Most of the elk have left the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Refuge for the summer — but it’s still a fascinating place for humans to visit.
The 6,500-acre state refuge in the Toutle River Valley is best-known for the elk that congregate there in winter, but the landscape offers an appealing place to walk or ride a horse or mountain bike. Or fish, if you’re adventurous.
Visitors can wander through the odd landscape of grassy hummocks or stroll along the ashy banks of the Toutle, though there are no marked trails. Steep rock faces tower above, and the snowy, chopped-off top of Mount St. Helens looms in the distance.
The refuge is open to the public only from May through November so elk that congregate there in winter won’t be disturbed. Daren Hauswald, who manages the refuge for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he saw 20 to 30 people visiting on recent weekend days, though I didn’t spot another soul on a Sunday.
The easiest entrance to the refuge is via the Weyerhaeuser 3100 road, which intersects Spirit Lake Memorial Highway at milepost 31, about 1 mile east of the big bridge over Hoffstadt Creek. The road is gated, though Weyerhaeuser doesn’t require a permit to use it.
It’s a 1.8-mile walk down the 3100 road, dropping 600 feet in elevation, to a crossing of Bear Creek and an intersection with the 3500 road. You can spot the tube into which adult salmon are dumped into Bear Creek as part of the effort to bring them back to the upper Toutle. Numerous signs remind visitors that dogs are prohibited year-round.
From there, most visitors veer to the left and venture out onto the hummocks, which can be 30 feet tall. Over the years, they’ve greened up and trees have grown bigger. It’s about a half-mile meander down to the wide grey channel of the Toutle River.
You might spot pilings that were installed in 2007 to prevent the river from eroding the bank and thus washing away forage for elk. “Most of them have been doing their job,” Hauswald said of the structures, and more pilings will be installed upstream, probably in 2016.
To extend the visit, head east on the 3500 road, which continues for 3 miles through the refuge to the Mount St. Helen National Volcanic Monument, where entry is prohibited.
From the bottom of the 3100 road, it’s also possible to turn right onto the 3500 and head west. After .7 mile, the road crosses an ashy old bed of the Toutle, then climbs a short slope into brushy terrain.
On one of my early trips to the refuge in the 1990s, a biologist drove us to a lake in this area, and last week I resolved to find it again.
I had a GPS loaded with an aerial photograph that showed the lake, which made route-finding much easier. On the 3500 road .6 mile past the old river bed, there’s a clearing. A open corridor (an abandoned road) leads north for .2 mile to the 4-acre lake.
It’s a nice secluded spot. I disturbed several beavers, which were busy gnawing down trees. Hauswald said the lake reportedly holds crappie, but I couldn’t catch any – vegetation made it hard to cast from shore.
The other lake is about .3 mile to the north but getting there requires a circuitous path to avoid a marshy area. The easiest way to reach it would be via the old Toutle River channel.
The second lake is smaller but has a more accessible shoreline. Little fish were jumping but again I couldn’t hook one.
I saw some elk sign and several skulls but no live elk. Hauswald said the refuge’s summer elk population is likely around 50, about one-quarter as many as in winters.
In cold winters, WDFW has fed the elk in the refuge but that hasn’t been needed since 2008. Last winter, a relatively low 13 dead elk were counted on the refuge. “It was a pretty mild winter,” Hauswald said. “The elk fared pretty well.”