Silver Star Mountain, Loowit Falls trails among forest highlights

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter




GETTING THERE: (Silver Star) From Sunset campground northeast of Battle Ground, follow Gifford Pinchot road No. 41 for four miles to the junction with No. 4109. Pay attention; this turn is easy to miss when driving east. Make a hard right turn at the junction, and a sign identifying the road as No. 4109 is visible.

Road No. 4109 drops to cross Copper Creek then climbs four miles to the trail head at road’s end.

WARNING: Road Nos. 41 and 4109 are passable for cars, but a truck or anything with a higher clearance is recommended due to the number of ruts and potholes.

GETTING THERE: (Loowit Falls) Follow Gifford Pinchot road No. 90 to the junction with road No. 25 near Pine Creek Information Station at the head of Swift Reservoir. Take road No. 25 north for 25 miles to the well-marked junction with road No. 99. Take road No. 99 for 16 miles to its end at the Windy Ridge parking lot.

Paintbrush, penstemon, phlox, balsamroot, lupine, columbine, glacier lilies -- these colorful, showy wildflowers are the delights of the high country.

Combine them with waterfalls, glacial peaks, sprawling forests, sparkling lakes, rocky outcrops and panoramic views, and it’s no wonder that bookstore shelves are lined with dozens of hiking guidebooks.

The 1.3-million-acre Gifford Pinchot National Forest has hundreds of miles of trails through the high country of Southwest Washington.

Straddling the crest of the Cascade Mountains from Mount Rainier south to the Columbia River, the Pinchot forest has six wilderness areas and a chunk of a seventh.

There’s an active volcano in Mount St. Helens, a sleeping volcano in Mount Adams and the remnants of an ancient volcano in the Goat Rocks. There’s majestic old-growth in Trapper Creek Wilderness and grand meadows in Indian Heaven Wilderness.

There are so many trails to tell about. As a sampler, here are two in the Gifford Pinchot to explore once the snow melts in summer:

Silver Star Mountain: Nestled in the southwest corner of the Pinchot, Silver Star Mountain is very unlike most of the backcountry on the west side of the Cascades.

Burned by the Yacolt fire of 1902, plus a later fire, the 4,382-foot peak and its surrounding terrain is mostly treeless.

Instead, Silver Star is a wonderful mix of steep ridges, cliffs, talus slopes, upland meadows and an amazing diversity of wildflowers. It is a great early July alternative while waiting for the high country of Mount Adams and the Goat Rocks to melt out.

“The variety and profusion of tiger lilies, penstemon, phlox, avalanche lilies and columbine present a tapestry of color equal to and found in the national parks of the Pacific Northwest,’’ according to the late Nicholas Dodge in his 1987 “Silver Star Mountain A Short History and Plant List.’’

Add to the flowers lots of lupine, paintbrush and beargrass.

The easiest route to the summit of Silver Star Mountain is from the trail head on Gifford Pinchot road No. 4109. It’s about 1,200 feet of elevation gain using the Silver Star and Ed’s trails.

Silver Star trail No. 180 is what’s left of the former road to the summit. Skamania County had a radio repeater on top of Silver Star decades ago.

Ed’s trail No. 180A parallels the Silver Star trail, but takes a much more scenic route through hanging meadows, under rocky bluffs and through a rock arch high on the side of the Star Creek drainage.

From trail head to summit is 2.5 miles. The steepness of the terrain and the windy nature of the ridges make it a relatively bug-free hike.

Loowit Falls: It seems strange to find such an impressive waterfall in the middle of the blast zone on the north side of Mount St. Helens.

And while it’s a long drive (almost three hours) from the metro area to the trail head at Windy Ridge viewpoint, the hike to Loowit Falls is pretty mellow.

From Windy Ridge, elevation 3,841, the climb to the Loowit Falls viewpoint is only 741 vertical feet to elevation 4,582.

The hike begins at the popular viewpoint at the end of road No. 99. A Northwest Forest Pass is needed, or a $5 day-use fee can be paid at the parking lot.

The walk begins on Truman trail No. 207, which is the remnant of a former road.

At 1.79 miles, the road-trail junctions with Abraham trail No. 216D and with Windy trail No. 216E at 2.09 miles.

Take Windy No. 216E for 0.82 miles to the junction with Loowit trail No. 216 at 2.91 miles. Turn right on Loowit No. 216 and pass Loowit Spring at 3.25 miles, reaching the side trail to Loowit Falls at 3.88 miles.

The side trail climbs almost 300 feet in elevation in 0.64 mile to a viewpoint of the falls.

While much of the north side of Mount St. Helens retains the moonscape look, the recovery after 30-plus years is evident. The transition from gray to green is everywhere.

Springs are playing a huge role, with their willow- and alder-lined channels full of amphibians, birds and small mammals. Lupine, with its showy blue flower, is beginning to dominate in areas.