Mount St Helens
We spent three days at Mount St Helens. We picked up a campsite at Seaquest Campground. It was a well-maintained campground with fire pits, showers with bathrooms for the low low price of $42 a night. Even with the price, it was a good place to stay. It was an hour drive to the Johnson Ridge Observatory.
There are two major inroads to get into the monument. One from the north and one from the south. Both are off I-5. The Johnson Ridge Observatory, off Hwy 504, from the north, is the most popular. I thought there would be a big dome, but it is not that kind of observatory. This is the north side of the mountain with a view into the horseshoe caldera. The history and the movie showing the eruption July 10, 2008, is here. A massive debris avalanche reduced the elevation of the round mountain summit of 9677 feet to an 8363-foot high, mile-wide horseshoe-shaped crater. There are new domes in the crater and a glacier surrounding the largest new one.
Farther north along I-5, out route 12, is access to Windy Ridge viewpoint with another view into the crater, but we did not do the three-hour drive to see it with the haze in the air. One can access this view from the southern route off Hwy 503.
The southern access to Mount St Helens has campsites, caves, and hikes. Along with more moderate hikes, a five-mile strenuous hike to the new summit is an option. Hikes above 4600 feet require a permit.
On our first day, we hiked a little of Coldwater Lake. It formed after the 1980 eruption blocked the Coldwater Creek. One can hike a seven-mile loop around the lake. We strolled out on the wooden plank path to get views across the lake but did not hike the loop. I was more interested in seeing the caldera. We continued on to Johnson Ridge Observatory. We watched the movie and I recommend it. I won’t spoil the surprise, don’t leave early.
On our second day we drove back to Johnson Ridge Observatory and hiked the four miles out to the top of Harry’s Ridge. The ridge provided a good view of Spirit Lake and the thousands of trees still floating in the lake since the 1980 eruption. The days were windy and hazy, so views into the crater were less than optimal. Smoke from the many fires in the Northwest, California, and Canada had found us. A breeze kicked up dust to help with the hazy day. A hike to a waterfall coming off the crater intrigued me, but the additional ten miles was not on the docket today. Eight miles was a good hike, and I am glad we did not go further.
I have seen pictures on a clear day. It is a beautiful sight. The hike to the rim from the south end is on my list of hikes. Sturdy boots, gloves, and hiking poles are recommended. Near the top and large boulder/rock field requires hands to assist and the volcanic fragments leave unprotected hands bloody. Gardening or leather gloves prevent this. The hiking poles help on several steep descents.
The Ape Cave has two sections. The lower or easy cave is ¾ of a mile and takes an hour to hike to the end and back. Cave is a misnomer. These are lava tubes formed by running lava. The Upper or difficult cave is 1.5 miles and takes two and a half hours. The return trail is above ground. Good shoes or boot and light sources (more than one!) are needed to get through the caves. A warm jacket will help too. The lava tubes can stay quite cool. A phone light is not going to work for these hikes. I recommend a good hands-free headlamp and a powerful handheld light as a backup. I have “hiked” other lava tubes and was very happy to have a helmet. I used a bicycle helmet, and it worked great. It is not needed in these tubes. If you enjoy the caves/tubes look at Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California. I spent two full days hiking and crawling through lava tubes and could have spent another day. In addition to my helmet, I was happy to have knee and elbow pads.
Mount St Helens is three hours from Portland Oregon to the Johnson Ridge Observatory. The Southern entrance is one hour and forty minutes. A day trip to the beach or a day trip here are within reach. I think it is worth the trip.
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