Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge Observatory

Mt. St. Helens
Johnston Ridge Observatory, Coldwater Lake & the Hummocks Trail

Mt. St. Helens
Mt. St. Helens three days before its 32nd Anniversary

Driving up Hwy 504 toward the Johnston Ridge Observatory, with Mt. St. Helens visible in the distance and getting closer and closer, you pass a large road sign right before crossing a bridge that reads "Entering Blast Zone." A smirk formed on my face...

I arrived at Johnston Ridge first thing in the morning on opening day- the Sunday before the 32nd Anniversary of its eruption, with only a few other cars in the parking lot. I was able to stand high up on the ridge away from the visitor center in utter silence, before the crowds arrived, taking in the monumental sight before my eyes. To witness Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge is one of the most breathtakingly awe-some and haunting things I've ever done. Once you fully understand the eruption that happened here on May 18, 1980, once you realize the magnitude of that eruption, you cannot help but just stand there and stare in awe, stunned as to how Nature can produce such a feat. It is, at the same time, one of the most beautiful and most eerie sights you'll ever see. The only thing separating where you stand on Johnston Ridge and the crater is the cavernous wasteland valley in between.

The scale of the disaster that ensued from Mt. St. Helens is absolutely mind-boggling. Mind-boggling! It has been estimated by scientists that the amount of thermal energy released during Helens' eruption is equal to over 1,500 atom bomb explosions. I cannot even wrap my brain around that....

When rising magma under the mountain formed a massive bulge on the north face, that land mass became unstable. Shortly before 8:30 a.m. on May 18, 1980 an earthquake shook the entire north face loose and it slid off the side of the mountain (along with the top 1,300ft of the mountain!) and down into the valley below. Meanwhile, when that massive section of the mountain slid off all that pressure underneath exploded laterally. It was like blowing the cork out of a shaken champagne bottle. The mountain exploded so hard that the pyroclastic flow (that sinister black cloud of death and destruction composed of superheated gas and rock debris) overtook the landslide!

Everything in its path was obliterated, including the young and enthusiastic geologist David Johnston, for whom the ridge was named. Johnston was stationed on this ridge when the eruption occurred. I could not even begin to imagine what he must have seen moments before his death. It's bone-chilling to even think about when you stand upon the ridge, not far from where he was stationed, and take in the size of the mountain- trying to imagine the size of the landslide as well as the magnitude of the blast; imagining what must have raced through Johnston's head when he saw that black, scorched pyroclastic cloud swallow up everything in front of him. It must have quite literally been, for lack of a better term, hell on earth.

Now, Johnston Ridge is home to a fortress-like Observatory and museum. The eeriness of Mt. St. Helens does not stop at the Observatory, which looks as though it was modeled after the bunkers in Jurassic Park. The Observatory has plenty of places to stand and take in the view, as well as a decent amount of very educational and easily understood information boards that explain the eruption. Inside you'll find a huge scale model of the area that lights up as a narrator explains the eruption. And yet again you're reminded of Jurassic Park- the narrator's voice at the scale model totally reminds me of the narrator's voice pipped into the Ford Explorers in Jurassic Park. I kept waiting for the voice to say "one of the earliest carnivores, we now know Dilophosaurus is actually poisonous, spitting its venom at its prey, causing blindness and eventually paralysis..." But, alas, it never did. Also inside the Observatory you'll find a massive tree trunk snapped like a twig, a hauntingly real look into the power of the volcanic eruption. You'll also find a gift shop, a small movie theater showing quick educational films about Mt. St. Helens, and touchscreen video monitors that walk visitors through the eruption step by step.

Side note: If you visit Johnston Ridge, be sure to stop off at the Observatory visitor center to pick up your bracelet. It is $8 per person, or free if you happen to have a Northwest Forest Pass.

Here are photos taken from the Johnston Ridge Observatory:

Hwy 504 to Johnston Ridge - Mt St Helens
Hwy 504 leading up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory - Mt. St. Helens

VW Van parked at the Johnston Ridge Observatory - Mt. St. Helens
a VW bus parked in the Johnston Ridge Observatory parking lot - Mt. St. Helens

Johnston Ridge Observatory - Mt. St. Helens
Approaching the Johnston Ridge Observatory from the parking lot - Mt. St. Helens

Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge Observatory
View of Mt. St. Helens from the Johnston Ridge Observatory

Mt. St. Helens before eruption
The view of Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge prior to May 18, 1980 (and prior to this being named Johnston Ridge)

A look at an old-growth snapped like a twig during the eruption - Johnston Ridge Observatory - Mt. St. Helens
Inside the Johnston Ridge Observatory - an old growth stump that the eruption landslide snapped like a twig

the pink wrist band - Johnston Ridge Observatory - Mt. St. Helens
Don't forget your required wrist band - $8 at the Observatory or free if you have a Northwest Forest Pass

At Johnston Ridge Observatory - Mt. St. Helens
At the Johnston Ridge Observatory - Mt. St. Helens

Mt. St. Helens from Johnston Ridge
Observation deck at Johnston Ridge - Mt. St. Helens

Ranger giving a scientific presentation on the eruption of Mt St Helens
A ranger gives a very interesting, if not haunting, recap of the 1980 eruption and its devastation of the area, including the very spot on which we stand.

After visiting Johnston Ridge I became obsessed with Mt. St. Helens and the eruption. I wanted to know more, I wanted to see recreations, I wanted to hear scientists describe what happened, I wanted to watch the movie Dante's Peak with Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton, I wanted to watch documentaries, read witness accounts of the eruption, see as many photographs as I could, anything. I was obsessed. After watching several videos on YouTube I decided that the two following videos were among the best, so I decided to post them here for you to watch. The first video is an interview with scientists as they describe the eruption. The second video is a pretty decent animated recreation of the eruption. Both are haunting.

Coldwater Lake Trail #211

Coldwater Lake - Mt. St. Helens
Coldwater Lake - Mt. St. Helens

One of the most interesting facts about Coldwater Lake is that it did not exist prior to the 1980 eruption. It is proof that good can come from disaster, because it is a gorgeous area! The bright, crystal-clear turquoise waters, the rocky Coldwater Peak in the distance to the east, the crater of Mt. St. Helens to the south, the well-kept docks and boardwalks, the old growth stumps underwater, the canoes dotting the horizon, it's beautiful.

The Coldwater Lake trail (#211) follows the northern coastline of the lake. If you hike this on a hot, sunny day, you're going to feel it. There is little to no shade on this trail, due to how young (and therefore short) the vegetation is in the blast zone. There is a dusty, desert-like quality to the air up here, which is amplified on a hot sunny day, which was exactly the type of day I encountered during my afternoon hike. Needless to say, I desperately wanted to jump into Coldwater Lake.

Next time I return to this area I will jump into this lake, mark my words. But before hand I might bring a book and sit out on the dock and read for an hour. That is really what I recommend doing here at Coldwater Lake. Just relax. The hike is nice, but it gets better. Here at Coldwater Lake it's all about the scenery. Soak it in, especially since if, like me, you're from Portland, you probably aren't going to be making the 2-hour-one-way trip up here to Johnston Ridge very often. 

Here are photos from the Coldwater Lake area:

Map of Coldwater Lake and Johnston Ridge
Coldwater Lake and Hwy 504 ending at the parking loop at Johnston Ridge Observatory

a creepy "jurassic-parky" Mt. St. Helens restroom
Mt. St. Helens has a very eerie, "Jurassic Park-y" feel to it, and structures like these make it feel even more so. This restroom looks like something straight from the film set for Jurassic Park

Coldwater Lake - Mt. St. Helens
There is a boardwalk-like, wheelchair-friendly walk along the water's edge at Coldwater Lake - Mt. St. Helens

Coldwater Lake trail #211
the Coldwater Lake trail off to the left follows the north shore

Old growth stump in Coldwater Lake - Mt St Helens
A massive old-growth stump reminds hikers that Coldwater Lake didn't exist prior to the 1980 eruption

Coldwater Lake and Mt St Helens in the distance
Coldwater Lake from the trail with Mt. St. Helens off in the distance

Coldwater Lake trail #211 - Mt St Helens
Coldwater Lake trail - Mt. St. Helens

a family canoeing in Coldwater Lake - Mt St Helens
a family canoeing on Coldwater Lake with Mt. St. Helens' crater in the distance

Hummocks Trail #229

Life slowly starting to return to what was once a barren wasteland - Mt St Helens
Mt. St. Helens from the Hummocks Trail

I know what you're thinking: what on earth is a Hummock? Well, it is basically a mound of earth and debris caused by a landslide. After a volcanic eruption, hummock fields can be found in the areas of the landslides (lahars). Viewed from above, these hummock fields sort of resemble a mogul run on a downhill ski slope- a big bumpy field. The Hummocks Trail (# 229) is basically a loop that takes you inside the edge of Mt. St. Helens' hummock field. 

The Hummocks Trail, like the Coldwater Lake trail, is fairly exposed. This area used to be a total wasteland, resembling the face of the moon. Virtually all life was wiped out. But the eruption occurred 32 years ago, and life is slowly but surely starting to return to this area. The vegetation here is very young and very low to the ground. Be sure to pack sunscreen if it's a sunny day. A good portion of the trail does wander into virgin "forest," but don't expect it to look like your typical Pacific Northwestern forest of massive firs, a carpet of ferns, and moss clinging to whatever it can.

This is a relatively short and easy trail. At certain points the views of Mt. St. Helens and the blast zone are absolutely outstanding, especially at the junction of the Hummocks and Boundary trails and a lookout over the Toutle River (which looks like a creek compared to the massive trench the lahar carved during the eruption, making the river seem to merely trickle through it). In fact, I would say that the very reason to do this hike, besides a little bit of quick exercise, is for these two views. 

Here are photos from the Hummocks Trail:

Hummocks Trailhead #229 - Mt St Helens
Hummocks Trail #229 - Mt. St. Helens

on the Hummocks Trail #229 - Mt St Helens
from the Hummocks Trail - Mt. St. Helens

One look at the power of the Mt St Helens eruption - an old growth tree jammed into the ground
A debris avalanche (called a lahar) caused this hummock I'm standing on. The old-growth tree protruding from the solid ground is a haunting reminder of the power of a lahar sliding off of Mt. St. Helens during the eruption. I placed my camera bag on the ground for size reference.

Mt St Helens from the junction of the Hummocks and Boundary trails
The junction of The Boundary Trail and The Hummocks Trail in the hummock field - Mt. St. Helens

the path cut by the lahar (massive tsunami-like mudflow) that rushed down into the surrounding area when Mt St Helens blew
The Toutle River and a trench carved by the lahar (debris avalanche) that slide off Mt. St. Helens and leveled everything in its path. For size reference, note the group of people standing toward the bottom middle of the photograph.

I did not want to leave Mt. St. Helens for two reasons. First, Johnston Ridge is not exactly "close" to Portland. It takes a good 2 hours each way to get to these views. Coming up to Johnston Ridge is likely something I will only get to experience a few times a year, so I want to savor every moment. Second, and most importantly, there is something about this view of Mt. St. Helens, combined with your knowledge of what happened here in May of 1980, that begs you to stop and stare at it. Irrationally, there is almost a sort of "what if" about standing on Johnston Ridge and looking at the crater. "What if it starts smoking all of the sudden? What if the western face just breaks off while I'm standing here? What if the lava dome suddenly explodes?" There is an eerie anticipation when standing in front of Mt. St. Helens. It is, after all, a very active volcano still. My imagination runs amok at Mt. St. Helens and draws me into a trance where all I want to do is sit and stare at the mountain, the crater, the blast zone, the hummocks field, the dead tree stumps, all of it. It is a sight that no picture will ever capture- it has to be seen with your own eyes, and I only hope you, reader, get to one day experience it. 

On the way back down Hwy 504 toward home, I couldn't help but pull over at the various viewpoints along the way. I wanted to get as many last views of Mt. St. Helens as possible before returning to the city. I am drawn to mountain like a moth to a street lamp. Whenever a guests visits me in Portland for a long enough time, I will certainly offer to take them here. It is something you just have to experience. And the more you learn about the eruption that occurred here just 32 years ago, the more mind-blowing, haunting, and beautiful that experience will be.

a Sunday drive up to Mt. St. Helens
Few things rival a Sunday Drive up Hwy 504 to the Johnston Ridge Observatory - Mt. St. Helens


  1. Damn! What a thorough blog, though the area is so large I'm sure there is still stuff begging to be discovered and explored. The before and after pictures are ridiculous! I also enjoy the remnants of destruction that nature is slowly fading away.

  2. wow, beautiful pics! I've been up before but it was very cloudy and couldn't get very good photos :( My husband, mom & her hubby will be hiking to the summit in september by moonlight, to get to the top for the sunrise, should be very fun for them, wish i could go!!