This is part 1 of a 2 part series. Notes for the trails mentioned in this article are below.
Mt. St. Helens has been synonymous with devastation and destruction ever since the May 1980 volcanic eruption that blasted out from the collapsed north face of the mountain at 8:32 am. Trip reports, photographs, books and documentaries have focused on the devastating effects the eruption had on the surrounding landscape, often with a follow up section mentioning the rebirth and healing of the landscape over the past 30 years. On a recent trip out to the volcano during the summer, it became clear to me that more and more the evidence of this devastation has begun to vanish under the onslaught of rebirth. It also became clear that there will be a time, not very far in the future and certainly within my lifetime, where it will be possible that almost no effects will be visible from the majority of the volcanic landscape. This is a staggering thought when you realize that shortly after the eruption it was incomprehensible to most that the slopes of the volcano would ever harbor life again, let alone a diverse ecosystem that may have actually benefited from the “clean slate” that was provided by the lateral blast.
The first thing to understand when looking at a reborn Mt. St. Helens, is that the recovery has been a patchwork. Different environments and locations within the mountain have benefited in different ways depending not only on the intensity of the blast at a given location, but also dependent on topography and what the conditions were like before the eruption, as well as what new conditions have evolved as time has progressed. In describing this new found land that is Mt. St. Helens, it is more apt to think of things in terms of transition and what stage a particular area has reached than to think of it in terms of distance from the crater. Areas where replanting has occurred outside of the monument, as well as the south side of the mountain where the primary devastation was caused by mudflows, have already healed significantly. Inside the devastated northern reaches of the mountain, where the lateral blast rolled and blasted across the ridges and lakes in a 13 mile swath, the recovery has been more like a puzzle.
The most recovered area in terms of returning to a state more in line with the old growth forests that existed prior to the eruption of the mountain, is by far the north facing slopes of the ridges to the northeast and west, between 4 and 13 miles from the crater. These ridges were sheltered from the direct blasting effect, unlike the south facing slopes where the blast literally stripped the trees and then the soil right down to bedrock. On these north facing slopes, large stands of alder have filled in the ridge so densely that in late spring and summer they are a carpet of solid green. Hiking the Harmony Trail along the edge of Spirit Lake shows this effect most aptly. Fallen trees and stumps left over from the blast are completely grown over and hidden from view. The only inklings of the blast take the form of a few last remaining standing dead trees that so far have remained ghostly as the sun and rain bleach their bark to white.
Following in stages of recovery, the alder forest has taken over parts of the area in the Toutle River valley known as the Hummocks as well. Accessible via the Hummocks and Boundary trails, the alder in this area has grown to heights of 10-20 feet tall, and in certain places has begun to obscure former views of the volcano from the trail. This area was the final resting place of a great volume of the avalanche material from the landslide of the north face of Mt. St. Helens. Water, wind, snow and rain have carved deep chasms and canyons through the debris, creating a surreal landscape of massive blocks of hard rock surrounded by clear tranquil ponds and forests of alder where soil has built up. Great herds of elk and the largest concentration of wildlife are to be found in this area, as food is most plentiful and snow melts off earlier than other parts of the monument.
Mt St Helens Trails Info:
Harmony Trail - This 3 mile round trip trail is considered easy, and by far has one of the best payoffs for such short distance. The trail is accessed from a viewpoint pullout 13.5 miles along Forest Road 99, the main access route to the Windy Ridge viewpoint of St. Helens. Access to FR 25 and FR 99 is limited to the summer months, mostly late June and into early October dependent on snowfall and accumulations. It is not accessible in winter as the road is gated off at the junction of FR 99 and FR 25. The trail descends 600 feet down the side of an alder covered ridge and out into a windswept basin, ultimately leading to the very shore of Spirit Lake with a distant view across the lake of the volcano.
Hummocks Trail – This easy meandering trail is a loop through the debris avalanche hummocks of the Toutle River valley. At 2.3 miles with a virtually steady elevation of 2,500 feet, this trail traverses the edges of the many ash canyons and hummocks, with up close views of the looming volcano and the recovering ponds and alder forests of the valley floor. This trail also has dual benefits, as it is located along State Route 509 the trailhead is the end of the plowed road, and accessible year-round and so makes for excellent snowshoeing in winter. It also serves as a connection to the western portion of the Boundary 1 trail, which climbs steeply up to the top of Johnston Ridge.
Boundary Trail - This trail is actually one long multi day trail that crosses the entire monument, passing through the Mt. Margaret Backcountry at its mid point through the monument. It is accessible from Forest Road 99 on the east side of the volcano, as well as from the Johnston Ridge observatory at the end of State Route 509. The section of trail discussed herein is informally known as the Boundary west trail, and the segment beginning at the Hummocks trail junction and ending at the Johnston Ridge Observatory is 9.6 miles round trip (not including the Hummocks trail) with an elevation difference of 1,700 feet, most of which is gained ascending to the first crest of the ridge. Accessible year round via the Hummocks trail, and during the summer via the Visitor Center, its steep slopes are prone to cornices and avalanche danger during the winter months, so snowshoeing is not encouraged by casual hikers.
(Part 2 will be available with the April Issue of our magazine.)