Have you ever hiked on an active volcano? Would you be worried that it would erupt beneath your feet? Back in June, Jon and I decided to take an impromptu weekend getaway and we made a stop at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Mount St. Helens is best known for its May 18, 1980 eruption that was the most deadly and economically devastating volcanic eruption in U.S. history. You can read my post about it here.
On our drive up the mountain, there was quite a bit of fog, which gradually melted away to reveal a gorgeous blue sky and big, white, puffy clouds. And a huge, puffy cloud hanging directly in front of the signature crater of the mountain that stuck around for our entire visit. How’s that for ruining a photo op? I have heard that this cloud is a common occurrence at Mount St. Helens, although I’m not sure why.
We visited the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which was named for David Johnston, a volcanologist who was monitoring the mountain on the morning of the 1980 eruption and was killed that day. The observatory has several exhibits on volcanoes and what happens in an eruption, and a great (albeit a bit cheesy) movie about the eruption and the subsequent changes to the landscape that have occurred. The movie also details the return of life to the area in the years after the eruption. At the end of the movie, the curtains at the front of the theater open and you are greeted with a spectacular view of the mountain through the floor to ceiling windows. Amazing.
Jon and I went outside and began a hike from the observatory towards Spirit Lake. Spirit Lake was one of the lakes that became superheated and flashed to steam during the eruption. It was filled with trees and debris that were blown down from the eruption, and the trees still cover much of the surface of the lake today.
We didn’t hike as far as the lake because we hadn’t come prepared with our hiking shoes, but we enjoyed what we did do. The number of people on the trail dropped considerably once we got even a few hundred yards away from the observatory, and we were able to get great views of the mountain and the devastation that is still visible in the valley below. Grasses and shrubs grow there now, and even a few conifers, but you can still clearly see the evidence of the huge landslide that tore through the area. It just looks like a blanket of mud on the ground even now.
There was a volunteer docent with a telescope trained on some elk that were grazing down in the valley, but I couldn’t see them when I looked into it. I’ll just have to trust that they were there. We did see lots of prairie lupine, Indian Paintbrush and wild strawberry plants. And bees – they liked the lupine.
When you look on the ridge opposite Mount St. Helens, you can see thousands of trees that were laid flat by the force of the blast in 1980. Their weathered and gray skeletal remains almost make you believe that the trees just died naturally and fell, until you consider that there are none left standing. A barren wasteland of dry, gray logs.
This NASA website provides an intriguing series of satellite photos documenting the devastation from before the eruption to the modern day. It shows how barren the mountain was after the blast and how time has gradually healed the landscape. I find it fascinating that you can see the carpet of logs moving to different areas in Spirit Lake during the photo series.
On our way back down the mountain, we stopped at Coldwater Lake, a lake that was created by the eruption when the landslide dammed Coldwater Creek. The Army Corps of Engineers created an outlet channel to drain water from Coldwater Lake to prevent the possibility of the lake overflowing and creating a catastrophic flood, but other than that, the lake has been left to develop naturally. It is now a scenic day-use area with an interpretive trail and fishing opportunities (the lake was stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout). Boats with electric motors are permitted on the lake. I thought it was a very peaceful place.
I will certainly return and spend more time here; Jon and I are both interested in hiking to the summit of this now 8,365 foot volcano. You can climb it in a day (most hikers take between 7 and 12 hours) and it doesn’t require any technical climbing. My kind of mountain climbing…