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Breaking Ground on Independence Pass

Posted by Rachel Wendling at Oct 05, 2021 10:08 PM |

For just over a decade, sections of the Independence Pass trail have been lost to treacherous washouts that prevent hikers from travelling its full length. Now, WTA and partners are working to bring it back.

Independence Pass in Mount St. Helens National Monument traverses high above the shores of Spirit Lake and is part of a wonderful 6.5-mile loop in conjunction with Independence Ridge and the Boundary Trail, and serves as a scenic entry point to the Mount Margaret Backcountry.

But for just over a decade, sections of the Independence Pass trail have been lost to treacherous washouts that prevent hikers from travelling its full length. In some areas, washouts have erased any evidence of the prior trail, and the steep, loose hillside it left behind has proven challenging for trail crews to address.

A view of the steep washout at Independence Pass.
One section of steep, washed out trail along Independence Pass. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.

"Trails in the blast zone lack the tree canopy that protects trails from the elements as well as the root networks that stitch soil together." notes Ryan Ojerio, WTA's southwest regional trails manager. "It is already a loose pumice-based soil type so you have a recipe for washouts that are difficult to repair. "

This summer, trail crews were finally able to make it out on these slopes and get to work on the first of many steps to re-establish a safe and sustainable route through the washouts. WTA teamed up with Mount St. Helens Institute (MSHI) to host three days of volunteer trail work to break ground on repairs. 

WTA and MSHI working to bench and widen a narrow section of trail.
WTA and MSHI worked together to re-bench and widen a narrow section of trail on Independence Pass. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.

The first major project was to stabilize one section of hillside through the installment of gabions — box-shaped wire cages that are filled with heavy rock that serve as erosion control. Our crews hiked in from the Independence Pass Trailhead and split their work creating a wider and more stable surface and continuing on to the gabion to begin filling the pre-installed wire cages with rocks from the surrounding area. Once the re-benching was complete, the Forest Service was able to bring in motorized wheelbarrows (known as toters) to haul in additional rocks and fill out the gabions.

Our remaining two crews worked from the trailhead until just past the junction with Independence Ridge to complete over a mile of maintenance that ranged from tread restoration, brushing back overgrowth and filling up the remaining space in the gabions. We also focused on some additional benching (cutting back into the side of the hill to provide a solid, stable trail tread) past the gabion site. This work is key to keeping the trail corridor wide and open to withstand the feet of future trail workers and hikers, and to be better prepared for future washout events.

Trail workers hiking up to work on the gabion along Independence Pass.
Trail workers hike up along Independence Pass to the site of the partially filled gabion. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.

We are so thankful to be working alongside partners in this effort to build back a key section of trail, making lighter work of tricky trail projects and figuring out the most sustainable way to fill in the missing sections of trail.

"Joining with the Mount St. Helens Institute to host events on the Monument really helps to leverage our resources and expertise," says Ryan. "We bring trail skills while they are experts on the mountain with an extensive volunteer community that are the eyes and the ears out on the trails."

This project was made possible by a funding grant from the National Forest Foundation, and by our fantastic partners at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the Mount St. Helens Institute.

Bringing this trail back into safe hiking shape will be a multi-year effort, but we look forward to fully restoring this stunning hiking loop and access point north of Mount St. Helens. Preserving backcountry access and putting lost trails back on the map is a core goal of our Lost Trails Found campaign. Learn more about our work on lost trails all across the state at