The Loowit Trail circumambulates Mount St. Helens, dropping into and climbing out of deep gullies left by the eruption of St. Helens and its subsequent debris flows. This hike is very challenging, with sparse camps, little water and some sketchy sections of loose pumice. Since the eruption denuded the slopes of the mountain, you’re almost always in sun, so make sure you wear your hat and bring sunscreen. It is all too easy to get a severe sunburn on these slopes.
With those cautions in mind, you’ll fully appreciate the stark, otherworldly beauty of the blast zone. Vast fields of pumice gouged with deep gullies frame the gaping immensity of the mountain.
Circumnavigating Mount St. Helens
Some recommend starting from the south at Climber’s Bivouac while others choose to start on the northeast side at Windy Ridge. In either case, you need to plan on crossing the blast zone in one push as camping is prohibited between the South Fork of the Toutle River and Windy Pass. Since the most rugged section is on the west side where major washouts require extensive detours and/or scrambles, plan your trip to hit those sections when you are relatively fresh.
Although each year hikers do complete the Loowit, others have turned back, unable to find safe passage through some of the gullies. Since conditions change so frequently and people’s route finding ability and tolerance for risk vary, it is whether circumnavigation is “doable” at any given time is different for any hiker.
This route description is for a counter-clockwise circumnavigation hike starting from the north side where the Windy Trail (216E) meets the Loowit.
Your first seven miles will afford near constant views of denuded slopes as you cross the blast zone looking into “The Breach”. A short side-trail to Loowit Falls is a worthwhile break. As you come around the mountain to the northwest, the route drops into the valley carved by the South Fork of the Toutle. Here the trail is frequently obliterated by the river and sliding loose rock and pumice. Crossing this gully is the first of three major wash-outs on the route.
Continuing on the Loowit, the trail climbs up into remnant old growth forest on Crescent Ridge, and then enters a zone of burned trees and flower-rife meadows. You’ll enter subalpine forest, the trail climbing and falling until it again ascends to timberline near 4,700 ft. About a half-mile beyond the junction with the Sheep Canyon Trail the Loowit was obliterated by a washout in the Blue Lake Wash, leaving a huge chasm with near vertical walls in its place. The Forest Service completed a bypass route that adds another few miles, but it is much safer than attempting to scramble through the massive gully.
Next, you’ll reach the junction with the Butte Camp Trail 238A. You can drop steeply along this trail—roughly 800 feet—to Butte Camp, if you need to make camp.
Most of the trail from here on in is rugged as it runs through several lava beds, sometimes with nothing but posts or cairns to show the way. After crossing Swift Creek (the winter climbing route), there is one more lava bed crossing to the junction with the June Lake Trail.
For a pleasant campsite, follow the steep June Lake Trail (216B) a quarter-mile to its namesake lake. Continuing around the southeast side of the mountain you will encounter the third major washout on the Loowit at Muddy Creek. It is approximately four miles from the June Lake Trail junction. Like the previous two washed out sections, the steep canyon walls and loose rock make it difficult and dangerous to scramble through the chasm. WTA volunteer Backcountry Response Teams restored a badly washed-out section here in 2010.
You’ll traverse more lava on the 4.75 miles to the Ape Canyon Trail. Some of the best wildflowers are at the top of the canyon north of Pumice Butte. You finally have four miles of relatively smooth trail across the Plains of Abraham, then up Windy Pass and back to the intersection of the Windy Trail (216). From there you’re on familiar terrain following the Truman Trail (207) back to Windy Ridge.
Note: Trip mileage does not include required approach trails to the loop. Some guidebooks give total vertical around 4000 feet, but with the Blue Lake Wash detour and careful measurement, all the ups and downs make it more like 6000+ feet, including whatever approach you choose.
There are multiple points where you can access the Loowit. Here are four of the most commonly used access points. (If you want a taste of the Loowit without the full meal deal, each of these hikes is a great way to sample the mountain.)
From Windy Ridge (northeast)
Follow the Truman Trail (207) for approximately three miles, then take the Windy Trail (216D) for another one mile to the Loowit (216). This route will take you closest to “The Breach” and Loowit Falls. Note that camping is not allowed in the blast zone which includes the northern portion of the mountain between the South Fork of the Toutle River and Windy Pass.
From The Ape Canyon Trailhead (southeast)
Park at the Ape Canyon Trailhead and go 5.5 miles on the Ape Canyon Trail (234) to the junction with the Loowit (216). Turn right (north) and hike another mile or two across the spectacular Plains of Abraham. Note this route is very popular with mountain bikers.
From Climber’s Bivouac (south)
Take the Ptarmigan Trail (216A) two miles to the junction with the Loowit (216). Turn left or right to experience the Loowit as it skirts the treeline along the volcano’s southern flank.
From Blue Lake Trailhead (southwest)
Follow the Toutle Trail (238) for about 3 miles. Ascend the Sheep Canyon Trail (240) 2.5 miles to the Loowit. You can make a nice lollipop loop by following the Loowit another 2.5 miles north to its intersection with the terminus of the Toutle Trail, then following the Toutle Trail approximately five miles back to the Blue Lake Trailhead.