Summertime finally made its long-awaited debut in the PNW this weekend! We had sunny skies, temps in the 70s and not a drop of rain. To take advantage, we headed north (well, north east) to Mt. St. Helens for some backpacking fun. My cousin Bobby decided to get off the base for the weekend, and drove over from Ft. Lewis to meet up with us.
We decided on June Lake as our camping spot after sort of stumbling upon it online earlier in the week. It’s a gorgeous spot, but for some reason there isn’t a ton of info on it out there and only small blurbs in our hiking books… which is a good thing, that means less people. We also added in a few extra miles by hiking from June Lake to Chocolate Falls after setting up camp.
I also want to note that the photos from this trip are not stellar. I forgot that I had set my ISO to 1600 for some night shooting last week, and forgot to change it. As a result, all of these photos are grainy and noisy.
June Lake (continuing on to Chocolate Falls)
Mt. St. Helens, Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Distance to June Lake from trailhead: 2.8 miles out-and-back
Elevation gain to June Lake: 447 feet
Total hike distance (including loop to Chocolate Falls): 5.73 miles round trip
Total elevation gain (including loop to Chocolate Falls): 1,150 feet
Click map for full GPS data
The hike from the trailhead to June Lake is about 1.4 miles and very little elevation gain. Not much in the way of scenery (aside from a peek or two at the summit), but at least it’s short, so you arrive at the lake in no time. June Lake is situated at about 3200′ on the south side of Mt. St. Helens. This is just about at the treeline, so the terrain is very interesting; lush forest and waterfalls on one side, dry and sandy terrain with small, scrubby vegetation on the other side, and vast, barren lava fields just beyond that.
Hiking in, pretty close to June Lake at this point.
Little baby trees on the dry terrain
The name June “Lake” might be a bit deceiving, it’s actually fairly small, more like a pond (although perfectly clear and still). A giant basalt cliff provides the backdrop for the lake, complete with a dramatic waterfall feeding into it. There are a handful of campsites scattered along the water and further back, but we scored a sweet spot on the water directly in front of the waterfall! We got there at about 2pm and were the first campers to set up. I was pretty shocked by this. I would bet this place gets more popular later in the summer, so it would probably be a good idea to arrive early to claim your spot.
The view from our campsite! For real?!
The water is actually much clearer than that… Buckley had just taken a run through it
After setting up camp we decided to seek out a path over to that waterfall, as we had seen some people over there a little earlier. Well, Paul and Bobby (and Buckley) took one trail and actually made it over. I totally didn’t think they were going to find a trail the way they were going, so took a lower trail and dead-ended. Oh well, at least I got some pictures of the guys over by the fall.
There they are!
Bobby actually took his camera with him over to the fall, so here are some of his:
Looking back at our campsite
And what the heyo are these? Whatever they are, they are everywhere and they hurt!
After returning from waterfall adventures, we set out on another hike to Chocolate Falls, which was about a 3-mile loop from our campsite. This extra bit took us through forests and over some serious lava fields to the falls.
Getting into the rockiness now
After a while, the trail sort of disappears and you are left to navigate the lava fields by making your way from pole to pole. DIY hiking, if you will. I love climbing over rocks, but after miles of it, the ankles and shins really start to scream.
Finding the poles
Just after that ridge, we were suddenly greeted by Mt. St. Helens herself! What a mountain. This is the closest we had ever been to St. Helens. It’s pretty majestic up close.
Mt. Adams peeking over
The rough terrain/heat/sun made it seem like forever (to me anyway), but we finally reached Chocolate Falls. These falls “shut off” every night, and every day around 11:30am they turn back on as the glacier above melts in the daylight. The water picks up a lot of volcanic silt on its way down, which often gives the water a brown, chocolate milk effect. It looked pretty clear when we got there, but it’s a cool spot nonetheless!
Bobby at the top of the falls
Where the water comes from just before diving over the cliff edge
While at the top of the falls, we ran into a family of four that was on their way down after summiting earlier in the day. I chatted for a little bit with them, the dad going on and on about how breathtaking the summit is. He revealed that it was his 11th time summiting, his wife’s 2nd, and his son’s 1st time (he looked to be about 10 or 11 years old I think). I congratulated the son on his first summit and asked him how it was… he looked at me and gave me an “it was okay” shrug. Haha! The dad immediately scolded the boy and informed him that it was, in fact, the time of his life. Perhaps he will appreciate his accomplishment later in life.
Ready to head back
The way back was even more grueling, crossing lava fields with even larger boulders (and hence larger gaps between boulders). At some point I read a trip report that mentioned hikers were left to hop from boulder to boulder in the last stretch… they weren’t kidding! My ankles and feet were sufficiently thrashed upon our return, so we just hung out at camp for the night.
Getting firewood ready
Completely pooped after a full day of hiking and swimming
We brought our usual freeze-dried meals along, but this time we also got to try some Army MREs – Meals Ready-to-Eat – that Bobby was nice enough to bring along. Every pre-packaged meal is 3,000 calories, so you can eat parts of it all day long to sustain. These things are kind of amazing. There is a main entree piece (such as Chili Mac, Beef Stew and Ravioli) and it comes with this crazy little heating bag. You drop the entree into the bag and add a little water, and this thing heats up to boiling to warm the food. Crazy! There are also little packages of cookies, bread, powdered beverages, etc. There is even a little condiment package included with the cutest little 1″ tall bottle of Tobasco. And you know what? The meals don’t taste half bad.
Everything fits into neat little packages
Enjoying our fire, which eventually was roaring
As it got darker, the stars really started to come out. It’s been a really, really long time since we’ve been somewhere where we could see stars like this… the kind where you can just stare at the sky for hours and hours, and even spot the occasional satellite orbiting. It felt pretty good. I tried to take some astro-photos, but my camera is just not equipped for it I don’t think. I left the shutter open for 30 seconds but the photo below is all I could get. If you click on it to make it larger, you can see a little better… but it still doesn’t do it justice.
Tried to capture the stars…
After staring into the sky for so long that my neck ached, we turned in for the night. I have to say, this was the best I’ve ever slept outdoors. I don’t know if it was the rigorous hike, all the sunshine from the day, the white noise of the waterfall, or perhaps the beer (come on, you didn’t think we wouldn’t have beer did you?), but I slept like a rock. Usually when we camp, I inexplicably wake up a good 7 or 8 times during the night and readjust. This time, I woke up twice. Twice! It was amazing. We even got to sleep in later than usual, even Buckley was tuckered out. Here’s what he looks like first thing in the morning:
Once we realized we slept in (oops!), we made breakfast and packed everything up pretty quick so we could attempt to get the Zipcar back in time. I always dread that point in time when the realization that we’re heading back to reality sets in. We bid June Lake and the waterfall adieu and headed out to the car.
On our way back out to the real world
We will totally, absolutely, definitely come back here again. I am still shocked at how alone we were out there, given the gorgeous weekend weather and the easy hike in. Perhaps we will stay here when we inevitably attempt to summit St. Helens…?