Climbing Mount St Helens…or Not

We’ve known since last year that we wanted to climb to the summit of Mount St. Helens back in Washington.  My sister had suggested it for 2016 without realizing we needed permits for the high country, so we planned it for 2017 instead, coinciding with her college graduation at Oregon State. (Which was fabulous—you rock, E!). You need to prepare even before going on a trip like this, it also depends on your means of transport, RVs are often used but going to a place with cold weather is worth checking Top 5 Best Electric Tankless Water Heaters for RV [2022 Review] – RVProfy.

The summit of Mount St. Helens isn’t supposed to require climbing gear, but it’s still tough, according to Kandoo Adventures, and that’s what we were looking for, a big-but not crazy-challenge.  There’s a rise of 4000 feet in elevation, with about two miles of forest, two miles of a boulder field, and a mile of ash field. And then back down.

Eagle Creek Park. This hill is pretty steep, but still too brief.

It’s a little hard to prepare for a climb like that in Central Indiana (the land of the flat), but we did the best we could.  Eagle Creek Park has trails that are mostly up and down small hills if you stay along the lakeside, and I’d been doing round trips of those trails, breaking in new hiking boots and practicing with trekking poles.

And then the weather began arguing with us.  The high Cascades got a chunk of snow again in early June and it wasn’t melting.  The forecast for our climbing day was 40s at the midpoint of the trail, 32-34 at the summit, and 30 mph winds all the way up!  The forecast eased a little as we got closer and we packed extra layers with both optimism and trepidation.

As it turned out, Monitor Ridge, the summer hiking route, was still closed due to snow. And the longer trail would have made it 12 miles round trip instead of 10. And when I had only hiked 6 miles so far? Um…how fast can you say Change of Plans? (Thank you, Pete, for being the voice of reason!)

Instead, we decided on an 8-1/2 mile hike from the Johnston Observatory to Harry’s Ridge and back again. The Observatory staff suggested we hike first and come back to enjoy the a/c when we were done. (Nice idea, but we should have explored the Observatory first. We got back barely half an hour before they closed, exhausted without enough time to really look at stuff.)

So with Mount St. Helens boldly in front of our faces, we started down the Eruption Trail, reading explanatory signs about what happened before veering off to the Boundary Trail.

Starting off on the trail with my niece and nephew. Check out my wild leggings!

The entire trail was at 4,000+ feet, and we forgot the sunscreen on what turned out to be a hot sunny day. Not good. To top it off, our campground had been chilly, even at noon, so we were wearing layers.  Our packs, of course, were filled with extra sweatshirts and such. I ended up peeling my jeans off and hiking most of it in my 3/4 length exercise leggings! Yes, I felt really dorky, especially as other hikers stared when they passed us.

The trail was supposed to have a 200 ft rise in elevation, but what they didn’t specify was that it went up and down those 200 (and 500) feet numerous times!

We were walking on volcanic rock and soil, mostly. Rather a moonscape, although there was more plant life than I expected. Flowers blooming where it didn’t feel like there should be any.  In that respect, it reminded me of the Burren in western Ireland.


At one point, the trail was supposed to turn sharply, but we found a sign telling us to use an alternate route.  So we followed the makeshift trail that mostly scrambled over the hill instead of curving nicely around it. The sign on the other side had added “please consider” and seemed more of a suggestion:

“Due to unsafe trail conditions, please consider using alternate route. USE CAUTION ON SNOW!”

We met three guys who had hiked that way and said there were several places they had to hug boulders to get around, but it sounded like we could try it on the way back. But when the time came … too worn out to cling to rocks.

Other moments:

My “Sound of Music” shot

Tim, poking into the first snow we saw on the way up.

Shattered tree trunk from the 1980 blast — there are many of these and downed logs.

I just liked taking pictures of them!

Spirit Lake, which I thought had disappeared in the blast. See the logs still there along the shore?

The view from the top of Johnston’s Ridge was magnificent.  In a 180 degree turn, we saw other close mountains and trails, Mount Adams behind Spirit Lake, Mount Hood poking her head up faintly in the background, and then Mount St Helens.St. Helens loomed over us all the time, sometimes in front, sometimes to the side or behind as the trail turned. The “new” lava dome is rising up in the center.  Although the snow you can see was probably slushy, I was glad we weren’t trying to hike in it.

Blaik, yours truly, and Tim

We had lunch at the top of Harry’s Ridge, traded picture-taking favors with another couple, and steeled ourselves for the downward trek. Tired already, another 4.3 miles to go back down, and we were very glad for the trekking poles. I think we were looking for the Johnston Observatory around every corner and over every hill for the last mile and a half!

One of the prettiest campgrounds I’ve ever stayed in–Seaquest State Park

I had started out very disappointed that we didn’t climb at least some of the summit trail, but I figured we could come back someday. By the time we were done, exhausted in our campground, Tim was still excited about coming back–alone! (Protective Mom here said to bring a buddy.)  As for Blaik and me? Maybe that was enough dry moonscape hiking for a while, and trying to reach the summit might be too much for our knee and back problems.

But somehow the challenge of the boulder field is still calling me.

Uh oh.

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