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A Volcanic Anniversary

by Lisa

A couple weeks ago my husband and I hit the road for a road trip to northern Oregon. Instead of driving straight through to Portland, we took a detour to Mount St. Helens National Monument.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve always been familiar with the story of Mount St. Helens. Everyone knows someone who remembers the explosion. My grandparents were visiting Vancouver, Canada when the volcano exploded. They spoke of clouds of ash raining down on them for days.

I’ve flown over Mount St. Helens, and seen it from the Pacific Crest Trail, but I hadn’t been to the monument.

Mount St Helens seen from the air

We turned off the I-5 around noon and started winding our way towards the mountain. It was a cloudy day and we knew our chances of seeing the peak were slim so we took our time driving along the road. Our first stop was the Forest Learning Center which was built and is managed by the Washington-based Weyerhaeuser Company, one of the largest forest product companies in the world. ┬áThe exhibits in the center were fascinating. There was lots of information about the damage done to the 63,000 acre forest by the volcanic explosion, and the impact it had on the local forestry. Even more fascinating is the rehabilitation work being done by Weyerhaeuser and the State of Washington. If you’re interested in learning more about the work, have a look at Weyerhaeuser’s Mount St. Helens Forest Management Plan.

We continued our drive along the highway with a new appreciation for the forest around us. We stopped at a couple pullouts to look down at the valleys below. The mountain continued to hide.

I’m pretty sure there’s a nice view from here on a clear day

The road snaked along, crossing high bridges over valleys, snaking down to the Toutle River Valley and then climbing up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, sitting at over 4200 feet. The entire area was in the clouds. We headed into the Observatory and learned right away that we were visiting on the 38th anniversary since the explosion. The monument honours the anniversary with a fee free day.

We had a wander through the exhibit space, reading some of the stories of people who were in the area when the volcano exploded. One of the best stories was of a couple who’d climbed Mt. Adams, hoping to see some volcanic activity. Boy were they surprised when the mountain exploded!

I learned that Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is actually under the main jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service, not the National Park Service. Because of this the Forest Service can work with the U.S. Geological Survey to continually monitor the volcano, as well as with companies like Weyerhaueser to rehabilitate the area.

Even with the clouds, we decided that a hike was in order. We started from a trailhead at the north-east corner of the main parking lot. After a few minutes the trail emerges on the top of a ridge. The mountain was off to our right still very much shrouded in clouds. We did get the occasional view down to the valley floor, and even spotted a herd of elk.

Taking in the view from the saddle.

We came to a saddle about 2.5 miles along the trail which was also a junction point. We decided to head right, down into the basin of the devastated area. The hike down was surprisingly pleasant. We followed a small stream through hollows rich with plant life. About a mile from the junction we were amongst hummocks which are large mounds of rock debris created by major landslides when the volcano exploded. We also reached the Pumice Plain, an area of pyroclastic-flow deposits.

Our turn-around point was near the original outlet of Spirit Lake. We had a nice view of the lake and also enjoyed identifying the resilient wildflowers in the area.

Spirit Lake

A pond amongst the hummocks

Our return trip back up to the ridge was a bit of a challenging as we gained about a thousand feet over 1 mile. We also climbed into thicker clouds. We were dewey and damp, but thankfully it wasn’t raining.

Back at Johnston Ridge, we ducked into the Observatory to purchase a patch and postcard from the gift store. We dawdled a bit to warm up. Part of me was desperately hoping to see the mountain. We’d come all this way after all! Thankfully we weren’t in a rush to be anywhere and had lots of snacks to tide us over.

Suddenly patches of blue sky started to appear. They were so teasing, opening up and then closing over again. But we waited.

Teasing patches of blue sky

Around 5:45 pm the wind picked up and the parts of Mount St Helen started to show through the curtain of clouds. Within half an hour the area was almost clear, except for a few swirling clouds between us and the mountain. The view was beautiful. Mount St Helens was lit by the late afternoon sun and still sporting a bright corona of snow. We were grateful to have had the luxury of time to wait for her to come out.

Mount St Helens starting to appear

Mount St Helens and the basin below

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