This early or late-season hike takes you for a ridge walk high above Coldwater Lake, which was not a standing body of water prior to the massive eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. You'll walk through a serene willow forest, marvel at the power of nature when you encounter twisted hulks of logging machinery, and see plenty of gnarled stumps where tall evergreens once stood.
Despite several pushes for National Park status, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument falls under the supervision of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The Forest Service does the best they can with limited resources, but most of the dollars are directed to the main Visitor Center at Johnston Ridge Observatory, at the end of Spirit Lake Highway (State Route 504). The Visitor Center is well worth a visit if time allows following your hike. It is $8.00 per person, or free admission for one with an annual Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass.
Back to the hiking! South Coldwater Trail 230A starts from a medium-sized parking lot off Spirit Lake Highway. Please keep to the established trail throughout your visit. This fragile landscape will take decades to heal, and a stray bootprint in the fine ash leaves a bad impression for other visitors. If the day is warm be sure to pack extra water—you will find none on this trail.
The area is frequented by herds of elk in late spring. As you ascend you'll see large poles that mark the way and serve as confidence markers to keep you off the occasional crisscrossing game trails. Climb moderately, then more steeply through a shady forest of willows to arrive at the rusting remains of a logging caterpillar, with the crater of Mount St. Helens in the background to the south. Continue up the ridge for views down to Coldwater Lake and north to the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center — mothballed for several years, but now a learning and science center for education and conservancy groups.
You'll follow old roadbed for another mile. In late summer, ripe huckleberry bushes will slow your pace. Look left shortly before the junction with Lakes Trail 211 — you might miss an old bulldozer set askew from the volcanic blast. The junction is your turnaround point, but check in with your legs. If you're feeling adventuresome, press on. Another two miles down the trail to the left will take you down to a bridge over Coldwater Creek. Another steep mile down the righthand trail takes you to Ridge Camp, one of eight reservable camps in the Mount Margaret Backcountry and Coldwater Saddle, with stunning views of the ridges and valleys north of the mountain.
Back at the trailhead, take a few moments to stretch and dust yourself off — you’re likely covered in volcanic ash! If time allows, stop by the Coldwater Lake picnic area to clean up and walk the Birth of a Lake Nature Trail, a half-mile concrete path and boardwalk that is ADA-accessible.
A loop hike is possible by adding Lakes Trail 211 and fully circumnavigating Coldwater Lake. This is best done with a group and a car drop or key exchange, with cars at the South Coldwater trailhead and the Coldwater Lake boat launch. You could walk the shy mile from the boat launch to the South Coldwater trailhead, but it involves a dicey road walk along SR 504, with cars, motorcycles, tour buses and motorhomes blasting by you. Expect about 10 miles and 2,000 feet of cumulative gain.
Note: Dogs are now allowed on this trail on leash only and must stay on the trail.
WTA Pro Tip: If you’re on this hike at the peak of summer heat, pocket some hard candy or mints to keep the saliva flowing between gulps of water. For supper, enjoy an elk burger and berry cobbler with views of the Toutle River at Patty’s Place at 19-Mile House. If you can wait, tell your tummy to hold on for Papa Pete’s Pizza in Castle Rock if your return trip is south, or McMenamins Olympic Club in old downtown Centralia if your return trip is north.