Coldwater LakeThe shimmering waters of the Fjord ripple below ragged, tundra-clad peaks, its waters lined by the stunted forest of the high arctic. The lonely cry of a Loon echoes across from a far shore and, seemingly in answer, a mournful howling sounds from the autumn-tinted copses of alder and wind-blown firs. Where is this rugged wilderness, you ask? Is it some forsaken corner of Alaska, accessible only by the most intrepid of bush pilots? Or is it, perhaps, one of many fjords in the troll-haunted wilderness of Norway, Svalbard, or Iceland? It is, in fact, Coldwater Lake, situated smack dab in our own proverbial backyard; an Arctic paradise created by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.

Coldwater LakeNowhere else in Washington can you find alpine scenery that is accessible on foot for most of the year. Though snow does occasionally blanket the valley, it is often snow-free even in the depths of winter. Every season has its flavor here. Visit in winter and wander through the fields of brown grass, sound muffled by the presence of the snowfields that blanket the high country above, the roar of snow-fed waterfalls breaking the hush of a land in hibernation. In spring, find green shoots springing from the gray earth. Before the flower fields of Rainier have even been freed from the snow, there is lupine blooming and birds nesting along the shores of Coldwater Lake. In fall, the many vine maples turn the rolling meadows crimson, in contrast to the fine dusting of snow that has settled upon St. Helens, Coldwater Peak and the jagged mass of Minnie Peak. Though summer has the appeal of a refreshing swim on a hot day of hiking, the most interesting times to visit Coldwater Lake are the wild seasons of winter, spring and fall, when the tourists have gone, the waters of the lake are quiet and the elk number more than the men.

Despite its appearance of being “old” country, Coldwater is the youngest of natural lakes. It was created when Mt. St. Helens erupted and washed vast amounts of mountain till down the valley, forming not only the fantastic terrain of the hummocks trail across the highway from Coldwater Lake, but also damming Coldwater Creek, thereby bringing Coldwater Lake into existence. Interestingly, the lake level was once higher than it is today. Shortly after the lake formed, the Corps of Engineers raised concerns that the lake might burst and send a flood downstream. They dug an outlet channel for the lake to lower the water level and stabilize the outflow. Today, the only evidence of this past excavation is a small dike near the highway. In recent years, bicycle clubs have pushed to make the lake trail bikeable and companies have opened canoe and kayak tours on summer weekends. But weekdays and off season hiking are still uncrowded and, since no gas motors are allowed on the lake, fishermen are barely noticeable.


Coldwater LakeThe trail starts at the outlet of Coldwater Lake, where the broken crown of Mt. St. Helens is obscured by the rising bulk of South Coldwater Ridge. The typical turnaround on the trail for tourists is the lake access point a mile from the trailhead, but with new surprises around every corner, it would be a shame to end your journey here. In times of high snowmelt, several creeks may be nearly impassable, the icy torrents culminating in a roaring waterfall tucked into a deep cleft in the valley walls and some of the streams must be crossed on logs, while the largest is forded on a high shelf set with stepping stones. After the waterfalls, one must skirt high cliffs plunging to the log-haunted waters below. A final obstacle now lies between you and the sandy beach at the lake’s head: an avalanche chute, the outwash of which often buries the trail beneath many feet of rubble. Once across, it is but a woodland stroll to the lake’s inlet and the junction with the South Coldwater Trail, a total distance of four miles from the trailhead. Here, a suspension bridge crosses the tumbling torrent of Coldwater Creek and continues around the lake, or you can go on towards the upper Coldwater Valley, into the Mt. Margaret Backcountry and the myriad of alpine lakes lurking on the flanks of Whittier Peak.

The Coldwater LakeColdwater Lake Trail continues as a loop, reaching the South Coldwater Ridge after climbing switchbacks at the head of the lake. This part of the Coldwater trail is high enough to be snowy in the spring and may be inaccessible in the winter, requiring a turnaround at the head of the lake. But later in the spring, the rewards of finishing the loop are glimpses of Mt. St. Helens from the high ridge and berries late in the season. There are several old logging machines at the top of the ridge, evidence of the cataclysmic event that took loggers by surprise 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the loop ends a half mile up the highway from the North Coldwater Lake trailhead and, without a car shuttle, requires a short road hike to return to the starting point.

Coldwater Lake is an old friend to me, since I grew up hiking its shores and swimming in its waters. I have seen it change from a barren, dusty, windblown desert to a lush grassland. I have watched the trees erupt along its banks like a slow motion imitation of the exploding mountain that formed its shores, and when the snow has blocked my way into the mountains of the Cascades, I come home to Coldwater and meet the high country here.

Coldwater Lake

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