Backcountry Rise

  • Date: August 20, 2017
  • Location: Mount Margaret Backcountry
  • Start: Coldwater Lake Boat Launch (actual race begins at Mount St Helens Science and Learning Center)
  • Distance: 31.2 miles (may vary slightly if starting from boat launch)
  • Duration: 7 hours 59 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Elevation gain: 7500 feet
  • Type: Loop
  • Map: Green Trails Map 332S: Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument (or go to race website)
  • References: Daybreak Racing

This year has been the start of our love affair with ultrarunning. Since last October, Mack and I have run the entirety of Forest Park’s Wildwood Trail (30.2 miles) twice, the McKenzie River Trail (26.4 miles), and two 50K races (three for Mack!). When Jeremy Long, owner of Daybreak Racing and creator/director of the Tillamook Burn (my first 50K!), announced his brand new race that goes right through the heart of the Mount Margaret Backcountry, I didn’t think twice before signing up. Not only would I get to do some serious trail running near my hometown volcano, Mount St Helens, but I would finally get to explore an area that’s been on my bucket list since we started getting outdoors more. Ironically, I always thought we’d be backpacking the area. Instead, we’d be running through it all in one long, strenuous day. Our jam-packed summer schedule has made it difficult to find a time to run the course prior to race day. After a few failed attempts to do so, we finally made it out for an exploratory/training run last weekend.

One of the reasons for our failed attempts was our inability to drag ourselves out of bed to drive out to Mount St Helens. This time, we drove out the night before and slept in the car down the road from the Coldwater Lake Boat Launch. Problem solved! We still didn’t get the early start we hoped for, but at least we only had to drive two minutes to the boat launch. By 7:20 am, we were making our way along Coldwater Lake on the first of two main trails this route uses: Lakes Trail. I’d been under the impression that the entirety of the course would be dry and exposed, but the first 4.5-5 miles are quite the opposite! Since this section runs along the shore, it’s cool, well shaded, and there are several small creeks that cross it. It’s also pretty flat, with only a few small ups and downs. The lake was still clear of visitors this early in the morning. The calm, stillness of the water was soothing and made me feel a little less anxious about the tough miles that lay ahead. Simultaneously, the jagged ridgeline and peaks in the distance filled me with excitement and wonder. Soon we’d be somewhere up there.

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Coldwater Lake

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Minnie Peak on the left
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Nearing the end of the Coldwater Lake section

After the junction with Coldwater Trail, the route parallels Coldwater Creek, climbing higher and higher to reach one of the crown jewels of the entire course, the alpine lakes for which the trail is named. We definitely ended up power hiking a good portion of this relentless hill. Despite being one of the longer and steeper climbs of the day, the views more than made up for it. Mack and I also found signs of wildlife on the trail, including bear scat and numerous cougar tracks. We kept our eyes and ears alert as we ran. Nothing like apex predators around to keep you moving!

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The neverending climb

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Looking out on Coldwater Creek

At the top of the first big climb, we were rewarded not only with more spectacular views, but also with the biggest, juiciest, most delicious huckleberries we’ve ever tasted! Result of the heavy snow year maybe? Either way it was the perfect treat following all that elevation gain. We’ve already made plans to come back next August solely to do some huckleberry picking (and maybe a little running). A short ways up we were rewarded yet again with the first stunning alpine lake of the day, Snow Lake, as well as some wild strawberries, something I rarely see or taste. Less than 10 miles into the course and I was already floored by the incredible beauty (and tastiness) of it all! Little did I know how much better it would get as we continued.

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A short lived flatter section after the big climb
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So many huckleberries!
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Snow Lake
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The wild strawberries might’ve outdone the huckleberries!
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One last look at Snow Lake

After gaining the ridge above Snow Lake and passing the junction with Whittier Ridge Trail, we feasted our eyes on the next showstopper, Shovel Lake. We got an even better view once we reached the section of ridgeline between Shovel and Panhandle Lake. Look down to your right and take in the gorgeousness of Shovel, then point your gaze straight ahead to Panhandle (and Mount Adams on the horizon). One of the best two-for-one deals you can get on a trail run!

Following the descent of the ridge, the terrain became more difficult. There weren’t any significant climbs besides the short ascents out of the basins containing Panhandle Lake and, a little later, Obscurity Lake. In fact, from looking at the elevation profile on the website, I thought we’d be flying through this section. However, the overgrown portions of an already narrow trail became our nemesis. Rather than running, we were bush whacking and tiptoeing over loose rocks and along precarious drop-offs obscured by the dense vegetation. It wasn’t like this the entire way through, but we were both a little frustrated that we couldn’t move faster. The scenery was stunning as ever though. After climbing up from Grizzly Lake, we stopped to rest and reset at Bear Pass, soaking in the first views of Mount St Helens and Spirit Lake while munching on Goldfish crackers and Honeystinger waffles. Still 15+ miles left…

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View of Shovel Lake after climbing above Snow Lake
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Shovel Lake with Whittier Ridge in the back

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Panhandle Lake
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Obscurity Lake
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Mount St Helens and Spirit Lake from Bear Pass

We were now on the Boundary Trail, the second main trail of the course. The next eight or so miles between Bear Pass and the junction with Harry’s Ridge were my absolute favorite. The trail was no longer overgrown, so we were finally able to pick up our pace despite a few climbs here and there. The surrounding hillsides exhibited remnants of the devastating 1980 eruption, but, more so than that, displayed an abundance of new life. Young firs dotted the landscape amidst the felled trees of the blast zone and wildflowers carpeted the grassy slopes. The trail wound its way along the exposed ridge. Incredible views of Mount St Helens and Spirit Lake, as well as a few of the peaks along Boundary (Mount Margaret, the Dome, and Coldwater Peak), made for an exceptionally scenic section. I never thought ‘vibrant’ would be my word of choice to describe the area that took the brunt of the blast during the eruption, but it’s the first word that came to mind.

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We knew we were nearing the end of this section once Saint Helens Lake, situated in a small basin below Coldwater Peak, came into view from the trail. It was a relief knowing that we only had around 11 miles left after the junction with Coldwater Peak, but I was sad to see us leaving behind the endless sea of rolling green hills and wildflower meadows. Saint Helens Lake was also the final lake we’d pass on the route (with the exception of Coldwater Lake, the start and end for the day). The view of the lake and the mountain side by side was one of my favorites of the day. After passing the junction with Coldwater Lake Trail, we continued up and over the Arch and descended to the junction with Harry’s Ridge, looking ahead at Johnston Ridge Observatory, less than four miles away.

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Saint Helens Lake, Coldwater Peak, and the Dome in the distance

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Approaching Saint Helens Lake

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Mount St Helens and Saint Helens Lake

The final miles were the hottest and dustiest of the entire course, passing through the Spillover and running along Johnston Ridge. The hills and meadows of the Mount Margaret Backcountry were replaced with a very different landscape, the barren Pumice Plain between the mountain and the ridge. In addition to the contrasting scenery, the solitude we’d experienced all day had now been replaced with crowds the closer we got to the observatory. Fortunately, the numbers dissipated after we passed the observatory and the Loowit viewpoint. Unfortunately, though, we both realized we were completely out of water with another four miles to go.

Running beneath the hot sun in a completely exposed section didn’t help matters, but at least it was downhill to the Hummocks Trailhead. Despite not having to climb any big hills or bushwhack near precarious drop-offs, these final miles were the most difficult for us, especially combined with heat, dehydration, and hunger. I was so thirsty that I ended up walking the most runnable sections–including the final bit between Hummocks Trailhead and the boat launch–because I didn’t want to make myself more parched than I already was. The first thing we did when we got back to the car was crack open two cans of seltzer water and down them both within a few seconds. Once I had cooled off and rehydrated, I could finally savor the fact that I’d just completed my first 70+ mile running week (after two and a half weeks of not running) with the most difficult (and most beautiful) course I’ve ever run. It had been a long and trying day, but Mack and I were now even more excited about Backcountry Rise. I imagine it will be one we come back to run year after year.

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Can you spot me?
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Loowit Viewpoint

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