The Other Side of the Mount

As the car headed north across the I-205 bridge to Washington, I was practically giddy with excitement. I realized a long-lost sense of freedom. It felt really, really good to be heading out for a week to explore new places.

Day One of our road trip was a gorgeous sunny day for a drive in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The air smelled so warm and fragrant. After a couple of hours and a picnic lunch we came to our first stop in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, near Cougar, Washington.

The Trail of Two Forests
Boardwalks cross over lava flows from 1,900 years ago.
Boardwalks cross over a lava flow from nearly 2000 years ago – or first century AD.
These pits are footprints of where trees used to stand. Encircled by hot molten lava trees would burst into flames and sometimes topple over and drown in a river of oozing lava.
After many years of decay only the impressions of toppled trees or the molds (pits) of the standing trees remain of the ancient forest.
This ladder descends down the hole where a large tree once grew before it was incinerated by hot lava. At the bottom of the pit was a tunnel where one could crawl the length of what once upon a time was a downed tree that had been completely buried in lava.
Looking up at the tall trees of the younger forest growing where an ancient forest once stood.

If you’re going to this area you might want to visit Ape Cave. (It was closed when we were there due to Covid-19.) More than 2 miles long, it is one of the longest continuous lava tubes in the world.

We continued around to the east side of Mount St. Helens and traveled north to Forest Road 99 – a rough road – which is generally free of snow late from late June through October and offers the only drive-up viewpoint of Spirit Lake.

Viewing Mt. St. Helens from the east. The May 18, 1980 eruption began with a landslide and lateral blast from its northern flank and then 9 hours of ash blasting more than 10 miles into the atmosphere. The windblown ash traveled eastward and completely circumnavigated the earth before raining down on the area west of the mountain.

The land within the Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument was left to recover naturally with minimal human intervention. It’s been 40 years since the 1980 eruption. We drove through miles of healthy forest, but as we traveled closer to the mountain we could see the impact of the blast: incinerated forest, lay-down forest and blast zones.

The “scorch zone” of standing-dead trees is 16 miles from the summit. The green growth is either new trees that have been reseeded naturally since the eruption or they miraculously survived the 1980 blast as slender seedlings buried under 8 feet of snow.

The May 18, 1980 eruption sadly claimed the lives of 57 people, many of them camping miles away from the mountain where it was considered to be safe from harm.

Traveling closer to the mountain one arrives at the lay-down forest zone where the blast was strong enough to knock the entire forest over. Here one see trees that had been snapped, or twisted and torn from their trunks and laying down in the direction of the blast.
In the barren blast zone closest to the mountain no trees survived. Trees (some with root balls intact) were deposited in Spirit Lake where they remain today. At Windy Ridge (elevation 4,170’) we climbed 368 steps to a viewpoint where we could see the new lava dome growing inside Mt. St. Helen’s mile-wide crater. Losing 1300 feet in the eruption, it is now 8,328’ tall.

On May 18, 1980, the world’s largest landslide in recorded history slammed into Spirit Lake causing a 850-foot high wave to hit the northern mountainside. With the lake water temporarily displaced, 200 feet of new debris was deposited in the lake bed. With the water’s return, the lake was 200 feet higher in elevation and the surface area increased from 1300 acres to 2200 acres.

The Windy Ridge viewpoint overlooks Spirit Lake. Thousands of shattered trees form a log raft on its surface. The snow-covered top of 14,411′ tall Mt. Rainier, a live volcano and the tallest of the Cascade peaks is barely visible in the background. The Cascade mountain peaks of Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood (in Oregon) were also visible from this location.
The blast zone and pumice plain between Spirit Lake and the mountain is where the intense blast scoured everything down to bedrock before being buried by hundreds of feet of mud.

From these parks on County Road 99 there are several different trails to hike ranging from an “easy” half-mile hike to several “most difficult” hikes including a 2-mile trail that descends steeply to Spirit Lake’s shoreline.

Meta Lake Interpretive Site has a easy paved 1/2 mile (round-trip) trail to a small clear lake through the lay-down forest zone.
The lay-down forest is slowly decomposing and is nearly hidden by new growth.

We continued our drive north to go east on Highway 12 over the scenic White River Pass to Yakima where we had a hotel reservation.

Covid Safety Precautions: Facial masks were always worn inside public spaces such as hotels and restaurants. Many hotel desks and places such as Starbucks had installed clear plexiglas screens around their counters to provide additional protection. The Yakima Best Western Plus Hotel had an indoor pool and hot tub which guests could reserve a time for personal use.

Day 1 of Washington road trip included a lot of driving with varied landscapes.

My post Where Were You When the Mountain Blew? includes photos from Johnston Ridge Observatory which is accessible from the west side of Mt. St. Helens here.

2 responses to “The Other Side of the Mount

  1. Hi ! You are in my home state! I have seen the scars about 10years after it happened; interesting, & weird. I just read that there is a wildfire near Yakima; be careful out there!


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