Monday, October 29, 2012

Coldwater Lake

The weather-guessers predicted last Thursday to be the only dry day all week.  Seeing an opportunity for a rain-free hike, I promptly took the day off work.  I'd been wanting to do a hike from Mt. St. Helen's Johnston Ridge Observatory.  This would probably be my last chance before the snow came.

Size matters!  Click on any image to enjoy a larger version.

Snow at Johnston Ridge

Well....Mother Nature beat me.  Driving up to Johnston Ridge that morning, I began to see small collections of snow lining the roadside.  By the time I'd pulled into the parking lot, there was almost a foot of wet, mushy snow on the ground.  I wasn't about to hike through this stuff (although, if I'd brought my skis......)  Not only that, but a thick layer of clouds and fog prevented any views of the famous volcano.  Did I burn a vacation day for nothing?

No views here today

Of course not!  I always have an alternate hike in my back pocket.  Plan B was to check out the trails at nearby Coldwater Lake.  Over a thousand feet lower than Johnston Ridge, it's shores were still snow-free.  Amazing the difference a little elevation makes!

View from Coldwater Lake trailhead

Coldwater Lake was formed during the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens.  When MSH's summit blew to the north, it initiated a huge landslide, damming Coldwater Creek.  This created a narrow 4-mile long lake, and flattened trees on the nearby hills for miles.

A glimpse of blue sky

But, over thirty years later, vegetation has firmly re-established itself.  Parking at Coldwater Lake's boat dock, I could see hillsides thickly covered with a variety of trees and shrubs, many showing their best autumn colors.  

Bright red leaves at water's edge

My trail of choice began at the boat dock.  There are a few different paths in this vicinity, and I decided upon one that followed Coldwater Lake's northern shoreline.  Beginning at the western end, the Lakes Trail leads hikers along this water body's entire length.  A trek of almost 4.5 miles one way, it provides views from many perspectives.

Colorful trees brighten the hillside

Although the day began cold and overcast, I'd barely left the trailhead when rays of sunshine began peeking through cloud gaps.  A half mile into the hike, I was already shedding layers.

Cloud reflections on Coldwater Lake

My view to the east was lovely.  I could see a snow-topped mountain beginning to emerge from the fog.  The northern lakeshore was speckled with colorful vegetation, sporting many hues of gold, yellow and orange.  The unexpected sunshine lit it up beautifully.

Multicolored leaves

I was the only hiker on the trail this day.  The woods and  lake were silent, save for an occasional bird call.  I trudged slowly along, making frequent photo documentation stops.

Mountain reflections

After a mile, I came upon a peninsula jutting out into the lake.  Looking back towards the boat dock showed a clearing blue sky with occasional glimpses of the western mountain range.  The clouds and mountains made perfect reflections in the lake's still waters.  A Kodak moment if there ever was one!

Tea and cookie break!

Continuing past the peninsula, my trail crossed a small waterfall gushing through a rocky channel.  A rumbling stomach suggested this was a good spot for a lunch break.  After first downing my sandwich, it was time to enjoy some tea and cookies (staples for fall hikes, don't you think?)

Nice trailside fall colors

My tummy filled, I continued eastward, following the path as it dipped up and down, ducking into small coves and ambling across tiny streamlets.  I began to see tons of animal scat, mostly from elk.  Mixed in with the poo were lots of animal tracks.  The critters were doing just fine!

Then, up ahead I saw a large gravelly fan, a remnant of many rockslides.  Crossing the adjacent heavily treed creek, I was startled by a loud crashing sound.  I looked up to see an elk running through the brush about 100 yards away.


A wildlife sighting!  Hastily I crossed the creek and headed out into the open, gravel plain.  There I saw another elk trotting out of the forest, joining her friend.  I quickly grabbed my camera and fired a couple shots.  But my wide angle lens was no match for wildlife close-ups.  Quickly, I grabbed my zoom lens out of the pack and made a fast switch.  As I was swapping lenses, two more elk, one a bull with a huge rack, sauntered out of the brush and began climbing an adjacent slope.

Spectacular views on the lake's east end

My zoom lens in place, I was able to get a few better elk photos.  Two cows stopped briefly and snacked some brushy trees.  It was almost as if they were posing.  But when I tried to move closer, they turned tail and disappeared into the forest.

Still, it was a thrill to see a small herd of these magnificent animals in the wild.  Definitely a highlight of my day!

More wonderful alpine views

There was more good stuff yet to come.  I was now close to the lake's eastern end.  Impressive, snow-capped mountains rose up from the shore.  It was an alpine view worthy of The Sound of Music.  The nearest mountain was most colorful.  White snow covered it's top third, while bushes of orange, rust and brown dotted the lower slopes.  Mixed in with the bushes were a few remaining green trees, and a mosaic of downed logs leftover from the long-ago eruption.

Fall colors dot the mountainside

The trail passed under this great mountain's shadow, as I rounded the far eastern shore.  Past sandy beaches full of elk hoofprints and poo piles.  Through a marshy wooded area, complete with a beaver dam.  Up a forested slope, ducking under a couple fallen trees.

Snow-speckled peak

The Lakes trail ended at a junction.  One path took hikers to Snow Lake and the Mt. Margaret backcountry.  The other, climbed steeply up the mountainside to Coldwater Peak.  I detoured down the latter trail for a short distance to see what my hiking book described as a "spectacular footbridge in a rocky gorge."

The bridge marks my turnaround point

Yes, the footbridge was pretty impressive.  Not so much the bridge itself, but its wonderful setting.  The colorful mountain rose above.  A lovely stream gushed through boulders far below.  Huge rock walls anchored the bridge on one side.  Coldwater Lake sparkled in the distance.  Break spots don't get much better!

Bridge photo op

Two-thirty was my turn-around time.  I reached the bridge with 10 minutes to spare.  Enough time for a quick snack and photo session.  Then I turned around and hoofed the 4.5 mile distance back to my car.

Tree wearing it's best autumn colors

Returning along the lake's shoreline path, I didn't take many photo stops.  I already had a memory card full of great shots, and the sunlight was now coming from the wrong direction.  Plus, there was a long drive back home once I reached my car.  Still, as I passed by the gravel bar I kept my eyes peeled, hoping for another elk sighting.  That I would stop for.

MSH makes an appearance

Sadly, the elk were nowhere to be found.  But nearing the trailhead, I experienced a sighting of a different sort, which provided a great end to my day.  That morning, the southern horizon had been under heavy clouds and fog, preventing any chance for views.  Now approaching the boat dock under clear skies, I began to see what I'd missed. Noticing a gleaming mountain rising over the southern shore, I stopped to observe.  It was Mt. St. Helens!  And she was beautiful!  The mountain was cloaked in a dazzling white blanket of snow, which the sun's final rays illuminated brilliantly.  I'd traveled up here to see the mountain, and didn't get skunked!  At the end of the day, finally rewarded with a glimpse of the famous volcano.

Despite the snow changing my plans, I switched gears and had a great day of hiking after all.  You just can't beat a visit to Mt. St. Helens.  There's always something amazing to see.  That's why I keep coming back.

Linking to:  This or That Thursday and Weekend Reflections.


  1. Wow the entire place all to yourself that is cool and such a beautiful place.

  2. As always beautiful photos of a beautiful place. Such a blessing to live in such a place!

  3. Great photos. Love the juxtaposition of fall color and snow. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great photos. Love the juxtaposition of fall color and snow. Thanks for sharing.

  5. What an incredible hike and great set of photos. The one time I was near Mt. St. Helens it decided not to make an appearance through the fog and thick clouds, I'd love to go back one day.

  6. Especially like the clouds reflected in the water

  7. A gorgeous series of shots, the lake reflections are terrific!

  8. Oh what a great hike you took. Your pictures are wonderul and I love those reflections in the water.
    That snow in your first few shots made me shiver - it sure looks cold!!!

  9. Definitely worth burning a vacation day, especially to get a surprise visit from some elk!

  10. Am envious at all the beautiful things you saw on the way! The reflections of the lake are stunning!

  11. This is a very good serie of photos. So many details in every picture! Well done!


Don't be shy! Please leave a comment.