Forest Service studies new trails, campgrounds for Mount St. Helens

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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The Forest Service is studying the possibility of adding one or two campgrounds and two trails at Mount St. Helens including a new climbing route on the north side of the volcano.

“We think this is a pretty exciting opportunity,’’ said Lisa Romano, community engagement specialist for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

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Plans call for starting the environmental review this summer on a trail that departs from Loowit trail No. 216 and climbs to the Sugar Bowl, a rim at about 6,800-feet elevation on the northeast side of Mount St. Helens.

Although the trail would not go to the summit, “you’d be able to look right into the crater,’’ said Gary Walker, lead climbing and trails ranger, for the monument.

The shortest access to the Loowit-Sugar Bowl trail would be from the parking lot at Windy Ridge on the east of side of the mountain.

Romano said Sugar Bowl would be about a 10-mile round trip from Windy Ridge.

“Construction would be pretty easy,’’ she said. “There’s not much vegetation to remove. You’d have to put in posts marking the route and scrape the trail into the ground.’’

Climbing on Mount St. Helens has been done only from the south side since the summit reopened in 1982. The number of climbers is limited during summer.

A northern route high on the mountain would need to become part of the permit system, she added.

Ideally, construction on the trail could begin as early as summer of 2013.

The second trail would begin near the Ape Cave on the south side of the peak and use a former logging road to climb about a mile to a viewpoint of Mount St. Helens.

“There’s no view of Mount St. Helens from the Ape Cave,’’ Romano said. “This would give a fuller experience.’’

Vegetation at the summit would be cleared. Work on this trail might begin this fall.

Construction of a parking lot for 20 to 30 cars near the viewpoint also is envisioned to make views available to visitors who choose not to hike.

Locations are being analyzed for two proposed campgrounds near the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater, the new name for the former Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center.

The Forest Service wants an overnight facility near the Science and Learning Center as a means for visitors to extend their stays and for research and education groups participating in multi-day programs.

Now, most visitors drive up state Highway 504, visit Johnston Ridge Observatory for a couple of hours, maybe hike a trail, then leave for their next destination.

The vision is for longer stays on the mountain, including guided hikes, education programs or evening offerings.

But they need a place to spend the night.

Romano said the terrain does not make locating campground sites easy.

“There’s not a whole lot of flat ground out there,’’ she said. “We’ve identified a few places where a small campground might fit.’’

A rustic, public campground west of the Science and Learning Center might be possible, Romano said.

The sites would be small, with no electricity, toilets without running water and no campfires.

“It could be kind of a harsh environment, which is typical of the landscape,’’ she said.

The second campground would be northeast of the Coldwater center parking lot. Four pods each able to accommodate about 25 in group setting is under consideration.

There might be semi-permanent tent cabins with a shared kitchen and gathering space.

The campground would be ideal for educators bringing groups of undergraduates for field study and use of the Coldwater learning center.

Both campgrounds would be within easy walking distance of the center.

“We’re still working on the feasibility study,’’ Romano said. “We’ll know more in a few months.’’