First time at Mount St. Helens

First time at Mount St. Helens

By: Shelby October 14, 2018 5:54 pm 8 comments

Hi everyone, here’s our first post in over a year. Whoops! A couple of weekends ago looked like it could easily be the last warm, sunny weekend of the year. We knew we had to take advantage of this, and for a while had planned to do our annual trip to Second Beach, since we haven’t been so far this year. But after thinking about it a little bit, I decided I wanted to go somewhere new and different. The mountain foliage is putting on its magnificent display now, so I knew we had to try to see it.

Harry's Ridge - Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument

We haven’t done a ton of camping this year, aside from the two weeks in Scotland and Iceland (posts upcoming!!), so I was excited at the prospect of camping somewhere completely new, whether it was via car or backpack. We decided on seeing Mount St. Helens, and I was soon amazed at the fact that there’s no real car camping at the mountain. Weird, right? Anyway, there’s a state park 47 miles away called Seaquest State Park. So, we headed down there Friday after work and a quick trip to REI (to pick up an awesome new 2-burner stove just for car camping!). It took us a while to get there, thanks to Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia traffic. Cool. The park is just a couple miles off of I-5 on Hwy 504, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that there were very few other campers there, despite the weekend’s forecast being so pleasant. We arrived at around 8:30, parked in spot #70, set up our massive mountain mansion, and started a campfire.

A few observations so far:

  • You can’t trust a box called “camping box” to have all of your camping stuff. It turns out we left without bringing any lanterns with us, just a headlamp.
  • Pillow blowouts can apparently happen between camping trips. I got to try out the “clothes in stuff sack as pillow” trick, and, honestly, it wasn’t so bad.
  • Spenser has gotten really good at starting campfires.
  • Saturday Morning

    At 8:30am, we got up. After a quick bacon breakfast (we didn’t have coffee, funny story…), we chatted with the friendly park ranger who told us we should head up to the mountain if we wanted to get there before the weather turned rough. This statement got us moving. We finished up our breakfast, packed up our gear, and got on our way. We stopped at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center across the street to get some cash to pay for our camping reservation, and there was our friendly camp ranger at the front desk, shooing us out the door, telling us to get up the mountain before the rain came in. We set out down Hwy 504 toward Johnston Ridge. The sky was gloomy, and based on what the park ranger said, I was pretty certain we weren’t going to get any views today. The road wound through tiny towns and up into the mountains, until finally the fog became so thick there was almost no visibility.

    We drove up out of the clouds and were in an entirely new world with clear skies and mountains as far as the eye could see. The fog we had just been driving through before now laid low as thick clouds in the valley. We stopped for a quick photo op at the Forest Learning Center (they do not have coffee here) and then continued on up to Johnston Ridge. The mountain slowly came into view, just barely peeking behind the mountains between us. The landscape became suddenly very un-Western Washington-like, going from oddly uniform stands of Noble Fir that caused weird grid-like optical illusions to the stunted, brushy, volcano-blasted landscape.

    We finally reached the end of the road, parking in the huge lot at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. There was a food truck in the lot. Coffee was on the menu. They weren’t open yet. Sad face. Moving on, we went into the Observatory, and got in for free with our America the Beautiful pass! Woo! We got our visitor wristbands, looked around quickly at the exhibits, and decided to start our hike out to Harry’s Ridge before the weather turned.

    just playing with light at camp

    breakfast with our shiny new stove

    this was what we saw as we drove past the fog

    looking back at the valley we drove up through

    Boundary Trail

    The trail starts out winding up and over the ridge, with lots of awesome interpretive signs explaining the destruction of the eruption and the recovery of the landscape. We left the paved trail for the wide, dusty Boundary Trail, which winds along 53 miles around the mountain. The trail is like another world. It was sunny, but the dark colors of the mountain made it feel much more gloomy than it should have been. It was barren, but still so colorful at the same time. We’d hike through desolation, but then come upon tunnels of thick vegetation. There were no trees for shade or to block the wind, so the temperature seemed to vary like crazy while we were hiking.

    We hiked up, down, up, down, and around the hummocks along the ridge, and finally wound around to see Harry’s Ridge before us. Here is where the fall foliage really came into display in earnest. It was so breathtaking! We hiked through bright red bushes and huge bouquets of pearly everlasting, lupine, and Indian paintbrush. We climbed up the ridge, finally catching a glimpse of Spirit Lake far below. There must have been a hundred thousand sun-bleached logs floating in the lake, all remnants from the 1980 blast.

    far off seismic equipment

    Harry’s Ridge

    The trail led straight up the ridge, and at the peak was the most amazing panoramic view of Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood, and the Johnston Ridge Observatory. We parked ourselves next to the seismic equipment for an easy lunch of cheese and charcuterie, and took a while to take in all the views. It was sunny and just a bit breezy, and the only annoyance was a hornet that really wanted our salami. It was hard to care too much about that though.

    When we finally decided to turn back down the ridge, we made good time, but it definitely felt more difficult than the hike out there did. We could see the Observatory the whole time, and it seemed so tiny and far away, and definitely taunted us the whole time. We encountered a ton of hikers on our way back, but everybody seemed to be having a great day out on the trail. Happy hikers are the best hikers, and it’s hard to be upset about a beautiful trail that’s full of nice people having a good time. We stopped and spied a herd of elk down in the blast zone.

    Here's where we left the Boundary Trail

    late-season Lupine

    Spirit Lake with Mount Adams and masses of dead trees

    the best trailmix ever. Seriously.

    pack out your paint water!

    Seismic equipment on Harry's Ridge


    Harry's Ridge and the Mountain

    my quick sketchbook painting

    I thought this was the most Washington scene ever

    Indian Paintbrush

    Johnston Ridge Observatory

    We finished out the day by grabbing a very delicious bite to eat at the food truck in the parking lot and watching movie about the blast at the Visitor’s Center. It’s in serious need of updating, but was otherwise very informative and a good way to spend 20 minutes sitting before driving an hour back to camp. Aside from the slightly (okay very) cheesy movie, the stories of survival that are told in the Visitor’s Center are pretty incredible, and each one is definitely worth checking out. Though the center is small (you could see the whole thing in 45 minutes), it’s very interesting, and I’m glad to have finally visited it.

    Satisfied with our day on the mountain, we headed back to down to camp at Seaquest State Park. This place was truly incredible, and we’re already looking forward to our next visit.

    National Monument Fee to enter. (America the Beautiful or NW Forest Pass gets you in free)

    Harry’s Ridge Hike
    Total distance: 8 miles
    Total elevation: 970ft
    Total hiking time: 4 hours (including break in the middle)

    Directions: From I-5, take exit 63 to Hwy 504. Follow Hwy 504 52 miles to its end at the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

    the scarred and barren Johnston Ridge

    campsite 70 was awesome!

    Path to the lake at Seaquest State Park

    Path to the lake at Seaquest State Park

    Silver Lake boardwalk

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