Hiking the Loowit loop trail at Mt St Helens

This article was originally written in the summer of 2020, shortly after the hike.
One year later, in 2021, we hiked the Loowit loop trail again, in the opposite direction.

After climbing the Mt Saint Helens volcano, a number of times over the years, I was ready to try some different kind of challenge. Hiking up the Ptarmigan trail, I have always been intrigued by the Loowit loop trail, which intersects the climbing route.

Camping at Pumice Butte on the Loowit trail loop hike

I started reading up about the Loowit loop trail, which is a 30-mile loop around the volcano. Trip reports rave about its diverse and stunning landscapes, but also warn about its difficulties and challenges.

The trail has a combined elevation gain of up to about 7000 feet, with many steep climbs. There are boulder fields to cross over, deep washouts to cross, with fixed ropes to make it down and up the banks. There are narrow, sketchy trails on steep hillside slopes.

The 10-mile restricted area on the north side is a no-camping zone. You have to make through it before setting up camp. There are only a few water sources along the route, some reliable, some unreliable. You have to carry everything, including adequate amount of water, in your backpack.

The Loowit loop hike is generally considered difficult, and for experienced hikers only.

This summer, I and some of my friends decided to go for it!

At first, I felt a little intimidated over the challenge. But after reading up more, and visiting hiking forums, I figured I will do just fine.

We started planning the hike, figuring out the various aspects of the hike, where the potential water sources are, and where the good camp sites are.

Some prefer to do the Loowit loop trail clockwise, and some counterclockwise, for various reasons. There are also multiple choices of trailheads for the start/end point.

Based on our time frame, not heading out until Friday afternoon, and wanting to be back on Sunday, we decided to do a 2-nighter, starting at the June Lake trailhead, and hike counter-clockwise. We would camp the first night before Windy Pass. The second night we would camp at either the East Fork of Toutle River, or further east, depending on our progress.

We were five of us, heading up to the June Lake trail head.

The no-fee parking lot was quite crowded, but we found a spot to park. We hit the trail about 1:30pm..

It is about a 1.25-mile hike to the lake. The lake doesn’t have any outlet, so the water is stagnant. There is a waterfall on the hillside, and an accessible water source somewhere on top of the fall.

We continued another quarter mile, on the steep trail up to the Loowit trail intersection, and headed east on the Loowit trail. We were hiking in the old-growth forest. The ripe huckleberries along the trail slowed us down somewhat, but their delicious taste was worth it!

Eventually we got out of the woods, and into boulder fields. Some areas had a good trail, but in other areas there were no path. We had to do boulder hopping, looking for wooden posts and cairns, marking the trail.

Most of the time we had great views of the nearby Mt Adams, and at a farther distance, Mt Hood.

Loowit trail east side Mt Adams
Loowit trail east side, with view of Mt Adams

We left the boulder fields behind, heading more northward, into a sandier area, with sparse vegetation, crossing a few small dry creek beds. The first stream we encountered had silty water. We figured there should be clearer water further up, so we continued without filling up. But the next creek with a supposed water source was dry, except for puddles in the rocks, left by the previous days rain.

We filled our water containers with the filtered water from the puddles, and continued north. We reached the Pumice Butte about 6pm and went off-trail to set up camp on one of the hills.

 The camp site was flat and sandy in a not-so-dense forest, with a great view of Mt. St Helens.

We set up camp, made our dinners, and enjoyed the evening campfire. We also spotted some goats further up on the hillside.

At 6am, we got up, had breakfast, and hit the trail at 7am.

We hiked the Plains of Abraham, up to Windy Pass. The trail up to and over the pass was narrow, but not too narrow, and took us up along a steep hillside. One of my buddies told: Don’t look back! So, I looked back. The steep hillside looked little freaky. The trail was solid and felt safe, though, so I wasn’t worried. This spot is one of the reasons this hike is not recommended for people afraid of heights.

We reached the top of the pass, and were met by a stunning view of the restricted area to the north. From there we continued down the trail into the blast zone.

Soon we ran into several creeks with water. There we stopped at one of the for a lunch break, and to fill up on water.

We made a side trip up to the Loowit falls,. But it was foggy in the morning, and we weren’t able to get a good view of the falls. We did get great close up view of a herd of mountain goats.

The Spirit Lake, on the north side of the trail, was a beautiful sight!

Loowit trail Descending to Toutle River
Loowit trail Descending to Toutle River

We weren’t able to see much of the crater due to the clouds. Although clear skies would have provided the best views, the clouds did keep the weather cooler, which made the hike more pleasant.

We met quite a few day runners (people who run the loop in a day, carrying just water and energy food), and other multi-day hikers, on the trail.

Eventually we reached the west side and started heading south, converging with the East Fork of the Toutle River. As we hiked along the edge of the ravine, it became deeper and deeper. At some point, the trail started switch-backing into it, taking us down to the river. The river banks were quite tall, but there were fixed ropes to assist in climbing down to the river bed.

There were several people camping down at the river, this spot being the most popular camp site on the Loowit trail.

The climb up Crescent Ridge

It was still early, so we filled up on all our water. Then we continued the long steep climb on the east side up to Crescent Ridge. For me, this was the hardest part of the whole Loowit loop trail. It was steady uphill for 1.6 miles, until the terrain started leveling out. We set up camp at about 7pm, and enjoyed the evening with dinner and campfire. This was our longest and hardest day with more than 16 miles of hiking.

Next morning, we got up at 5am, ate breakfast, and hit the trail for our final section, back to the June Lake trail head.

We passed several boulder fields. They didn’t seem to be as difficult as I had anticipated. But this section is the least water-source friendly section on the loop. We were hoping to run into water sources before Chocolate Falls, bet there were none. By the time we reached the falls, we were out of water. Taking a quick break, we skipped lunch, and filled up enough water to comfortably make it back to the June Lake trail head.

We reached the trailhead around 1pm, less than 48 hours after we started there. From there we headed down to Cougar for some very juicy burgers. They sure tasted delicious, after the weekend with dehydrated meals!

Below is a slideshow of pictures from the hike:

Loowit trail east side Mt AdamsLoowit trail CampingLoowit trail Descending to Toutle River

YouTube version of the slideshow, with background music:

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