Romano's Ramblings: Kalama River

By renowned hiking guidebook author Craig Romano

Roundtrip: 8.0 miles
Difficulty: moderate
Elevation Gain: 680 feet
High Point: 2700 feet
Best Season: late spring through fall
Trail Notes: Northwest Forest Pass (or Interagency Pass) required.
Trail open to horses and mountain bikes.
Practice leave no trace principles.

Trail Highlights: gorgeous old-growth forest groves, riparian forests, exceptional river views, excellent wildlife habitat, and old lake formed by mudflows

Directions to Trailhead
From Woodland (Exit 21 on I-5) follow SR 503 east for just shy of 28 miles turning left onto FR 81 (turnoff is just before Cougar). Follow this good paved road for 8.9 miles to the Kalama Horse Camp. Proceed .2 mile to day use parking area and trailhead.

The Toutle Trail travels for more than 13 miles through various ecosystems and terrain. But it doesn’t travel along the Toutle River, one of Mount St Helens’ most notorious rivers thanks to the 1980 eruption. This trail travels to and ends at the Toutle where the Loowit Trail makes its harrowing crossing of the river and challenging climb out of its canyon.

The river that the Toutle Trail does meander along—and for nearly four miles—is the Kalama River. The southern and easternmost stretches of this trail is a sheer delight to hike—and a great choice in late spring and fall when snow has descended upon the trail’s northern reaches and much of the surrounding high country. From the Kalama Horse Camp the trail travels alongside the tumbling Kalama River atop bluffs and through impressive stands of old-growth forest. Hike as far as McBride Lake and enjoy a wonderful view of Mount St Helens as well.

There are four trails that begin from the Horse Camp, so make sure you’re on the correct one. Take Toutle Trail no. 238 which starts by dropping to cross a small creek. It then bears left at a junction with the Cinnamon Trail and soon afterward bears right at a junction with the Kalama Ski Trail. Just beyond it reaches the Kalama River in a dark old-growth grove. Named for John Kalama, an Hawaiian (Kanaka) who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Kalama drowned in this Columbia River tributary bearing his name.

The trail travels along the river for about 0.6 mile before climbing via a switchback to a high sandy bluff above it. Here the Kalama Ski Trail meets up with it from the west. Continue hiking east through open forest along the steep and eroded bluff top. At 2.1 miles from your start the Kalama Ski Trail diverts left. You can follow this trail (perfectly walkable when the snow is gone) 1.2 miles to the Goat Marsh Trail—another excellent choice for late spring and late fall rambling.

The Toutle Trail continues east through beautiful old-growth forest groves. Pass a decent campsite and cross an old forest road before meeting back up again with the river. Then enjoy easy and delightful walking with a background score provided by the rippling river. Look for dippers flitting about. And throughout the forest, watch for elk sign—or perhaps even witness these large deer as they are commonly seen in this river valley.

At 3.6 miles from the trailhead the trail comes to another old logging road. You can follow this one left for .3 mile to FR 81 and the start of the Blue Lake Trail allowing for longer excursions and a loop when combined with the Kalama Ski Trail or the upper reaches of the Toutle Trail (which eventually bends north). You want to head right here on the old road and cross the Kalama River. Then pick up the trail again and follow it east passing a handful of campsites.

At 4.0 miles come to the marshy edge of McBride Lake. This small shallow body of water was formed by mudflows damming the Kalama River. However recent mudflows have altered the area once again leaving more of a marsh than a lake. It’s still quite a scenic spot, surrounded by towering primeval forest and wildlife-rich flats. Throughout much of the year a small waterfall tumbles near the lake’s western end. And if the sky is clear, savor a beautiful view of Mount St Helens in the background.

This is a good spot to turn around for a satisfying day hike. But if you want to continue farther, the trail carries on beyond the lake climbing through spectacular ancient forest. It then traverses some old cuts and crosses a series a spring-fed streams making up the river’s headwaters. At 5.7 miles from the trailhead it reaches a junction with the Cinnamon Trail near Red Pass on FR 81. With a car shuttle a one way hike can be arranged—or after the snow melts—if you’re feeling really energetic, you can return to your start via the Cinnamon Trail for a 14.4 mile hike with lots of added elevation gain.

Trail Resources:
Map: Green Trails Mount St Helens 332S
Guidebook: Day Hiking Mount St. Helens by Craig Romano and Aaron Theisen (Mountaineers Books)
Managing Agency: Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument

Side bar
Hiking Responsibly during Covid-19
Tips for safe and healthy hiking during the Covid-19 Pandemic

It’s imperative that we do all we can to curb the outbreak of this disease while out enjoying our parks and trails. We can do that by recreating responsibly by adhering to the following tips and etiquettes.

  •  Avoid crowded hiking destinations. If you arrive and the parking lot is already full, head to another location. Have a second and third choice hike pre-planned.
  • Opt for weekdays over weekends to hit the trail.
  • Hit the trail early in the morning before most folks arrive.
  • Avoid hiking in large groups outside of your family.
  • Practice Social Distancing while on the trail, giving other hikers lots of room to pass and keeping your distance from them at lakes, summits, etc.
  • Wear a mask when encountering others on the trail. A buff or bandanna works well.
  • Pack hand sanitizer.
  • Pack it in pack it out.
  • Don’t be a surface pooper. Learn how to properly poop in the woods by always using privies first if available-or by heading at least 200 feet away from all trails, campsites and water sources and digging a cat hole for your business. Bury your waste and toilet paper or blue bag it and pack it out.
  • Pack out all pet waste.

-Craig Romano, is an award-winning author of more than 25 guidebooks with Mountaineers Books. One of the most prolific trails writers in Washington, he has hiked more than 25,000 miles in the state from the Olympics to the Blues. Visit him at