parked in the lot for the Hummocks Trail and walked a mile on the closed road to the South Coldwater trailhead.
While only in the high 60s, it was very hot and muggy under a full sun. The first section of trail switchbacks through the shade of cottonwoods and climbs the ridge on a couple of steep sections of trail. After leaving the forested section, the trail winds along a ridge, at times on an old logging road. Trees knocked down by the May 18, 1980 eruption are still visible all throughout the blast zone.
View of 4-mile long Coldwater Lake – formed when debris from the eruption of Mount St. Helens dammed Coldwater Creek
Logging equipment twisted and mangled by the eruption
Continuing on the ridge with views of peaks in the Mount Margaret Backcountry
Ridge Camp is located in a saddle below Blast Zone Butte, with a hill directly behind the camp that proved to be a great spot for night photography. There are two camp areas and a backcountry toilet at Ridge Camp, with plenty of room to space out tents. Since there are no trees anywhere in this area, we took bear canisters for food storage and stashed them in a row of shrubs overnight.
After setting up camp, we needed to gather water to filter so we headed out to locate the water source for this camp. It was difficult to get good info about the location of the spring, and we took the trail in the wrong direction for about a half mile before realizing we needed to backtrack to the junction with the trail that heads down to Coldwater Lake. A spring-fed stream crosses the trail about 2/10 mile past the trail junction.
Once we had water and dinner, we headed up the small hill above our tents and took photos at sunset. We hadn’t noticed mosquitoes until this time, but now they were out in full force. I didn’t bring a head net so I ended up with six bites on my scalp while taking photos.
The stumps shown below are a mix of logged trees and trees that were damaged in the 1980 eruption.
I’ve been taking an online landscape photography class and spent the previous two weeks before this trip studying the night photography module so I could capture photos of the Milky Way. We were lucky and had clear skies on the first night of the trip, and no moon, so it was perfect conditions for star photos. I even managed to capture a couple of shooting stars on my first attempt at night photography!
I had intended on staying two nights, but I ended up with a mild case of heat exhaustion so I hiked out with a friend after we had breakfast in the morning. Two of my friends stayed and hiked on the Coldwater Trail for great views of the Mount Margaret backcountry and Mount St. Helens. Next time, I’ll get acclimated to the heat before attempting a trip that has no shade. : 0