Each time I venture to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in the South Cascades of Washington state, I am simply amazed at the beauty of the country. In this region, not only are you are surrounded by four major peaks of the Cascade Mountains (Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood), there is an extensive variety of terrain ranging from deep valleys and canyons to exposed buttes and cliffs, alpine meadows to old growth forests, and of course, the Mt. St. Helens blast zone. I could easily spend days or even weeks just exploring the region.
With that in mind, I decided to host a Backroad Drivers Northwest tour in the area just south of Randle, Washington. This region is an area which I am fairly familiar with having spent a lot of time hunting, camping and exploring with my father while growing up. The tour would follow one of my favorite routes in the area, Forest Road 77 from the Burley Mountain Lookout along the ridge past Pinto Rock and Mosquito Meadows. From Mosquito Meadows, we would would take FS 99 to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint at Mt. St. Helens and follow FS 26 back to Randle.
Since I got an early start that morning, I stopped by Lake Scanewa near Glenoma, Washington to take photos of the sunrise. Instead of a nice sunrise, I was met by fog and no spectacular sunrise. I figured that there wouldn’t be that much traffic at the boat launch but I was wrong. Not only were there people launching their boats to go fishing, I was surprised to see hunters loading up in their boats and slowly cruising the far shoreline for deer (this day was the opening day of general buck season in the area). After what photos I could take, I drove down to the Cowlitz Falls Dam viewpoint and shot a few photos of the Cowlitz River below the dam.
Once I was finished taking photos, I headed for the meeting place for the day’s trip at the Mt Adams Cafe in Randle. When I arrived at the cafe, I was met by Rubicon Rich and his friend Michael from Vancouver, Washington (driving Rich’s Jeep TJ Rubicon). We were shortly joined by Kelly from Eatonville, Washington (driving his Jeep JK Wrangler). After a hearty breakfast, we headed out from the cafe about 9:15.
From US Highway 12 in Randle, we headed South on State Route 131 (also known as Woods Creek Road) until it turns into Forest Road 25. We passed by the swamps near Woods Creek, then followed the Cispus River past Iron Creek Campground and turned left (East) on FS-76 which follows the river. In about 3.5 miles, we turned right (South) on FS-77 and began the climb towards Burley Mountain.
FS 77 is a nice paved forest service road for the first 7.5 miles and then turns to a well maintained gravel road. After about 4.5 miles of gravel, we reached a 4-way intersection. To the right is FS 77, straight ahead is a dead end road and to the left (North) is FS 7605 which leads to the Burley Mountain Lookout. In less than 3 miles, there is a junction to the right with FS 7605-086 which leads to Burley Mountain (if you continue on FS 7605, it will take you back to FS 77 near the Cispus River).
From the turn off on FS 7605-086, it is about a mile to the summit of the lookout. If the gate is not open there is a parking area and you can walk the rest of the way to the lookout. As usual, the gate was open and we continued on towards the summit. Just before the summit, there is an 180 degree switchback where there is room to park. There is another spot to park just before the lookout as well as room for two or three vehicles at the summit.
The Burley Mountain Lookout (elevation 5310 feet) is one of the few operational fire lookouts in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. I’m not sure if they actually staff the lookout during the fire season, but the lookout building appeared to be well stocked and recently inhabited.
When we reached the summit of Burley Mountain, there was already a Ford F350 (which we would meet up later in the day) and a Jeep Wrangler parked there. Kelly drove his Jeep to the summit while I parked my Land Cruiser just downhill and Rich parked his Jeep at the last switchback.
We were lucky today because the weather cooperated 99% for this trip. Clear blue skies allowed for excellent viewing and photo opportunities of Mt Rainier, Mt. St. Helens and Goat Rocks. Mt. Adams was also clear, however the angle of the sun prevented very good pictures. Mt. Hood in Oregon was not visible during our visit.
After spending some time taking photos and taking in the awesome views, it was time to continue on with our adventure. Once back to the the four-way intersection we passed earlier, we traveled straight through the intersection (South) on FS 77 where the road turns to dirt and pumice and basically follows the ridge. After climbing on the native surface road, the area opens up into huckleberry meadows as it winds along the ridge. If I recall correctly from stories I heard growing up, this area had a major fire in the early part of the 20th century (1940′s ?) and the timber never grew back, resulting in the open meadows.
FS 77 continues in a southerly direction crossing back and forth on both sides of the ridge, with views of Mt Rainier, Goat Rocks, Mt Adams and Mt St Helens. Along the way, FS 77 passes by several prominent rock out croppings including French Butte and Pinto Rock. From Pinto Rock, FS 77 descends into the Mosquito Meadows area and eventually meets up with FS-28 where we headed to the right (West) for a short trip back to FS-25.
Once we were back on FS-25, we headed right (North) a short distance until we reached the junction of FS 99 where we turned left (West) and followed the sign to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint at Mt. St. Helens. After stopping at nearly every viewpoint to take in the views of the blast zone the mountain and take photos (thanks Rich and Michael for putting up with Kelly and myself) we eventually reached the Windy Ridge Viewpoint at Mt. St. Helens and the Spirit Lake overlook.
During our visit, the mountain was partially obscured by clouds but we could clearly see a steam plume from the crater. Because of the position of the sun, photos of Mt. St. Helens were a little difficult to take without special filters. Either way, the views were great. For this trip, I brought along a spotting scope which allowed for very close up views of the Mt. St. Helens, Spirit Lake, Johnson Ridge and the surrounding country.
My original plan for the trip was to follow FS 26 back to the Woods Creek area to FS 25 and bypass taking FS 99. The forest service website listed FS 26 as being closed but with past experience, what is listed on the forest service websites and what is reality can be two different things. After saying our farewells to Rich and Michael who were taking FS 25 south past Cougar, Washington back to their home in Vancouver, Kelly and I headed down FS 26 to see how far we could drive.
We were able to drive all the way to the Norway Pass trailhead where we were met by a road closed sign. Driving past the sign, there was a pair of concrete barriers that previously blocked the road. Someone had apparently pushed one out of the way and onto its side just enough to drive one wheel onto the barrier and make the passage (a four wheel drive is required).
A short distance later, we encountered the first of two obstacles and the obvious reason the road was closed. Ahead of us was the Ford F350 we had met up earlier on top of Burley Mountain. They were stopped at the washout and had spotted a small herd of elk on the distant hill side, undetectable by the human eye (at least mine). All of the roadbed was nearly completely washed out by by last Fall’s floods. Luckily, the washout paralleled the road and one side of the bank along the road was intact which provided a not too difficult bypass.
In about another 1/4 mile, there was section of road that was blocked by a slide. Again, somebody got creative and created a path through the washout complete with rocks and logs built up so a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle could pass over the largest downed log. This ended up being the last obstacle all the way to FS 25.
As Kelly and I made our way back to FS 25, we made several stops for photos of the fall colors that was throughout the Quartz Creek valley. At the time of our trip, the local vine maple was in full glory in its fall colors.
Once back on FS 25, I stopped at the Woods Creek Wildlife Viewing Area for a final rest stop for me and my dog while Kelly headed home to Eatonville.
We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful Fall day – blue skies and warm weather. I want to thank Kelly, Rich and Michael for the good company for the days trip. I’ve now driven this route three years in a row and it seems to have become a perennial favorite of mine. With that said, I’ll probably be back next year for another round.
To see all the photos of this trip, please visit Burley Mountain Lookout to Mt St Helens 10.13.07.