Morgen and I spent a few hours hiking in the blast zone of Mt. St. Helens. Around us were signs of recovery from that singular event. But in reality, it really wasn’t a single event, isolated in time. Especially for Washingtonians. The dramatic and deadly initial blast rightfully receives significant coverage when talking about May 18th. But for ten hours (hours!) afterward, Mt St. Helens continued to erupt rock fragments (tephra) that spread across eastern Washington.
Our base of operations was in central Washington near Yakima, 120 miles east of Mt. St Helens. After our hike, our host told us her story about that day in 1980 Yakima: The weather forecast was for sunny skies; Yakima gets 300 days of sun a year, you know. But as she readied for church, the skies began to darken. It wasn’t long before she recognized the event would be rather unique. She placed a small bowl outside the door to catch some of the falling pyroclastic material. With my geology background, she knew she had my attention when she said “I think I still have it around here tucked away in a closet somewhere…Would you want to take some with you?”
Pat: We left off last time resting our legs in the Sunrise Visitor Center parking lot. It was a good stop, but now it is time to leave Sunrise and continue on our way to Mt. St. Helens. Turns out our Sunrise jaunt lasted almost until sunset, so we’ll have to stop somewhere for the night. Fortunately, it is the offseason and we have our pick of spots in the La Wis Wis Campground. Definitely pick a spot along the Ohanapecosh River to get easy access to the riverside. Perfect for morning tea. In fact, I’ll step out for a moment to finish my cuppa, and let Morgen step in.
Morgen: Morgen here! I’m the lady pointing at the river. Pat has (perhaps rather foolishly), left his blog in my hands, so I’ll do my best to help finish this story. First, a disclaimer: I am not a geologist. I’m an environmental engineer studying bacterial motility, so if you’re hoping for lots of insightful geologic-y things, you’re out of luck. Thanks to Ms. Frizzle and her magic school bus, I know the difference between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, but that’s pretty much it. Regardless, I will do my best to learn you a thing or two.
P: Try not to spend all morning down by the river. There’s still a two-hour woodsy drive to Mt. St. Helens. Unlike from the west, our eastern approach doesn’t yield any glimpses of Mt. St. Helens until you are within the park. It is a fun, windy road through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, with little indication of the nearby volcanic history. Then, suddenly, you get Mt. St. Helens’d.
P: While not the first roadside pullout, the Cascade Peaks overlook is located on the edge of the lateral blast zone to the northeast. Some of the tall pines in this area are untouched, but many, like the one in the photo above, are skeletons of their former selves. Ten miles out, we are in the zone of the “standing dead”. Even here, the air temperature during the eruption exceeded 100°C (Winner and Casadevall 1983) and killed many trees, but the force of the blast had dissipated enough to leave them baking upright. A little further on and the landscape changes rapidly.
P: Those of you with a passing interest in volcanoes have likely seen photos of once-forested hillsides newly draped in a blanket of tree trunks.
M: Seeing this in person can be somewhat unnerving, given that trees are supposed to a) stand upright, and b) not be stripped of branches, leaves, bark, etc. It’s a stark reminder of the power the Earth periodically unleashes on the surface.
M: The Windy Ridge Observatory lies at the end of the winding trek through the blast zone. It certainly deserved its name, and the constant winds may help to explain why the Johnson Ridge Observatory is the more visited of the two. A short hike brings you to a wonderful vantage point, from which you can see Spirit Lake, clogged with trees blown into it by the 1980 eruption, and St. Helen’s caldera.
P: Is there a word for the desensitization that follows word repetition? When you say, for example, “pine” ad nauseam: Pine. Pine. Pine, pine pine pine pine, pine pinepinepine. Eventually, “pine” becomes just another sound, and you lose the mental association with the tree (or cone). That, I think, is the dissonance that takes root when I see photos of Spirit Lake. We all know that the tan raft up there is made up of individual trees, but it’s all just “tree, tree, treetreetreetree…yeah, that’s a lot of trees. Look, water.” Being there, it is much easier to make that connection between the trees and the scarred hillsides from which they came.
M: Mt. St. Helens’ caldera got its unique shape due to the nature of the eruption that created it. Before magma began building up, St. Helens was an almost perfect example of a composite volcano (imagine Mt. Fuji in Japan if you need a modern equivalent). Unfortunately, this perfection was not to last, as the magma building up under the earth caused the northern face of the mountain to bulge. When the eruption finally did occur, it blasted out, not up, leaving the inside of the volcano’s crater exposed.
Thirty-three years after that eruption, Pat and I decided that it was the crater, or as close as we could get without extensive permits and preparations, that was our destination for the day’s hike. This meant Loowit Falls.
P: It was a park ranger that suggested Loowit Falls, which originates in Crater Glacier. Having hiked the trail herself, she was spot on with the timing, distance, and difficulty of the hike (plus a little extra for photos).
M: Leaving Windy Ridge, we embarked on a nearly ten-mile (round trip) hike through the blast zone. If you go, bring plenty of water, and remember to reapply your sunscreen often, as there is little in the way of shade. The path is pretty well-marked, but if you get confused (as happened to us repeatedly when we had to walk through dry stream beds) the park rangers have erected stone markers to guide you. Think 2010 Vancouver Olympics logo, and you have a rough idea of what some of the markers looked like.
M: While out and about, you may be fortunate enough to spot some mountain goats (see above). Unlike deer, who returned to the blast zone less than a week after the eruption, mountain goats have taken a little longer to warm back up to the place. However, this is mostly due to their need to eat butting up against the mountain’s lack of suitable vegetation.
P: We would have missed them entirely if not for stopping to talk with a Father/Son pair returning from Loowit Falls. It is easy to miss what you weren’t looking for.
M: Perhaps the greatest downside to this particular hike is that Loowit Falls is inaccessible from the trail. You can clearly see it from the trail’s end, but how close you get to it depends in large part on the zoom capabilities of your camera. While this is disappointing, it is also somewhat refreshing: The Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is meant to afford scientists the chance to watch nature recover without (major) interference from people. The fact that we’re allowed to hike through this living laboratory at all is pretty amazing, so being kept back from a waterfall in order to preserve it (and, one presumes, our own safety and well-being) is a small price to pay.
P: In reaching Loowit Falls, our visit to Mt. St. Helens has reached a turning point. As in, we have to turn around. Although the mountain is at our backs, we are faced with constant reminders that we are in a transient landscape. After 33 years, the Pacific Northwest is well on its way to reclaiming the environment. Willows grow dense along the banks where water is in plentiful supply, and together we wander through the remnants of May 18th, 1980.
M: Well, the sun is setting, and we still have a two hour drive ahead of us, dinner to make, and an air mattress to exhaustively fall upon before going to sleep. Maybe tomorrow as we drive home we’ll get in one last hike. The White Pass ski hill offers some spectacular views of Mt. Rainier. Wait…what’s that, Self? You’d rather not hike anymore? You’d rather drive to Yakima and get a burger and fries at Miners? Well, I guess we can do that instead.
P: Thus Part II concludes, having attained our goal of visiting Mt. St. Helens. What could be in store in Part III of our Mt. St. Helens guide? It’s starting to look like a Peter Jackson film. I’ll let Morgen have the last word since she was kind enough to help me get this post out there.
M: And so, good reader, I must bid you farewell. I hope I didn’t bore you with my rock-less tale. As a thank you for sticking with me, I’m going to write every geology-related word I can think of in 60 seconds: Metamorphic, plate tectonics, magma, lava, plagioclase, olivine, mineral, thin section, crystal size distribution, titanium, microprobe, rock hammer, iron banded formations, calcite, sediment, cooling, partition coefficients, and ROCKS! Best wishes!
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.