There isn’t a natural place with more childhood memories for me than the “bike trail” by Dalton Lake. It’s where my father and I used to go running twice a week when I was in elementary school, the spot we found my first rubber boa, the hill where my soccer team trained, the woods I visited with my girlfriend when we wanted to get away from people, and the area I planned my Eagle Project when I was an Eagle Scout Candidate. For many St. Helens kids it’s the most easily accessible bit of nature they can visit without worry of being chased off. As short and developed as it is, I love this trail.
Though less than a mile long, the paved portion of the bike trail has charms. It’s normal to see newts, garter snakes, and blacktail deer crossing the trail as you hike or bike.
Just before the end of the trail, a dirt road (with a gate blocking motor traffic) appears on the river side of the path.
By getting off the beaten path you give yourself a better chance to see animals, but you also have to work harder for it as they’ll be hiding. Several species of salamanders and snakes (all of them harmless) frequent the vegetation along the road.
The road crosses an outlet creek, comes within sight of the Columbia River, and then brings you right up to Dalton Lake.
Dalton Lake is full of life. Nesting great blue herons often fill up the surrounding trees and once I saw wintering swans so thick in the water that the lake appeared white from a distance. If you’re especially lucky you might see an otter! Bob Thiessen, a member of the Friends of Dalton Lake Nature Preserve, was gracious enough to provide some of the photos he’s taken of wildlife in the lake
(© Bob Thiessen for all above photos)
One reason this shallow lake isn’t taken over by surrounding vegetation is the constant work of the local beavers. They’re active enough that it’s surprising any trees grow near the lake at all.
Unfortunately, there are some difficulties with invasive species. Bullfrogs line the shores (having almost completely displaced the native red-legged frogs), and nutria burrow into the banks. Much of the vegetation from ivy to blackberries to Scottish broom is foreign in origin. There are hopes to address at least some of the invasive vegetation, though I don’t know of any plans to control the nutria or bullfrogs.
In 2019, the city of St. Helens, St. Helens Parks and Trails Commission, and ODOT officially designated the area around Dalton Lake as the “Dalton Lake Nature Preserve”, thanks to the tireless work of several St. Helens residents. Plans for the area include kiosks, trail signs, plant identifier signs, interpretive markers, viewing platforms, bird blinds, and swallow and bat houses.
Dalton Lake Nature Preserve at a glance
What: Walking, biking, lake, wildlife viewing, birdwatching
Where: The trailhead is at the parking lot of the Columbia Humane Society at 2084 Oregon St, St Helens (45.87327,-122.81397). Look to the left of the building for the paved trail, don’t go up into the mobile home lot. Below we’ve done the driving directions in blue and a very rough trail map in red.
Hiking: About 1.5 miles of trail split between wide asphalt bike trail, dirt road for walking lake access, and some narrow dirt trails.
Notable Wildlife: Beaver, nutria, muskrat, otter, herons, waterfowl, woodpeckers, warblers, garter snakes, salamanders, treefrogs
Property status: Oregon Department of Transportation