The trails North of Mt. St Helens offer a different perspective of the blast than being on the mountain. The ash covered trails and treeless exposure to the sun can offer different challenges than other trails in the Northwest. When the pass is reached and Spirit Lake comes into view, hundreds of trees from the 1980 explosion still float in the lake.
On sunny days around the Mt. Margret backcountry, Mt. Ranier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood all come into view at some point. In mid-July, fields of wildflowers display in full bloom. Mother nature’s comeback from a volcanic explosion from just a short time ago offers a unique perspective that can’t be found anywhere else in the US. Be on the lookout for elk herds and mountain goats off in the distance.
For a preview on a hot August day, a good run is the Backountry Rise 20 mile course, starting at the boat ramp of Coldwater Lake instead of the Science Learning Center, saving the climb in and out. Head East on the Lakes Trail for a fairly flat five miles until Coldwater Trail. The trail offers views of Coldwater Lake, which was formed after the explosion when Coldwater Creek was dammed by volcanic debris.
Take a right on Coldwater Trail for the 20 mile route. The Coldwater Creek is near this intersection and the last place to get water for 10 miles. Whittier Ridge comes into sight on the Coldwater Trail through the last tree cover of the four-mile climb. Coldwater Peak and the damage of the blast come into view toward the top of the ascent. Penstemon, paintbrush and other colorful wildflowers (plus pesty flies) surround the dirt and sandy trails. Ripe huckleberries in August provide some bonus nutrition.
When the top of Coldwater Ridge is approached, Mt. St. Helens in all its glory is in full display. St. Helens Lake on the left of the trail, where trees were broken off from the eruption fill one side of the lake. Boundry Trail crosses shortly after the ridge. For an extra adventure, take a left on Boundry and to the Coldwater Peak trail to climb the summit for views of Ranier, Goat Rocks, Hood, and Jefferson mountain peaks. The 20 mile course takes a right. Shortly after the intersection is one of the highlights of the trail. There’s a huge opening where the trail passes through a natural arch, sometimes called the “hole in the wall.” This is the first shade for miles and also offers a nice breeze on hot days.
It’s a nice descent for the next couple of miles, making the views of the blast zone and Spirit Lake even more enjoyable. The Devil’s Elbow is a part of the Boundry Trail as it approaches Johnston Ridge Observatory. The observatory looks like a lair out of a Star Trek episode. Hikers from Johnston Ridge approach in numbers and the trail turns to an asphalt path. After 10 hot and dry miles, the water fountains and bathrooms at the ridge are lifesavers. Trek through the parking lot to find the Boundry Trail and start the last descent toward the west.
The Mt. St. Helens blast zone and the North Fork of the Toutle River are spectacular at this section. The ash, trees and erosion from the volcano are still a prominent part of the landscape. Spirit Lake was the original source of the river but was blocked off after the eruption. The Army Corps of Engineers redirected water from the lake through a tunnel in 1985. The river’s headstreams begin on a volcanic ash deposit and are the source of much of the excess sediment.
Run toward the Hummocks Trail parking lot, cross the road and head back to the boat ramp. Enjoy the water from the lake to cool off before heading back home. Check out the video for the visual experience of the route.