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Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company
Lifestyles : Thursday, May 25, 2000

Johnston Ridge hike reveals rebirth at Mount St. Helens
by Dan A. Nelson
Special to The Seattle Times
Before I ever ventured out to Mount St. Helens, the mountain came to me.

On May 18, 1980, I was wandering through a burned-over area of forest in the Blue Mountains of Southeast Washington when I heard the boom and felt the ground shake. I was 14 years old, out for a day of picking mushrooms with my family and friends when it happened. I had just stumbled into a heavy clump of morel mushrooms when the "boom" echoed through the air. For the next 15 minutes, the air rattled with a sound like 100 planes going supersonic in the middle of a thunderstorm.

If you go

To get to Mount St. Helens, take Exit 49 (Castle Rock) from Interstate 5 and turn east on Highway 504. Continue about 55 miles to the road's end at Johnston Ridge Observatory. Call ahead for road conditions: 360-274-2140. Web site:

To take this hike starting from the Johnston Ridge Observatory parking lot, you must purchase a wristband to wear as you hike, for $3 per day. A Northwest Forest Pass, $5 per day or $30 per year, suffices for the vehicle driver only. Purchase wristbands at the observatory.

We all knew instantly what it was. We rushed to the western edge of the ridge and stared at the horizon. There, some 250 straight-line miles due west, a vast, gray cloud smudged the horizon. We hurried back to our pickups and turned on the radio for confirmation of what we already knew - Mount St. Helens had erupted. The mushrooms forgotten, we set off for home to see the events unfold on television. Before we got there, though, the ash-fall started. By the end of the day, a half-inch of ash covered our small town. Up to that point, I had never had the opportunity to visit Mount St. Helens, but I became fascinated with it on that day.

Amazed at destruction

Five years later, I finally journeyed to the mountain for the first time, on the newly reopened Windy Ridge Road (Forest Service Road 26) south of Randle, Lewis County. At that time, plants were just beginning to recolonize the blast zone, with the hardy fireweed scattered broadly across the landscape and a few scraggly heather plants tickling their way through the ash layers.

I was amazed at the destruction I saw, but it wasn't until recently that I discovered just how impressive the changes were. The eruption of Mount St. Helens was an enormous display of Mother Nature's ability to destroy; but what has come after, has also shown us the enormous capacity of nature to heal and regrow.

Earlier this month, some friends and I made the long drive south to Johnston Ridge on the northwest side of Mount St. Helens to get an up-close and personal look on the 20th anniversary of the big blast.

From the Johnston Ridge Observatory parking lot, we hiked east on the Boundary Trail toward Spirit Lake. With the gaping crater in front of us, we were continually reminded of the volcano's destructive power. But when we turned our eyes away from the ragged peak, we saw countless signs of new growth and recovery. Mosses and lichens cover rocks. Kinnickinick mats sprawl across gravel slopes. Grasses, wildflowers and small ground-cover shrubs fill the gray spaces along the hillside, and hardy, brilliant green subalpine firs and willows reach skyward once more on the alpine ridges.

The trail rolls east along Johnston Ridge for a mile or so, offering a gentle stroll to vacationing tourists and hikers alike. But the easy trail gets a bit tricky when it veers south along the face of a near-vertical wall for several hundred yards. This hazardous bit of trail has a good 300 feet of exposure (meaning, if you fall, you'll have time to say your prayers) and is littered with scree and loose rocks, which routinely tumble down from above. Use extra caution.

The steep section ends at the blunt snout of the ridge. Here, the trail levels out and offers wondrous views into the crater, looking past Loowit Falls and the valley of the Sasquatch Steps. The broad Pumice Plain sprawls between the trail and the crater.

We continued east on the Boundary Trail to a junction near Harry's Ridge. Here, we turned south and descended through a long valley of eroded mud and ash, which resembles the slick-rock country of Utah more than the southern Cascades. After a mile or so of rock and mud, we were on the edge of the Pumice Plain near the southern shore of Spirit Lake. We watched log flotillas bobbing on the lake surface and bald eagles soaring above the lake and the plain, looking for fish or one of the small animals that have returned to this devastated region.

Wildlife aplenty

The animals are indeed back. Just 20 years after this broad valley was inundated with up to 600 feet of mud from the initial landslide, birds and animals fill the area. Elk roam the basin, browsing on lush plant life around small pothole lakes and ponds. We identified the burrow of a snowshoe hare on the gentle western slope of Harry's Ridge, and we heard the yipping cries of a family of coyotes as we started up the trail earlier that morning. The slope above Spirit Lake rang with the relentless "ribbet" of frogs seeking mates along the wetland shores, and the scraggly bushes nearby rustled as flycatchers and flickers flew from branch to branch.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens 20 years ago is held up as an example of the destructive power of nature, yet today, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is the perfect classroom in which to learn about nature's strong ability to recover and rebuild.

Dan A. Nelson is a free-lance writer. To comment on this story by e-mail, write to

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