In August 2013, Dana Hunter started posting a day trip guide to Mt. St. Helens. The timing couldn’t have been better, as I was (a) about to embark on a weeklong vacation to Central Washington that September, (b) planned to spend a day around Mt. St. Helens with a friend, and (c) had no idea how to spend that day. Dana teased us with distant mountain views oozing with serenity and grandeur and other Muir-y words. Unfortunately, Dana did not take my vacation plans into account, and her guide approached Mt. St. Helens from the west. Because my friend and I were coming from Eastern Washington, we would be stationed northeast in foresty La Wis Wis Campground. To loop around to the West entrance of Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument would require a few extra hours drive, and thus less time around the mountain. And so, instead, we figured on writing our own story by taking the road less traveled to the Windy Ridge observatory. This is that story (with GIFs!).
Zero Hour, 9AM: On the road in Yakima, the “Palm Springs of Washington”. Yakimanians gave themselves this nickname partly because the sun shines 300 days a year, and mostly to point out that they are not Seattle (motto: “The Seattle of Washington”). After two hours of westward & upward driving over a mountain pass, we caught our first glimpse of the mountain.
Obviously, Mt. Rainier should be your first stop on the road to Mt. St. Helens. Approaching from the east, it’s about the same time and distance to either the Sunrise or Paradise Visitor Centers. We headed for Sunrise to get a face-full of mountain. Sunrise is also the higher and typically less-crowded of the two visitor centers.
At Chinook Pass on State Route 410, you can stop and stretch your legs around Tipsoo Lake (0.5 miles), or take the longer Naches Peak Trail (3.75 miles) if you have more time. This area is also your best bet for views of Mt. Rainier before heading into the White River Valley, where Mt. Rainier is hidden behind smaller mountains, ridges, and the tall pines. Outcrops are plentiful on the switchbacks down from Chinook Pass, but I was too focused on the mountain to take more than a couple of photos along the way (foolishly deleted because we never stopped to examine the rocks). Continuing on your way to Mt. St. Helens, continue on State Route 410 to get to the Sunrise entrance. This will technically take you north and away from Mt. St. Helens, but don’t worry about that for now. There are a few pull-offs for viewing valley vistas, but the only must-stop area (besides at the park entrance) is well within the park, at Sunrise Point. This is an obvious stop on a switchback that curves around a parking lot. The small lot can get rather full late in the day, so I advise you to stop on your way to Sunrise since it is now just before lunch. You can’t see Mt. St. Helens from here – Mt. Rainier is kind of in the way – but there are relatively unobstructed views north and south.
High Noon. Read up on the sights at the informative signs here, or even take a 7 mile trek (3.5 miles out and back) north on the Palisades Lakes Trail. While you are out doing that, we’ll continue to our next stop on the road to Mt. St. Helens, which is of course the Sunrise Visitor Center. Fuel up with some lunch before heading out, and hopefully you’ve brought some food because the gift shop doesn’t pack much in the off-season. Also, turns out the iconic visitor center is closed for renovations (something about asbestos) and because it is the off-season. And grab a map (PDF of the printed version available on site) to plan your hike, because the forest ranger is also gone for the day! We decided to hike a mish-mash of trails, starting out on the Sourdough Ridge Trail toward Frozen Lake, looping down to the First Burroughs Mtn. and then back via Glacier Overlook:
Be warned, that first incline is like a punch in the face after sitting in a car all day. It’s good to get the blood flowing, but pace yourself! Once you get warmed up, that second climb feels more reasonable. Fortunately there is an excellent vista on the Sourdough Ridge Trail where you can stop to take photos because it is beautiful and definitely not because your heart is working its way up into your skull.
Did you notice that the trees are shorter on the left side of that image at higher elevation? That’s because you are close to the treeline, and will be above it when you reach Frozen Lake. Also note how green is the valley, especially compared to similar mountainscapes from the Rockies. For now, Mt. Rainier has not suffered much from pine beetles or the more common (in the Northwest) white pine blister rust (PDF, 2008).
While you were thinking about the Rockies, we made it to Frozen Lake. Only a bit of snow is lurking in the leeward side of the nearby hill, shielded from the wind blowing ripples across the decidedly unfrozen surface of Frozen Lake. Can’t have it all…
Wildlife Corner: We saw two golden-mantled ground squirrels (Callospermophilus lateralis) near Frozen Lake who didn’t appear too fazed by our presence. Birdwise, there were a few scattered crows and mysteriously chirpy birds near the First Burroughs Mountain. Below the treeline, I think we saw a few Clark’s Nutcrackers hopping about in pines (if I’m remembering what they looked like correctly). Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais milberti) landed on the trail near us for a moment, and the meadows below Sunrise were full of very friendly bees.
Above the treeline, a sign informs us, the area is similar to the arctic tundra. It is quite a visual contrast to the valley we left behind.
Our closest approach to Mt. Rainier was the First Burroughs Mtn. Perhaps if you are in better shape or have more time, you could continue on to the Second Burroughs. We’ll stay here and catch our breath, munch a granola bar, and enjoy the view for a while.
Little Tahoma Peak (at left) is relatively snow-free, as is flat-topped Gibraltar Rock. The snowpack is split into two glaciers by the triangular Steamboat Prow (Emmons at left, Winthrop at right). The isolated glacier in the foreground of Steamboat Prow is Inter Glacier (a.k.a. the Interglacier). Hidden from view at the apex of Steamboat Prow is Camp Schurman, which serves as a ranger station and climbing stop. In Emmons Glacier, a narrow ridge pokes out at high elevation and transitions to a medial moraine downslope. The center of Emmons Glacier is covered by less debris than the margin, as it is relatively faster-moving and further from those debris sources. The thick, flat slab coming down off the peak to the right is Willis Wall, a remnant of one of Mt. Rainier’s more recent volcanic episodes (10-15 thousand years ago). Age refs and a useful simplified geologic map are available in a USGS Special Publication.
On the way to Glacier Overlook, be sure to turn around every once in a while to get new perspectives on Rainier and the valley. A cirque (the bowl shaped depression carved out by a glacier) hangs over the White River Valley above a milky green glacial lake. The toe of Emmons Glacier is covered by a debris from a 1963 avalanche.
In the previous images, you can see the snowpack transitioning from soft-edged at the peak, to more dissected and then debris covered downslope. I’m curious to know where the equilibrium line is, which is where snow accumulation is equal to loss via melting and ablation. I think it might be at the transition to the more jagged, exposed form, but it isn’t always an obvious “line”.
The visitor center is always picturesque, and only looks better after a long hike. Here it is flanked by the Sourdough Ridge Trail leading to Antler Peak (second peak in from left) and Dege Peak (right). Later, on your flight back to Seattle, be sure to sit on the left side of the plane for a potentially fantastic view of Mt. Rainier and the Sunrise area.
4PM: Recoup in the parking lot for a bit before continuing on your way to Mt. St. Helens.