A wonderful hike that takes in amazing views and panoramas of Mount Saint Helens and Spirit Lake. All within Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument.
After two months of tremors, small earthquake swarms, and seismic activity, on Sunday, May 18, 1980, strong earthquake finally shook the mountain hard enough that the north face slide away. Pent up pressure released the volcano to fully erupt into pyroclastic flows, with thick, hot, chunks of the mountain blown into air and surrounding valley.
A mile high column of ash rose into the sky. Despite evacuations and the remote location of Mt. Saint Helens, 57 people lost their lives. The landscape was altered as miles of the surrounding forest were blown over and the Toutle River filled with ash and debris all the way down to the Columbia River in Oregon.
Mount Saint Helens National Monument
Over 40 years later, the area around the mountain has been set aside as a national monument. Taking some time to explore this altered landscape is well worth the 50 mile drive in from Castle Rock, WA, on Interstate 5. Because the roads around the mountain and the original river bed were buried, a new road was built, complete with spectacular bridges. When driving in, the top of the crater is visible in ever increasing size.
At the end of the new road is Johnston Observatory, named for David A. Johnston, a geologist who was camped on the ridge when the eruption began. His radio call, “Vancouver. Vancouver. This is it!” alerted scientists studying the mountain that the eruption had begun.
The massive concrete bunker built near the site of his observation post now bears his name. It serves as a data collection point, a visitor’s center, and the trailhead for hikers headed out the pumice plain or Harry’s Ridge.
For a first-time visitor, the beginning of the hike toward out along Johnston Ridge can be stunning. This is not a typical landscape. Even after hiking in this area for over twenty years, I am still brought up short at the power of the earth’s forces. The large stands of tress are gone, with even today, fragments of the forest that was blown over peaking out under the new growth. The growing glacier in the crater’s center feeds rushing water directly into the new channel of the Toutle River.
The best time to start is as early in the morning as I can manage. By mid-May, the flowers are starting to bloom and the visitor’s center becomes a bustling hub. There is a large parking lot that fills quickly after about 10:00 am. My goal is to get started by 8:00 am. There are hardly any people out on the trails this early. The wildlife is more active earlier in the day, too.
The most common flowering plant in the early season is Paintbrush. This common western plant flourishes in disturbed ground with lots of sunshine, so it blankets the entire area. It doesn’t need rich or thick soil, and it was one of the first flowers to reestablish itself after the eruption. It is able to pull nitrogen from the roots of lupine, a plant that fixes nitrogen into the soil.
The two are often growing intertwined with each other, enriching the ground over time. Other flowers, shrubs, and trees can follow after and grow in the ash.
Because the area is so open, on clear days there are wide open blue skies. The trail out along Johnston Ridge connects to Boundary Trail 1, which makes a wide circuit of the mountain. Trails are easy to follow and clearly marked with distances to several destinations.
About two miles out, I usually take the upper fork of the trail back towards Coldwater Lake, and my favorite lunch spot, Harry’s Ridge. This out and back hike is a total of 8.5 miles.
Treading on Ash
The trails are easy to follow because the ash that fell from the mountains is a light gray color. In a strong wind, the ash does get picked up, so I keep a spare bandana just in case the weather changes during the day. The ash cushions the underlying rock, so walking is relatively soft. Each footfall creates a little “floof” of ash. My boots and legs are quickly covered with a thin layer of gray.
The ash also reflects sunlight pretty efficiently, so I use lots of sunscreen, and reapply at regular intervals. I forgot to put sunscreen below my chin and under my nose only once. That sneaky sunburn ensured I’m extra careful now. A brimmed hat and sunglasses are a good idea, too.
Left Fork to Harry’s Ridge
The first time the trail splits, about a mile and a half in, I can choose to go down onto the pumice plain or climb over and up to Harry’s Ridge. Early in the season, Harry’s Ridge is my choice because the flowers make a stunning carpet of color.
Even in the rockiest, ashiest places, there are lupine and paintbrush. The Boundary Trail crosses through a series of hummocks, conical piles of material from the interior of the mountain that were deposited across the valley during the eruption.
Just past the hummocks is one of my favorite views of the mountain. The pumice plain rolls out below the crater, waterfalls from the glacier sparkle in the morning sunlight, and the flowers frame the vista.
There is more animal life on this section of the trail, too, as the area was a little more protected from the blast. The Cascade Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel is easy to spot here. They have a limited range, so it is an extra treat to get to watch them. They are quite active during the day, and though wary of people, they don’t get too bothered by people on the trails. If I sit still, they will busily go about their day without paying attention to me.
Elk and deer have re-established themselves in the area. They are not often found on the ridgelines during the day, but there are plenty of tracks to show they have come through during the night.
Elk tracks are the width of my hand, reminding me that I probably don’t want to meet one unexpectedly anyway. With binoculars, I can usually spot them in the lower end of the valley, where the Toutle River drainage heads off to the east.
At the base of Mount Saint Helens, there is a lake that moved. When the landslide hit it, the water was pushed up the opposing ridge, and then settled back into its former basin, elevated 200 feet on top of materials carried in the landslide.
Favorite destinations along the lake, like Spirit Lake Lodge, Mt. St. Helens Lodge, the Boy Scout camp and the Girl Scout camp were all buried. The trees that were captured in the giant wave created when the lake was pushed up the ridge settled back on the surface of the lake, and a floating “raft” of logs still remains. Swimming and fishing are not allowed.
Scientists have been studying the changing features of the lake over time, learning how the chemistry of the lake changes over time and monitoring the return of fish and aquatic life.
Named for Harry Truman, who at age 84 refused to leave the lodge where he was caretaker, the ridge offers once of the best spots to see the blast zone and look straight into the crater. Boundary Trail 1 leads behind the ridge, and then there are trail markers mark the turn up, and back towards the mountain.
This section is fairly steep, and completely open to the wind and sun, so taking my time is always to goal here. Spectacular views are to be savored, and there are abundant birds and small creatures to watch for along the way.
Cresting the Ridge
At the top of the trail, there is weather and survey equipment monitored by the United States Geological Society, headquartered locally out of Vancouver, WA. The metal frame that holds their equipment make a good spot to sit and rest. I can take in the view south, directly towards the crater.
In the center, the new glacier winds around the bulge in the center. In 2004, a new, slower eruption began that lasted for four years, pushing thick magma up the chamber. That bulge in the center of the crater is evidence of Mt. St. Helen’s continued volcanic activity, and a reminder that the mountain is not resting.
I often linger here for at least an hour. The rest of this day hike heads back over the same four miles of trails back to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Despite the repeated trail, changes in the angle of sunlight and increased people to meet closer to the observatory enrich the walk back.