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South Coldwater Trail

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If you only have time to do one of the trails framing Coldwater Lake, make it the South Coldwater Trail. The Lakes Trail on the north shore is a beautiful hike, but this hike is just the complete package. You've got the human history in the shape of volcano-mangled machinery. You have wildlife, in the form of frequently present elk (and small critters are always underfoot if the big wapiti are being bashful). You've got the volcanic landscape, and of course, you have a respectable elevation gain to get your blood flowing, letting you know you are hiking in the Cascades, after all.

The trail leaves the trailhead with a brief downhill swing then rockets upward, climbing the long, tapered nose of the Coldwater Ridge. The trail builders made a half-hearted attempt to add a few switchbacks, but mostly the trail just swings to and fro, climbing steadily but not too steeply all the while. As you ascend, you'll be amazed at the different things going on in the recovery. Grasses, wildflowers, and bushes are well entrenched now, and with that greenery in place, the elk have thundered back into the region. They seem to love this ridge, too, so keep your voices low, and you might enjoy some four-legged companionship on the route. If not, don't worry; you won't be bored.

At about 3 miles out from the trailhead, you'll come across a rustic hulk of metal. This is an old steel-tracked logging tractor that got caught in the eruption-it was actually thrown to this location from somewhere farther up toward the main body of Mount St. Helens.

Climbing past the tractor, you'll swing around to the south, climbing up to a broad saddle on the flank of Coldwater Mountain. This is our destination. Coldwater Saddle sits at the 5-mile mark, the perfect place to enjoy the views, and then turn around for the walk home.
Driving Directions:

From Castle Rock, drive about 43 miles east on Highway 504 to the Coldwater Visitor Center and continue 2.2 miles south toward Johnston Ridge. At the bottom of the hill, continue past the Coldwater Lake boat launch area for another mile to find the South Coldwater trailhead parking area on the left.

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Recent Trip Reports

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There are 34 trip reports for this hike. See all trip reports for this hike.
South Coldwater Trail — Jul 31, 2013 — Moby
Day hike
Features: Wildflowers blooming
Issues: No water source
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On a "partly sunny" day, The Boy and I took his Teacher-sister and her Young Man down to the Coldwat...
On a "partly sunny" day, The Boy and I took his Teacher-sister and her Young Man down to the Coldwater Lake area of Mt. St. Helens for a little exploration.

We were hoping to meet another party later in the day, so we kept it short, heading up the South Coldwater Trail to around the the 3 mile mark for lunch overlooking Johnstone Ridge and the upper part of St. Helens. The trail is in great shape, the wildflowers continue their aromatic seasonal "rotations", and the insects were around but not at all bothersome. We saw small things (birds, squirrels, great clacking grasshoppers) but no elk. The Boy enjoyed posing on top of the mangled remains of the logging equipment and imagining how he could use some of the scattered pieces for protection in case of Zombie attack.

Since we were on a time budget, we stopped short of the junction with trail 230, but hope to continue the next time we visit to finish the loop around Coldwater Lake. When our friends didn't appear back at the trailhead, we went up to the Johnstone Ridge Observatory and found 100 cars, tourists from all over (on a Wednesday??), and the only place to pay your $8 fee and get the annoying green wrist band. I don't know if funding cuts have altered the procedures up there, but it appeared the hikers at the Hummocks and Lakes trailheads and the anglers at the boat launch could easily come and go without paying a fee. But we appreciate facilities, and gladly contribute, even though one does have to drive to the very end of the road to do so!

This is a highly recommended trail; smooth, well-graded, and even in occasional (morning) shade. But pay attention to the signs and bring water. All the water you see during this hike is far, far away!
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South Coldwater Trail — Jul 20, 2013 — jnewton
Day hike
Features: Wildflowers blooming | Ripe berries
Issues: Bugs | No water source
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We had grand plans and two cars for our day hiking adventure at Mt. St. Helens National Monument. We...
We had grand plans and two cars for our day hiking adventure at Mt. St. Helens National Monument. We planned to hike up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory from the South Coldwater Trail- a ten mile trip in all. We situated our cars at separate trail heads and began our adventure from the South Coldwater parking lot.

Immediately, we noticed the elevation gain and full sun. There’s a break above Coldwater Lake with some tree coverage, but the trail climbs up and out of this within a couple of miles. Mount St. Helens is in the background, though a ridge blocks the base of the mountain from view. At around mile 3 we find the wrecked bulldozer and logging equipment. It is still difficult to believe that this stuff was thrown off of the mountainside in 1980.

That’s when it started to get interesting. We were on the ridge above Coldwater Lake when we heard someone calling up to us from below. He asked for water and some help finding the “trail” he was trying to follow. He was probably 200 yards below the ridge – we told him to stay put, but he continued to move around anyway. Apparently he had been mountain biking and had ventured off the main trail. He had been biking with three other people, who apparently he had separated from over the course of the day. Finally a member of our group managed to walk a bottle of water and an energy bar down to him and then eventually show him how to get back up to the main trail. We directed him back towards the South Coldwater trailhead where we started, and we continued on our way after losing about 30 minutes of time.

We continued on our trek, eventually turning a corner and pulling away from the lake. Spectacular views on this sunny day! We ran into the lost cyclist’s party and asked them if they were looking for someone. Their response when we told them we had found their friend was hilarious.

“Was he wearing dark jeans and a v-neck t-shirt?” they asked.

“Yes, that’s the guy!”

“We had to talk him out of wearing cowboy boots before coming up here! He was off the trail, eh?”

“Yes, definitely!”

And then everyone had a good laugh. It turns out that this guy was marrying into the family, and was out with his future brothers-in-law for a mountain biking excursion at Mt. St. Helens. He was clearly the most inexperienced of the bunch, and was likely trying to “prove himself” to his new family. We directed them back towards their new family member and hopefully everyone was reunited. Certainly embarrassing for the new member of the family!

We had lost even more time at that point, and the trail started to descend in a way that wasn’t outlined in the hiker’s guide. With some concern that we were going to end up in the Mount Margaret backcountry, we turned around prematurely and searched for a trail split and never found it. Having lost most of the day, we breaked for food and water near the wrecked bulldozers, and then returned to the South Coldwater trail head. Later, I would look at a topographic map and Google satellite view to realize that we had missed the trail split by probably 50 yards from where we turned around. We should’ve stuck with it!

Sure, it was a conservative decision to turn back, but with the full sun and high temperature of the day, along with the omen of the lost and rescued mountain biker (who did take some of our water), we decided to respect Mother Nature and turn around. Even with the moderately crowded trail, you never know when you might run into trouble—we decided to play it safe.

A few tips: Remember the FULL SUN that a Mt. St. Helens hike almost always guarantees. Bring a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water. We encountered a few bugs beyond the bulldozers, especially when the wind died down. It was no problem when we were moving, but we had stalled several times along the way. I noted that I had used twice as much water as I normally do on similar hikes, primarily because there was no cover from the sun. The territory around Mt. St. Helens can be deceivingly tricky – it’s particularly important to respect that!
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South Coldwater Trail — Jul 10, 2013 — Niko Niko
Day hike
Features: Wildflowers blooming
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This was an amazing hike! It's very easy to find and the views are wonderful all throughout it. I we...
This was an amazing hike! It's very easy to find and the views are wonderful all throughout it. I went by myself and had a great time. There are beautiful views of Coldwater Lake and all the felled trees from the eruption. The best part by far is cresting that last hill where you can take a path to Johnston Ridge. The volcano is massive and right in front of you! It's totally worth the jaunt :)

This hike has a designated campground a few miles in and there is a side-route that goes down to the lake. If it hadn't been so hot and I hadn't been so tired, I probably would've done it!

I highly recommend this hike!
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South Coldwater Trail — Jul 09, 2013 — Ineedacompass
Day hike
Features: Wildflowers blooming
Issues: Bugs | No water source
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I hit the road at 5:30am yesterday from Seattle and was on the trail by 8:30am. It was a good thing...
I hit the road at 5:30am yesterday from Seattle and was on the trail by 8:30am. It was a good thing I got started in the cool of the morning because it was 85 when I returned to my car (and many poor backpackers were just heading up the hill). No Elk sightings, but plenty of scat and hoove-prints. I bet if I had started even earlier I would have seen some.

On a clear day, this hike is very nice - two great spots to view St Helens: 1) At the first 2 of the rusty logging tractors and 2) At the very end of the hike as described above at the saddle (see picture). Other than that, the hike was pretty boring, but it was a great early season walk because the incline was manageable and there is no trace of snow whatsoever. Bugs are numerous, but mostly flies/gnats and not mosquitoes. A few wildflowers bloomed where there was ample shade (not many place on the trail).

I wouldn't do this as a backpack - the group campsite has zero shade, there is no water source and there are prettier places to backpack in this area, definitely!

Note: if you're coming from the north, don't drive I-5 S all the way to Castle Rock. Get off at Toledo (505), which then will meet up with 504. Much faster!
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South Coldwater Trail — Jun 22, 2013 — R15
Day hike
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This is what hiking is all about. A Scenic ridge-line trail full of outstanding views of Mount St H...
This is what hiking is all about. A Scenic ridge-line trail full of outstanding views of Mount St Helens, Coldwater lake and the surrounding valleys.

The trailhead was easy to find, just off spirit lake highway two miles from its junction with Hwy 504.

We arrived in the late afternoon, so we were limited in time but due to the nice late summer evenings we still hiked for about three hours. The trail was in excellent condition and the ascent very manageable. The only downside - no Elk sightings.

Hike this one and forget all those forested canopy trails that only provide trees and ferns for views.
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Looking out across the volcanic landscape from the South Coldwater trail -.jpg
Looking out across the volcanic landscape from the South Coldwater on a wintry day. Photo: Hikingqueen
Location
South Coldwater Trail (#230A)
South Cascades -- Mt. St. Helens
USFS Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Statistics
Roundtrip 10.0 miles
Elevation Gain 2100 ft
Highest Point 4600 ft
Features
Lakes
Mountain views
Wildlife
Ridges/passes
User info
Dogs not allowed
Northwest Forest Pass required
Guidebooks & Maps
South Cascades
Green Trails No. 332 Spirit Lake

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Note: the description and driving directions for this Mountaineers Books entry are copyrighted and can't be changed.

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Red MarkerSouth Coldwater Trail
46.2915 -122.267116667
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