Coldwater Lake Trail Loop, Washington

coldwater in clouds

Hiking in the rain is to be expected in the Pacific Northwest, and there are benefits to spending a day in the soft drizzle and low clouds. There are fewer people, and the air is crisp and cool.

One of my favorite rain hikes is along Coldwater Lake, at the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. It is mostly level, a rarity in the mountainous terrain, and that makes for solid footing despite the damp. 

trail map

The full loop around lake is a walk at a distance of just under 11 miles. Trail numbers 211 and 230.

Lake Creation

The lake was a result of the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Coldwater Lake developed soon after when eruption debris blocked the outflow for Coldwater Creek.

Worried the quickly filling lake would overwhelm the debris damn, officials moved in to create a small drainage out of the lake. It is currently 92 feet deep and crystal clear. The lake is open to non-motorized boats.

It is a great place to peacefully fish. Enough Cutthroat and Rainbow Trout found their way into the lake to necessitate a one fish limit for anglers. It is also a great place to drop in a kayak. 

seed warning

Plant life has grown at an astonishing rate in the 40 years since the eruption, but it is important to mind seeds that can accidentally be transferred into the area on hiking boots.

The balance of plants needed for healthy biodiversity in this newly regenerated area is delicate. 

red alder grove

Lakeside Trail

The trail heads off along the west side of the lake, in and out of stands of Red Alder. These fast-growing trees have slender branches and trunks.

They rustle in the wind, and on rainy days create a canopy that blocks most of the water. Leaves collect rainfall, which then drops more gently down to the ground.

The gentle pattering sounds on the leaves and then on the ground is music that accompanies hikers throughout the Alder stands.  

bench in first meadow

Between the clusters of trees, there are open meadows filled with birds. Benches are scattered along the trailside, and I take the time to stop at each one.

There is plenty to observe when sitting still on a rainy day. I also bring a plastic cover so I can set without getting too wet. 

Early Summer Flowers

fern

The long hours of sunlight in the summers at this northly latitude allows for explosive grown of plants in the early summer. Ferns that died back under the snows of winter unfurl their fronds, stretching into the warm season. 

lupine

The twins, Lupine (purple and tall) and Paintbrush (yellow or red and short) grow in close proximity to each other. Each provides nutrients that the other needs, so together they are some of the earliest plants to appear in any soil that has been disturbed.

They herald the arrival of pollinators and smaller forest dwellers, from bugs to ground squirrels, providing food and forage for others. 

paintbrush

On a rainy, grey day, they also make pops of color across meadows. 

towards coldwater ridge

Coldwater Ridge Regrowth

Midway down the lake, the trail hugs the shoreline. Fish can be seen in the clear shallows, and I always remember to look up at the ridge above.

The 1980 eruption cleared this landscape, scouring topsoil and snapping off mighty trees at their bases. Each year since then, the forest has worked to reclaim this area.

Today, there are still the stumps of once massive trees, now serving as nurse trees and cover for the plant life that the stumps first sheltered.

The remains of downed trees were left in this part of the National Monument, and looking up at the ridge, I can still easily see where each fell. 

waterfall climb start

The trail does start to climb a little just past the middle of the lake, at about the three-mile mark. The lakeshore is abrupt here, as a rock outcropping juts out over the water. It is necessary to climb up and over.

This rock face was revealed after the eruption, and now the springs and snowmelt from above send a steady stream of water along a creek, down toward the lake. 

short climb top

At the top, the trail squeezes by the rock wall, but the ground is firm and the incline begins to drop back down on the other side. 

pole trail marker

Five Miles Out

After coming back down the short hillside, the trail opens back up to a series of meadows. The trail is now marked with upright wooden poles, with a circle cut near the top.

These markers appear all over the National Monument in areas where the trails are less maintained. For those who want to hike the back side of St. Helens, these markers help show the way across boulder fields.  

snail close up

Rainy days bring out the snails, so I am careful to watch where I step. 

beaver pond

At the back side of Coldwater Lake, the beavers have been hard at work, damming up the incoming stream, creating a pond. Their lodge, built in the middle of the pond with underwater entrances, gives them a secure place for their kits to be born in spring.

The trail begins to climb into another red alder grove, and quickly becomes quite steep.

I can follow rest of the loop down the east side of the lake. However, on a quiet, rainy day, my choice is often to return the way I came, taking time to watch for more wildlife and enjoy the peace.

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