Harry's Ridge

Is it the Alaskan tundra? The high moors of Scotland? No, it’s the desolate high country of Mt. St. Helens— seemingly barren from a distance, yet teeming with vibrant life when observed closely. Perhaps the best trail on which to experience the bleak splendor of the monument is the winding path to the top of Harry’s Ridge.

From the tourist thronged parking lots of Johnston Ridge Visitor Center at the terminus of SR 504, journey east along the Boundary trail. With every step, the crowds thin, not that you’ll notice! Keep one eye on your feet as you gaze into the yawning maw of Mt. St. Helens, a lone glacier protruding from the crater like a dirty white tongue. The foliage is an equal distraction— all around you’ll see wide meadows overflowing with lupine, fireweed, gentians and glacier lilies. At times, the vibrant life of this place will lead you to wonder why you ever considered it a wasteland!

Unfortunately, this ridge-top jaunt is interrupted by a forbidding wall of crumbling stone, along which a narrow path winds and those with a fear of heights often call it a day. This is the weeding out point for the average tourist. However, if you are stout of heart, carry on, for fresh wonders lie ahead. After traversing the cliff, the trail comes to a viewpoint with a 250 degree view of Mt. St. Helens, Spirit Lake, Mt. Adams and the desolate plains under the mountain. Beyond this, the trail follows a series of switchbacks cut into the hummocks beneath a low pass, the other side of which lies a wide, flat basin beneath Coldwater Peak. The trail skirts the basin, gaining height to yet another pass, which offers a sweeping panorama out over portions of Spirit Lake to the Dark Divide and Mt. Adams. To the left, the trail continues to the high summit of Coldwater and the remote Mt. Margaret Backcountry. To the right, a gentler path less traveled ascends the long length of Harry’s Ridge to a summit adorned with seismological and weather instruments.

Harry's Ridge

The ridge is named for Harry Truman— not the president, but a devoted resident of the shores of Spirit Lake who perished in the eruption. From this lofty point, there is a view of the entire length of Spirit Lake. The added elevation provides another perspective of the previous views and adds the far distant Willapa Hills, beyond which lies the Pacific. On a clear day, one might see the ragged form of Saddle Mountain in Northern Oregon. Linger awhile and watch the giant drifts of floating logs migrate across the wind flecked surface of Spirit Lake and listen to the water falls tumbling into the canyons to the North. Here, you can observe the ever changing face of a still developing ecosystem.

For an alternative route back, one might hike up the side of Coldwater Peak and then take the South Coldwater trail down to SR 504. However, this adds considerable mileage, with elevation loss and gain. If you don’t arrange for a shuttle vehicle, you must hike from the hummocks trail up the boundary trail to the visitor center, a journey that will hardly be desirable after the 15 or so miles you have already traveled!

Harry's Ridge

Perhaps the trails of Mt. St Helens, being so few, are not very new— but though I have hiked here many times, it is never the same twice. My favorite time of day to be here is the evening, when my return hike is filled with the view of alpenglow on Mt. St Helens; when the tourists have gone home and the solitude is complete. An afternoon on Harry’s Ridge can almost make me understand how the namesake of the Ridge could not bear to be parted from the beauty of his home, though it cost him his life. It is equally hard for me to stop drinking in the views and the solitude and head for home.

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