SEASON: This run is generally good throughout the winter rainy season.
FUN FACT: Check out the recovery of a river innundated by Mt. St. Helens mud flows.
LOGISTICS: From I-5 take exit 49 and head east on Highway 504 toward Mt. St. Helens. To reach the take-out, stay on Highway 504 for 2.0 miles and turn north on Tower Road. Stay left at the Y and in 2.7 miles you will reach the Tower Road Bridge. There is parking and a WDFW river access with ramp on the upstream river left side of the bridge. To reach the put-in head back out to Highway 504 and continue east through the town of Toutle. At Highway 504 mile 11.0 you'll cross the Toutle River. There is limited roadside parking on the upstream left right side of the bridge. A trail heads down to the river on the river left downstream side of the bridge. You can also use Tower Road as a slightly shorter alternate shuttle route along the north side of the river. It joins Highway 504 at mile 13.6 so turn right to head back towards the put-in bridge. Another access option is where Basie Road dead ends at the river. This puts you in downstream of the middle braided section, a good option when flows are low. To reach this access head upstream on Tower Road and 3.2 miles from the take-out bridge you will see the right turn for Basie Road. Follow this road to where it dead ends at the river.
DESCRIPTION: The Toutle is a fascinating river made famous during the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helen's. Pyroclastic flows, together with hot ash melted the snow and ice on the flanks of the mountain and created massive mudflows. The slurry of sediment and trees, along with logging trucks, bridges and household debris traveled at speeds of up to 50 mph along the course of the Toutle River. Aerial photos from the time show the impressive devastation. What's more amazing however is the recovery that has occurred. Although evidence of the eruption remains more than two decades later, the signs are subtle. The most striking feature of the river is the cloudy brown water. Volcanic ash with a sandy consistency is carried down the river and deposited along its banks (photo). This can make reading the river a challenge as rocks just a few inches below the surface are not visible.
The action starts right away with some fun class III rapids that tend to build in intensity through the first mile. The drops are characterized by constrained sections with basalt bedrock walls and large boulders. After the first couple warm up rapids, the first drop with big boulders is Stairsteps (photo) and the next big drop is Tempest in a Teapot both of which rate III+. Most of the drops can be easily boat scouted and there are several fun play spots (photo). While most of the debris is now unidentifiable, you will boat past twisted hunks of metal and timbers from bridges that were carried along by the mud flow.
After a few more fun rapids the action tapers off as you enter a more open alluvial section. Here you'll see sediment and ash deposits on the riparian terraces that are a couple feet thick. Old buried tree stumps are evident in cross sections exposed by the erosive action of the river while young stands of alder have become established on the sediments left by the mud flows. There are a few homes and easy class II rapids through shifting gravel bars that characterize this section. If flows are low or you are looking for a shorter run (4.2 miles to take-out) you can use the alternate access at the end of Basie Road which provides access at the end of this section.
The bedrock walls begin to close in as you approach the most challenging drop on the run. There is a fun section in a short canyon with an easy lead-in rapid before the river approaches an obvious horizon line within Hollywood Gorge. Scouting or portaging along the bedrock ledge on river right is straight forward. The best line through this class IV drop is to start left and then move hard to the right to avoid a hole near the bottom of the drop that extends from the center to the river left wall (photo 1, photo 2).
There is a good recovery section as you emerge from Hollywood Gorge (photo) and then a couple more fun class III drops similar in character to those at the start of the run. You'll pass a few more homes and the river spreads out a final section of gravel bar rapids. As the take-out bridge comes into view there is one final surf wave on river left up against a bedrock wall.
Overall this is a great run with interesting geology. Some may find the middle class II section a little long especially at the lower limit of flows. Those who don't want to run Hollywood Gorge will find a relatively easy portage across bedrock putting this run well within the reach of solid class III paddlers.
lat/long approximated by Tiger map server
for additional information see
Better put in is the Hary Gardner Park on S Toutle Rd. Put in is on the South Fork of the Toutle just upstream of the north and south fork confluence.
The hole at tempest in a teapot is far worse than it looks. Two years ago 2 paddlers on my raft were recirculated in the hole 3-4 times each before flushing out. Yesterday, Sunday February 21, we were running in a large group. We scouted and all decided to run the far left channel to avoid the hole. A very experienced kayaker in the group changed his mind and decided to run the tongue at the left edge of the hole. He thought he was through only to be swept backwards into the hole, and was recirculated until he let go of his IK and flushed out. The IK surfed in the hole until we could send in a tied off swimmer who waded in partway and was able to snag the kayak with a paddle. Next a cat in the group missed the left line and went into the hole. His passenger was thrown free, but he recirculated to the point of exhaustion. The cat surfed in the hole for about a minute before we could get it out. My feeling is eventually someone will drown here. This rapids 3+ rating and fairly straightforward line combined with the fact that the hole is far, far stickier than it looks may lead some who don't know any better (like my group on our 1st trip on the Toutle) to challenge this hole, and someone will drown. Run or line (below 2000cfs it will be too shallow to run) the left channel.
8 years ago
by alan bogner
USGS Toutle at Tower Rd. Look for flows of 1000-2500 cfs for intermediate paddling opportunities. Experienced paddlers could run this river at higher flows.
Permits are not required for this reach.
We have no additional detail on this route.
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Mt. St. Helens
Exit from Hollywood Gorge
surfing on the Toutle
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