Spring Wildflowers and Mt St Helens
Today, some 30 years after the eruption of Mt St Helens, life is flourishing in the blast zone. Out of the ash, life returned. I can recall when the blast zone was first reopened to the public and I traveled on a narrow forest service road whose pavement soon gave way to an even narrower gravel road. I and many others intrigued by what had occured in our backyard here in Washington wanted to see first hand the devastation caused by the earth’s natural forces. As I entered the area high up on a ridge overlooking a valley inundated by the blast, I felt like I had stepped back in time to a prehistoric era. As far as my eyes could see, where there was once lush, dense, green forests, there was nothing but ash for miles and miles and remnants of tall pines blown over like matchsticks, all pointed away from the blast, all denuded of their branches and needles. The scene was surrealistic: something not of this Earth. Now, the same scene has filled in with greenery once again, but there is still much a reminder of what happened there not so long ago, geologically speaking.
The surrealistic place I was referring to is the Windy Ridge Scenic Point, the closest viewpoint of the volcano that you can drive to on the northeast side of the volcano. It is not as heavily visited as the Johnston Ridge Observatory mainly because of its not-so-easy accessibility. But if you get hold of a detailed map of the Mt St Helens vicinity, (available at any of the Mt St Helens visitor centers or Gifford Pinchot Forest Ranger Stations) you can do this in a one day road trip from the Greater Puget Sound area or the Portland vicinity. Be aware that many of the forest service roads are accessible only during the summer months and only if the roads are passable. There are times when they are not due to heavy winter damage, wash-outs, or rock slides. Always consult the Gifford Pinchot National Forest website for road conditions before making this trip. You will be entering remote areas of the forest via winding, narrow, forest service roads that change radically in elevation. Be prepared with a full tank of fuel, food, water, and any other survival items you wish to bring along. The easiest and fastest route to take from the main metropolitan areas is via Interstate 5, and then east on Washington Ste Rte 12 to the town of Randle. Make sure you gas up before heading south onto the forest service roads from Randle. Again, have your detailed map of the area handy. Maps are available locally. On the way up to Windy Ridge, you will get majestic views of Mt Rainier, Mt Adams, and even Mt Hood, if it is a clear day. Soon you will be driving through a large area of the main blast zone and will be able to see the devastation caused by the blast on a grand scale. It is also in this area that Spirit Lake is in total view and accessible. You will be able to see the huge log jam at one end of the lake caused by the blast of the 1980 eruption that created a tidal wave of water that carried tons of blown down trees to one end of the lake. There are many trails in this area and you need a forest service permit to access them. When you get to the look-out point at Windy Ridge, there is a parking area along with rudimentary restrooms. You will be able to see one side of the crater of the volcano really close and you can get an even better view of the crater by climbing the “Sand Ladder” that is a quarter mile strenuous hike up 365 steps. If climbing vertical steps and cliff-hanging drives in remote areas is a little too much for you, there is a much more accessible drive to visit Mt St Helens.
The majority of tourists wanting to visit the Mt St Helens National Monument area follow Hwy 504 at Castle Rock, just off of Interstate 5 in southwest Washington. This is considered to be the Gateway to Mt St Helens and leads you down Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. If you are driving north from Portland or southwest Washington, yes, take this route. Be sure to stop at the Mt St Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake just a few miles from the Interstate. Now, if you are coming from the north from the Puget Sound area, I will tell you how you can shave a whole 30 minutes off your drive. Take the Hwy 505 exit at Toledo. I call it the “Toledo cut-off.” It’s a nice drive through rural farm pastures and forested area, and if you’re lucky, you may observe large herds of elk grazing in the fields late in the day at certain times of the year. You eventually connect up with Hwy 504. Turn left and you are well on your way to the volcano. If you haven’t fueled up completely, you have one last chance at the little community of Kidd Valley further down the road. You’ll see a road sign warning you of no gas past that point. Just before you enter the Blast Zone, (indicated by a sign) there is a a parking area on the left side of the road that gives you a scenic view of a long bridge that spans a large valley. As you snake around the ridges and gain altitude, be sure to visit the Forest Learning Center, which features educational exhibits and a gift shop. Alongside the center, there is a short trail up a hill that overlooks the Toutle River Valley where one can view herds of Roosevelt Elk that make their way along the river using a spotting scope or binoculars. Continue down the highway and take advantage of the pullouts and special viewing areas. Elk Rock is especially great for views of the volcano landscape, along with the Castle Lake viewpoint. As you go around each ridge, you’ll start to wonder where the volcano is. Finally, as you round a corner, it suddenly pops into view with astonishing surprise! It will make your jaw drop! Below is one of these surprise moments.
The photo above shows the volcano’s steam rolling over its rim during the spring of 2005 when the volcano was dome building and was quite hot. The next photo is of the Coldwater Lake Visitor Center against the backdrop of the Cascade Range. Unfortunately, this beautiful, modern visitor center is now closed due to budget contraints.
Coldwater Lake Visitor Center
It is unfortunate that one cannot approach this visitor center any longer as the road to it is gated off. From it, you get spectacular views of Coldwater Lake, one of the new lakes created by the 1980 eruption. But you can visit the lake further down the road on the way to Johnston Ridge and opt to take a nature walk or picnic.
Nature Trail Along Coldwater Lake
At the end of the highway is Johnston Ridge Observatory along with a large parking area. At this point, you are about 5 miles away from the volcano and over 4,000 ft in elevation. Before you lies the vast pumice plain and lahar valley created from the volcano’s eruption. There is an entrance fee to the observatory. Inside are educational exhibits, books and gifts, and also an auditorium where you can watch a movie about the history of the volcano and its eruption. There are also forest rangers that give interpretive talks. If you are up to it, there are trails that start from the observatory, some of which are quite lengthy.
Johnston Ridge Observatory
A Steaming Mt St Helens 2005
Mt St Helens 2010
After your visit to the volcano, you may want to take advantage of the only restaurant in the area just outside the blast zone. Hoffstadt Bluffs is a beautiful visitor center open year round with a large gift shop and a sit-down dining area. The gift shop has a large selection of souvenirs, including the popular and beautiful Mt St Helens emerald jewelry. There is even a selection of wine to take home with you. The facility has complete restrooms as well, and in the dining area, one can opt to eat outside on the patio deck overlooking the volcano and valley when the weather is nice. The center also is the take-off point for Mt St Helens helicopter tours. By air, by car, by foot, Mt St Helens will awe and humble you and remind us all of the powerful forces of nature at work. Honor her; respect her.