Johnston Ridge, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, 06/26/10

Mount St. Helens erupted a few months before I was born. I just missed it. It also erupted about two-thousand miles due west of where I was born. So I didn’t just miss it, I guess. Sometime in elementary school a classmate came back from a trip Out West with a plastic baggie of Genuine Mount St. Helens Ash—bought, no doubt, on the side of the road somewhere in Montana or South Dakota. For many years that would be the closest I’d come to the mythical, prototypical volcano of my prepubescent fantasies: perfectly conical, oozing a fiery red glow down its flanks, and surrounded by prime dinosaur habitat. Volcanoes existed only in Earth’s far-distant past or its unbelievably exotic locales. They weren’t in Wisconsin; they weren’t near Wisconsin.

Well, it’s twenty years later and I’ve spent the last eight of it living in exotic Washington, home to five volcanoes, including, obviously, the majority of Mount St. Helens.

I’d had last weekend circled on the calendar for several months, as I’d pinpointed the date of a full moon rising over Mt. Rainier. Since snow levels at the particular area in Mt. Rainier National Park that I’d planned on going to weren’t quite low enough for me, as the weekend approached I began to look elsewhere.

And then Saturday morning arrived and I found myself sitting on the couch watching soccer. Nicole is so used to leaving at 05:00 that she was certain we weren’t going anywhere if we were still sitting on the couch at 11:00. This was all part of my master plan, though. It wasn’t going to work out for us to backpack anywhere, or camp anywhere, but if we left later in the day than normal, we’d be hiking in the late afternoon and could hang out until sunset and, hopefully, moonrise as well. Leaving West Seattle as late as we did (~14:00) meant that we wouldn’t arrive until about ~17:00. That said, both Nicole and I were surprised when Google Maps told us it didn’t take 4-5 hours to get there. We just always assumed it was a long, long ways away.

Anyway! This would be our first time to Mount St. Helens, a mountain we’ve rarely even seen.

We took I-5 south to WA-504 (Spirit Lake Highway) and drove it to its end. We arrived to the large, completely full parking lot at Johnston Ridge Observatory, ~4000′.

In the blast zone at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

The views of Mount St. Helens from the highway are outstanding, but once on Johnston Ridge the views are awe-inspiring. Seeing this live really reinforced the massive destructive power of the eruption.

There is an $8 entry fee per person, which you pay in the observatory. But a Northwest Forest Pass can count as one person’s entry fee. Since our NWFP had expired we bought one to cover one entry and a regular entry fee for another of us. Total cost: $38. The observatory closes at 18:00, and had we wanted to, we could’ve caught the last showing of the short film that plays in the observatory’s theatre. Since we’d seen multiple 30th anniversary of the eruption specials, we opted to go hit the trail.

The Boundary Trail makes a large loop throughout the National Monument, and it leaves the observatory in both directions. My plan was just to walk a few miles, turn around, and come back. Hopefully we’d find a nice spot to watch the sunset along the way.

The memorial for those that lost their lives in the eruption.

We walked east along the trail, gawking at the volcano the entire way. The weather was perfect. It’s a simple ridge walk for the ~2.5 miles we went, losing a few hundred feet of elevation as you walk away from the observatory, and gaining it on the way back.

Stumps and blown down trees south of the volcano.

At about two miles, the trail does narrow and traverse a steep slope, but it really isn’t an issue, especially with no snow. A point is reached shortly after, offering views east over the strikingly blue Spirit Lake to Mt. Adams. We found the small turquoise lakelets in the recovering landscape particularly beautiful.

Mt. Adams and Spirit Lake.

Mount St. Helens and lakelets from near our turn-around point.

A panorama that Nicole thankfully reminded me to take.

We turned around and worked our way back toward the observatory, where we found a bench we’d eyed along the way and sat to wait as the sun began to set. The volcano turned purple, and a cloud now hung in front of its exposed crater. Then the horizons glowed like rainbows.

Nicole awaits sunset from our impeccably placed bench.

And the mountain turns a purple I couldn't quite capture.

The Boundary Trail, Mount St. Helens, and the colorful southeastern horizon.

As the light faded, we worked our way back to the parking lot, now almost completely empty. It had, in fact, emptied out considerably in the time between our arrival and our actual departure down the trail. Solitude can be had even here.

I’d calculated that we had some time until the moon would rise over Mount St. Helens’ rim, so we drove west down the highway as the moon broke the horizon in the east unexpectedly. We pulled into a viewpoint and watched.

The moon just rises above Mount St. Helens' rim.

We shared a beautiful evening, arriving back in Seattle just as a new day began. It may not be the volcano you’d always imagined. It may not be Mt. Rainier. But it’s someplace special, and I highly recommend it.

Stats: ~5 miles, perhaps ~300′ of elevation gain, and a whole lot to look at.

As always, a few more photos at [the newly renovated] Flickr.

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