Text by Ken Knittle
Redrock Pass is located in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on the Cowlitz/Skamania County line directly south of Mount St. Helens (DeLorme, page 33). Unfortunately, at this time (December 2009), FR 81 (also known as FR 8100) north from Hwy 503, entered just west of the small town of Cougar, is washed out about 2 1/2 miles short of the pass itself. Also washed out is the junction where FR 8123 heads up to the trailhead for Blue Lake. However, there still is some amazing birding along this road. Hermit Warblers are easily found near the Kalama Horse Camp. Between this camp and the washed out road, great birds have been seen here recently, such as Cowlitz County’s first record for Pine Grosbeak. Other birds are Northern Pygmy-Owl, Gray Jay, and Cassin’s Finch.
Leaving Hwy 503, just west of the small town of Cougar, it is a 13.7 mile drive to Redrock Pass up FR 81 (also known as FR 8100), though, as mentioned, you can no longer get all the way to the pass by this route. But traveling this road will take you through a variety of habitat: from big leaf maple, to Douglas-fir around Lake Merrill, into lodgepole pine forest past the Kalama Horse Camp. From I-5 at the town of Woodland, take Hwy 503 east to FR 81 (FR 8100). Explore Lake Merwin and Yale Lake and stretches of the Lewis River on your way up or as you return. This is great habitat for Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Rufous Hummingbirds, Spotted Sandpipers, and Brown Creepers.
Set your odometer at zero (0.0) when you turn north onto FR 81 (FR 8100), which is just at the western edge of the town of Cougar. Watch your odometer and stop at the pullout at 3.3 miles. This pullout overlooks an old clear-cut, and now has small trees and brush growing, which makes it great habitat for White-crowned Sparrow, Dusky Flycatcher, and Swainson’s Thrush, which breed in the surrounding forest. At 4.7 miles is Lake Merrill Campground. (The campground closes October 1.) Bald eagles and ospreys hunt the fish that venture too close to the surface of the lake. Hooded mergansers hang out in the least disturbed areas of the lake and can usually be seen from the boat dock area. Check in the campground for small breeding birds such as Cedar Waxwing, Vaux’s Swift, Cassin’s Vireo, etc.
Continuing up FR 81 (FR 8100), you will find old-growth trees at Kalama Horse Camp. You are now at 8.7 miles. Red Crossbills are usually abundant here and can be heard and seen from here on up to the top of the pass. Watch the trees for cones where Red Crossbills will be feeding and listen for the distinct call notes (kip-kip) as small flocks fly over the forest canopy. Other forest birds found here and higher up are: Pileated Woodpeckers, Varied Thrush, Vaux’s Swifts, Red-breasted Sapsuckers and Band-tailed Pigeons.
If you want to get all the way to Redrock Pass, take Hwy 503 east past Cougar until it turns into FR 91013 or FR 90 near the Swift Creek Reservoir. Harlequin ducks like the rough water where the Lewis River enters Swift Creek Reservoir near Eagle Cliffs. FR 90 turns north at the reservoir. After a mile or so, turn left onto FR 83 and travel north past Ape Cave until you come to a junction with FR 81. Take 81 to Redrock Pass. Redrock Pass definitely needs exploring. There are trails that go north and south, crossing the graveled road at this point. The trail going south (up the hillside), passes through some nice stands of mature evergreens where Saw-whet Owls respond to imitations of their calls. Northern Pygmy-owls have been heard here also.
Take a short excursion up the trail heading north and you will enjoy magnificent views of Mount St. Helens and the lava fields. In August of 1997, Patrick Sullivan and I had Black Swifts and a Northern Goshawk north of Redrock Pass on this trail. Common Nighthawks are regularly seen in the area and are heard at night and often seen hunting over the forest tree tops during the day. Expect to spend a day exploring this seldom birded area. If you plan to camp here, you will see many areas along the edges of FR 81 (FR 8100) where other campers and hunters have camped. If you are really hungry, you may want to eat at the little restaurant in Cougar, where they think everyone eats like a logger! One reminder: a NW Forest Pass is required to park in and use this national forest.