Hike premier trails on the Pacific Northwest’s most active volcano, just 40 years after the big eruption!
In March 1980, a minor earthquake signaled geologists that Mt. St. Helens – the most symmetrical and arguably the most picturesque volcano in the Cascade Range – had awakened… Two months later, in the most-witnessed, most-studied, and most-photographed eruption in human history, Mt. St. Helens went from being the 5th highest mountain in Washington State, to a most-modest standing of 30th. Along with 1300 feet of the top of the mountain, the once-crystal clear waters of Spirit Lake were gone, replaced by a slurry of logs, mud, and ash. Perhaps most-tragic of all: one of the last remaining and largest contiguous old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest was gone as well.
Forty years later, forests are returning and wildflowers blanket the open landscape in summer. Elk and mountain goats roam the ridges and lower slopes of the volcano. Witness how these local ecosystems are reemerging and evolving after the famed eruption. Nowhere else demonstrates the true resilience of nature quite like this rebounding environment!
The 2-day tour itinerary is much the same as our TripAdvisor ‘Hall of Fame’ daytrips from Seattle and Portland, just longer. We explore both the forested southern slopes of Mt. St. Helens as well as the blast zone and crater on the north. Having two days allows you to enjoy more time at the destinations and go for longer, more in-depth hikes. It also allows you to enjoy an evening on the shores of the mighty Columbia River at McMenamin’s acclaimed Kalama Harbor Lodge!
DAY 1: Canyon, Lake, and Cave
The forested southern slopes of the volcano reveal much of the mountain’s history through its past eruptions. Begin with a short, 1-mile excursion into Lava Canyon, where churning waters of snowmelt have carved a deep channel through ancient basalts. For our picnic lunch we head to tiny, shallow June Lake on the lower flanks of the volcano. Formed 2,000 years ago when a lava flow blocked a small creek, the lake is filled by a 70-ft waterfall. The sounds of this natural fountain echoing off the cliffs contributes to the magic of the shoreline’s park-like setting. In the afternoon we don our headlamps and an extra layer before heading into the cool darkness of Ape Cave, the third-longest lava tube in North America, to do a little spelunking… in search of the geologic anomaly known as the “Meatball”. If time allows, we will stop at Trail of Two Forests, where two forests whose ages differ by 2,000 years – collide. We’ll celebrate the end of this great day with a handcrafted ale and a sunset view from McMenamin’s Kalama Harbor Lodge on the shores of the Columbia River!
June Lake: 3 miles; 450ft gain; 2700-3200ft elev.
DAY 2: The Blast Zone and Crater
To the natives Mt. St. Helens’ spirit was “Loowit,” a lovely maiden, but she was also referred to as Louwala Clough, “smoking mountain”. Today we head straight up the Toutle River valley toward the epicenter of the 1980 eruption to witness and explore this latter facet of the mountain’s split-personality – the devastating potential of her power.
You expect to see miles upon miles of landscape completely erased and transformed overnight; countless acres of mighty, towering old-growth trees blown down like straw; massive remnants of logging equipment strewn about the landscape… And you will not be disappointed there.
What you are surprised to see is… so much LIFE!
Visit the Coldwater Lake and the fascinating Johnston Ridge Observatory before setting out on a hike out the ridge toward Spirit Lake. The trail offers constant views of the mountain and the interior of the crater. Below, you can see the Hummocks – massive pieces of the top of the mountain reduced to small hills at the bottom of the valley. It is a great hike for wildlife viewing as well. Mountain goats, elk and deer are easy to spot on the unforested hillsides.
Hummocks Trail: 2.4 miles; 100ft. gain; 2500ft elev.
Johnston Ridge: 2-3 miles; 200-500 ft. gain; 4300ft elev.