Posted by: Jack | April 16, 2007

Mount St. Helens

If I had to pick one feature that I like best about living in the northwest, without hesitation it would be the amazing trails which can be traveled to, and hiked on a whim.

Last night around midnight, Anna and I decided that today we would drive down to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Our greatest motivation for the excursion was the forecast for relatively warm temperatures and a very low chance of precipitation. As it turns out, Olympia’s forecast may not be entirely applicable to the Cascade Mountains 60 miles southeast of town.

On a side note, we were listening to NPR’s Sunday Puzzle segment as we made our way South. The winner of last week’s puzzle-challenge-drawing thing was on the air via telephone and her skills were being put to the test on some rapid-fire word puzzles. Playing along, I found myself to be especially on-the-ball. When it came time for the big brain-teaser, for which listeners are given until next Thursday to answer online, I was feeling really in the zone. The question was:

Name something commonly found in an office. It is two words, with five letters in the first word and four letters in the last. Both words are the last names of famous singers.

I figured this would be a tough one for me because I’m terrible at anything involving names of celebrities. But literally 10 seconds later the answer just came to me and I’ve been feeling pretty smart ever since. I would post the answer but then more people could enter online, thereby reducing my chances of winning this week’s drawing. If you can’t figure it out and want to know, ask me.

Back to the day’s trip. Turning East off of the interstate, the weather soon changed from bright and sunny to dark and rainy. Climbing up into the park we suddenly encountered fairly heavy snow and slush-covered roads. The limited visibility left us a bit disoriented and we continually found ourselves searching the horizon in all directions, hoping for a glimpse of St. Helens. We stopped at the visitor center where we were told that it was going to snow today. After the rangers–delighted by their own wit–regained composure, they reassured us that things would clear up by early afternoon. We also found out that the road leading to our intended trail was still closed for the winter. We picked out another area and after viewing some exhibits and a short video, made our way to the trailhead. We started out on the 2.5 mile Hummocks Loop which meanders through some of the farther reaches where projected debris had landed after 1980’s eruption. Hummock is a term for the ~100 foot tall mounds formed on top of massive rocks which used to be the top of the mountain.

This trail wound outward until we reached the North Fork Toutle River. If I had to guess, I would put the riverbed at about 300 meters wide and 25 meters deep. This clearly conveyed a sense of times when the flow was truly enormous.

Since 2.5 miles is merely a short jaunt for the likes of Anna and I, we turned off at a fork heading East towards the Loowit Lookout point. With the rain/snow continuing and clouds still sitting low, the volcano remained yet unseen. However, small patches of clear sky began to emerge and the contrast of well and poorly lit greenery brought back memories of our visit to the nearby Mima Mounds. Walking over a small Hummock we were shocked to come across a herd of about 25 very large elk.  Standing downwind, they were quickly alerted to our presence and immediately found a new area to graze.

The trail had been rolling up and down with the dynamic terrain but overall had gained no elevation thus far. But not too much later we began a fairly steep climb which would last all of the way to Loowit Lookout. It was about this time that the sun really began to break through and warm things up. In only a few minutes we found ourselves enveloped by clouds of steam rising up from everything.  Walking along steep ridges we enjoyed the warm updrafts flowing from the valley below.

An hour later and still, we had no confirmed sighting of the volcano. We could make out an area which was definitely the base of the mountain–clearly decimated by the last major eruption–but any signs of a crater or mountain peak remained thoroughly hidden in the clouds. As we climbed higher, the air cooled and the sun faded once again.

We reached Loowit Lookout and took a break for a delicious snack of fresh sourdough bread, eggplant hummus and apples, hoping that the clouds would blow over now that afternoon had arrived. After a half hour of waiting we were still staring at nothing more than the base of the volcano.

At this lookout we were exposed to the winds coming in from the North and grew quite cold. Starting to head back, the winds only worsened, aided in their torment by a bit of rain and snow. Driven by the less-than-accommodating conditions, we were making really quick time of the descent when we turned back to see that the clouds were finally blowing out of the crater. The clouds never did fully clear the mountain but as you can see below, conditions quickly and greatly improved.

We caught a few more glimpses of elk in the distance and soon were back to the base of the valley. Perhaps motivated by the sunshine, I found an opportunity to attempt a feat which I will categorize as a physical-challenge–yes like on DoubleDare. These random challenges seem to be a reoccurring theme in my travels so I feel they are worthy of a named category. Today’s challenge was to mantle a seven foot pole with a four inch diameter and then just for sake of a picture, perform the yoga pose known as Vrksasana or Tree-Pose. Please excuse the sloppiness of my pose; I was wearing jeans and have gone at least a year without practice.

Much to my disappointment, we witnessed no eruptions today. Nonetheless, it was a great nine-mile hike on what is likely the youngest, naturally-formed terrain we’ve ever traversed. The weather could have been better but at the same time, having the mountain hidden until we were almost upon it made the first spotting all the more awesome. I think our next visit to the monument will take us to the southern entrance where we’ll explore the extensive lava tube known as Ape Cave.



  1. Nice blog!

  2. Great post!

    We gave you a shout out on our hiking blog:

  3. […] Anna and I hiked a trail in the northern part of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. In my post about that excursion I ended by saying that I would like to get down to the southern areas of the monument and […]

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