Lakes Trail #211
Low Point: 2500'
High Point: 5200'
DirectionsFrom I-5, take Exit 49 at Castle Rock and travel east on Hwy 504 past the Coldwater Ridge Visitors Center to the Coldwater Lake Boat Launch and Recreation Area. The 211 trailhead is at the boat launch area.
The Lakes Trail follows the northwest bank of Coldwater Lake then climbs into the Mt Margaret Backcountry north of Mt St Helens and Spirit Lake visiting several small, high-elevation lakes for which it is named. Since the trail is within the Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument blast zone, it offers a unique, sometimes haunting, hiking experience. Special permits are required for overnight camping, which is permitted only at designated sites and for groups of four or less. Originally, we intended to hike to the east end of the trail and return along the Boundary Trail, but weather and slow progress put us behind schedule. We stayed the first night at Snow Lake and the second at Shovel Lake and walked out the way we came on the third day.
The first four and a half miles along Coldwater Lake are relatively flat and very scenic. We hiked the trail over Fourth of July weekend and the wildflowers were in full bloom. Coldwater Lake was formed by the pyroclastic flow of the 1980 eruption. Edges of the lake are cluttered with old growth driftwood Minnie Peak rises up at the end of the lake and gives a sense of the elevations that the trail will climb further on. We encountered a handful of day-hikers on this portion of the trail.
The trail crosses several types of terrain from flat open meadows through groves of cottonwoods, over waterfalls and across sandy beaches, granite ledges and fields of loose rock. Water can be filtered from streams in several locations in early summer. Bring sunscreen because you will be entirely exposed for most of the trail.
At the end of the lake is the junction with Coldwater Trail #230. This is where the climb begins. The next four miles of trail distantly follow a creek on the north side of a valley with the Mt Maragaret Range to the southeast. There are sweeping views since the old growth forest was laid flat by the eruption. Hundred-foot silver tree trunks litter the valley all pointing the direction of the pyroclastic wind that whipped through here. Despite the fallen and standing dead forest this is a very green valley and the return of flora has happened more quickly than most scientists ever expected.
Fewer hikers approach the high lakes from this direction than do from Norway Pass on the east side of Spirit Lake which is closer. This is an isolated backcountry trail which is poorly maintained and easy to lose in places. Some water may be available in early summer in the first mile or two from the junction with Trail #230. Expect dangerous washouts on the hillsides. I would strongly recommend a walking aid as an accident here could be catastrophic. We were rained on at this point in the hike which turned a hard climb into a miserable climb.
It is a long ascent to Snow Lake and the trail loses elevation a few times in the four miles through the valley. Some snow can be expected into July at higher elevations. We spent out first night at Snow Lake. This flat, sandy campsite is at the east side of the tiny lake and ringed by mountains and standing dead forest. It's an eerie, but beautiful site shadowed by the shoulder of Mt Whittier. Composting toilets are a welcome amenity at this and all the other backcountry campsites. A herd of elk came through our site around midnight and thouroughly sniffed our tents. Most of the old growth trees in this area were partially shielded from the eruption by the mountains. Consequently, the standing dead forest is thicker and taller here (and at Shovel Lake). The following morning was damp and foggy which, but by late morning we had sunbreaks.
We packed up and climbed a steep trail upto Whittier Pass at 5200'. Impressive views of Mt Whittier, Shovel Lake and back to Snow Lake. More wildflowers (lupine, paintbrush, daisies, etc.) and for the first time we see bear grass in bloom. After a break to enjoy the scenery, we crossed a snow field and followed the trail to the junction with the Shovel Lake Trail (#211C), a half-mile side spur dropping 700' on switchbacks into a rocky glacial cirque. Further along the Lakes Trail are Panhandle and Obscurity Lakes, but our hike only went this far.
Shovel Lake is both dramatic and tranquil. You are surrounded by cliffs (we had two rock slides while we were there). The campsite is between the lake and a couple of babbling runoff streams coming down from Mt Whittier. The bottom of the basin is covered in fine gravel and pumice. Evidence of elk and coyote is everywhere. The lake is rimmed with blow-down timber and the outlet stream at the east end is log-jammed. There are beautiful little coral-colored Eastern Brook Trout in the lake if you can coax them to bite. All in all a spectacular destination.
The climb out of Shovel Lake is a lot harder (and slower) than the climb in, but we felt it was well worth it. The return to the through the valley was a knee-killer and the multiple hillside washouts were particularly bad after the previous day's rain.
A fascinating and varied trail in a unique area in the world. A much more colorful hike than I would have expected. Stunning, strange landscape.