When you get an itch, ya gotta scratch it; there are no two ways about it.With almost non-existent rain and unseasonably warm temperatures in the Northwest this month (the driest May since 1992 according to KATU weatherman Dave Salesky on Monday afternoon), my desire to go hiking has been at a fever pitch the last couple of weeks.
Mother nature was calling my name and I was listening, but I didn’t know from where. I’d had many thoughts of where to go while getting through the day at work but one place always rang in my head: Mount St. Helens.
I’d hiked there on several occasions before, but, the two-hour drive up there is one to be reckoned with. Not only is it beautiful, but witnessing the drastic change in the landscape from the destruction of the volcano’s 1980 explosion, cannot be described in words.
It’s best with photos.
After a 40-minute jaunt up I-5 North from Vancouver, where it mostly sunny at 7:15 a.m., I turned off on SR-504 to head East towards the mountain. Twisting and turning through the hills, I stopped at a slow vehicle turnout and took an ill-advised walk to the bridge just after the turnoff to take this shot approaching the Toutle Valley at the edge of the blast zone.
As you can see, the clouds were thick and at a ceiling of about 4,000 feet, almost resembling the fjords of Norway… Only with an active volcano up the road 🙂
The higher I climbed, the foggier it got on the road, with visibility only around 50-yards or so. While driving over some of the bridges, the clouds rolling over the guard rails gave the look of a fog machine spewing over a dance floor. Despite not being able to see anything when the “viewpoint ahead” sign approached, I wanted to see if anything was visible.
Only the sign could be seen in the photo facing the South… But a quick 360-degree turn would reveal a sun-kissed mountainscape, as well as hope at the top of the peak.
The manic sunshine and fog continued as I climbed up and down the hills, but once I reached the Johnston Ridge Observatory turnoff, the sun peaked through the clouds but enveloped the mountain.
The first stop on the Johnston Ridge access road was the Birth of the Lake trail, a natural creation at the foot of the mountain following the eruption’s pyroclastic flows.
In short, after the mountain settled, a murky, poisonous lake full of sulfur, methane, ash and other earthly compounds was created. In just three and a half years, the lake was clear, thanks to all the bacteria and single cell organisms in the lake, thus, introducing all visitors to the creation of new life that surrounds the exhibit on Johnston Ridge, pictured atop the hill on the upper left.
The site, named Clearwater II observation point before the eruption, was named after volcanologist David Johnston, who died on the morning of May 18, 1980. Seen here on May 17, 1980, Johnston radioed the US Geological Survey office at 8:32 a.m. “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” after a 5.1 earthquake triggered the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
After snapping this photo of a Bald Eagle in front of the peaking mountain, I knew I needed to hit up the real purpose of my trip – the Hummock Trail – a 2.5-mile hike over remnants of the old volcano that crumbled to the Toutle Valley. I wasn’t disappointed that sped over there as fast as I could.
I stood at the start of the trail for about 15 minutes taking in the awesomeness of the mountain, even sending a selfie to my Mom and Grandma to show them the beauty of the morning.
A half mile walk down a trail brought me to a landing on the valley floor, surrounded by mounds of ancient rock and the life that breathed into the land over the years, thanks to the gophers and other ground-dwelling rodents that survived the eruption and brought plant seeds to the surface.
While the climb down was easy, the two-mile trek around the loop, through the marshlands and back up the hill was a reminder of all that sprung in just 38 years, including this trail. Before the eruption, the land pictured above was a forest of trees, with no site line of the mountain. Finishing my water bottle and turkey breasts, I made the drive to the observatory see the mountain from a mere five miles away…
Needless to say, there wasn’t much to see.
Deciding to extend my stay at the mountain, I hit up the trail on the ridge, in hopes that the clouds would lift. There were signs of the possibility but the volunteer on the path said to me, “I think we saw the last of the mountain this morning.”
A bit discouraged, I continued on the trail for a half mile. I took a photo of my frustration at 1:25 p.m., and decided to head back up to the observatory. The extra time on the trail paid its dividends in the end.
At 1:48 p.m., I was able to catch a full view of the lava dome bulging through the crown on Mount St. Helens and felt accomplished. Chasing that feeling, I purchased an annual pass to the National Parks so I could return on a beautiful day and capture another view of this majestic creation.
By the end of the journey, I was ashy and sweaty, and in a state of serendipity. I knew right then that I had made the right choice moving home, trekking through the valley and taking in these views on a day off. You just can’t beat it. The 200-mile round trip was worth it, and so was the 6 a.m. wakeup call. I cannot wait for the return trip and welcome any tagalongs the next time.