Socked in at Vanson Lake

This past weekend Christine and I met our friends Nate and Sam for some camping and hiking near Mt St Helens. We met Friday night at a public campground with the goal of hiking Saturday up to Vanson Lake, camping there,and hiking around the area. On the map the area looked like it had many possibilties with many small lakes and potentially good views to the south and into the Mt St Helens crater.

The Vanson Lake Trailhead is a challenge to get to. You have to drive about 20 miles(over an hour)on logging roads, most of which are private and not very well mapped. Our guidebook had limited directions and the road numbers were often missing or disagreed with the numbers printed on our maps. Luckily I had a new GPS with detailed topo maps of the area and it helped out greatly. The most frustrating and also humorous part of getting lost on these logging roads was finding both sides of a locked gate — why lock the gate if both sides are freely accessible? One benefit of traversing this maze of logging roads was the promise of solitude, not many folks seemed to get this deep into the forest. This is unusual for an area just a couple of hours from both Seattle and Portland.

We got to the trailhead around 11:30 and started the hike in. The weather was chilly (around 45F)and damp, but there were hints that the clouds were lifting or burning off. The trail started in very nice forest, it appeared to be second growth but wasn’t too thick with underbrush. At about half a mile into the trail we started to see snow. I was expecting snow at some of the higher elevations (maybe near Vanson Peak), but it what remained appeared to be at the lower elevations.Luckily none of it was too deep and it was pretty easy to follow where the trail ran underneath it.

We pretty quickly reached Vanson Lake and found the best (and I think only) camping area. It was even chillier here than at the trailhead and damp, the clouds were just above us. The lake was small and beautiful. The camping area was next to one of the streams that feeds the lake and had three or four good tent spots and a couple of old fire rings. Christine and Sam were chilly, so we set up the tents so they could hang out in the warmth of their sleeping bags. Nate and I made some lunch and then hiked to the top of Vanson Peak (700 feet higher) to see if there were any signs of the clouds lifting. The trail up to Vanson Peak was nice with no snow (odd that the last snow was at lower elevation) and tons of wildflowers. Unfortunately the visibility was terrible. The trail sides were steep and dropped away quickly, it looked like there would be some wonderful views.

When we returned to the camp we found that the clouds were dropping and rolling in above the lake. It was incredibly beautiful, but not helping Sam and Christine get any warmer or lifting their spirits. We decided that the fog had won,so we packed up and hiked out.

On the way down the logging roads we looked for potential places to camp instead of going back to the campground. The best candidate was on an open bluff with nice views looking down to Riffe Lake. There was a stream to gather water from nearby,but it was covered in brush and completely inaccessible. So we ended up back at the campground, one spot over from the one we had stayed at on Friday.

It was a good weekend, even though it didn’t go as planned. There was a little disappointment at not actually camping at Vanson Lake and missing out on the great views that were hiding behind the clouds. On the other hand it was really fun to see Nate and Sam and to spend some time in the woods with them. I’d love to explore this area some more and even hike up there again. It area might be a good candidate for some weekend bicycle touring/exploration. The views from the the logging roads looking south to Mt St Helens reminded me of my bike tour in the region a year ago, just about 15 to 20 miles south of this point.


  1. Apertome says:

    Incredible photos and a great writeup. Looks like quite a trip — I need to visit that area someday, it’’s absolutely breathtaking.

  2. Alex,

    I just stumbled across your site and I”m glad I did. Great photos here. I love these kind of places. Beautiful!

    Where are you going next?