I visited the north side of Mount St. Helens yesterday with my uncle and my dog. St. Helens is a sleeping volcano, by far the most active in the Cascade Range. It erupted with extreme violence on May 18th, 1980, killing 57 people. Now it is a National Monument managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and is in full-on recovery mode.
Since the monument is only partially open now, the snow just having recently melted off the highway, we had it to ourselves. And what a gorgeous day to be there with only a few other lucky souls! The mountain was glittering with rapidly melting snow, the water was pouring down through creeks and over waterfalls, and the birds and amphibians were busy with their lives on the shores of full lakes and ponds.
This whole area was transformed by the eruption of St Helens in 1980. The volcano awoke on March 16th of that year with a series of small earthquakes. A week and a half later the mountain erupted, blasting a small crater out of the snow-covered summit. The mountain then proceeded to work up to its big blast 8 weeks later. The north flank of the mountain slowly bulged outward as magma moved upward.
Finally, on that beautiful Sunday morning, while folks were in church or tending their gardens, the bulge gave way and history’s largest recorded landslide occurred. The volcano was essentially uncorked, and as the massive debris avalanche slid toward Spirit Lake (where Harry Truman – the old character who refused to evacuate his lakeside cabin – awaited his fate), the mountain erupted in a powerful lateral blast. It had the force of 24 megatons, 1600 times the energy released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Whole forests were mowed down and the mountain’s height reduced by 1300 feet.
The mass of rock, mud and ash cascaded down the North Fork Toutle River valley, burying the river and damming Coldwater Creek. These types of debris avalanches typically form mounds (hummocks) where the debris comes to rest, and this is what happened here. Erosion by streams further sculpts the landscape. Actually, this strange hummocky terrain, which occurs in places worldwide, was a bit of a puzzle to geologists before St. Helens showed geologists how it is formed. Beautiful Coldwater Lake, along with the adjacent hummocks and melt-water ponds with their unique ecosystem, owe their existence to the 1980 landslide and eruption. Volcanoes destroy, but they also create.
We hiked partway around Coldwater Lake. We had planned to make the 12-mile loop around this rather large lake, which was created when the debris avalanche from the 1980 eruption dammed Coldwater Creek. But a wide, tumbling creek stopped us. I hopped across, getting my feet wet. Seeing my uncle hesitate, I built a very rough bridge out of logs for him to cross. But at age 73, he has gotten very cautious. He just doesn’t like doing anything even remotely hazardous. And stream crossings are something he REALLY does not like on a hike. So we turned back.
I was pretty disappointed. The hike around the lake was promising to be one spectacular trek. I’ll just have to get back up there soon to do the whole thing. But I snapped quickly out of my funk when we found a great alternative just across the road from the lake.
The Hummocks Trail is a very interesting 2.5-mile loop through strange mounds created by the 1980 debris avalanche. At this time of year there are beautifully full ponds trapped between the hummocks, alive with frogs, toads and salamanders. The trail also passes a couple fantastic viewpoints up the Toutle River to the hulking volcano, with its horseshoe-shaped crater and (often steaming) lava dome. Interpretive signs along the trail teach about the eruption and formation of the hummocks.
After a late picnic at Coldwater Lake, where we did some birdwatching and general lazing about, I headed back up the Hummocks Trail to one of the ponds for sunset pictures. We made a full day of it after all, and didn’t get back to Portland until near 11 p.m. It had been a couple years since I had been up to St. Helens, and I am determined to not let that much time go by again. It is just too nearby, too special and beautiful a place to neglect.
To get there, travel north on I5 from Portland, Oregon (or south from Seattle). Get off the freeway at the exit for Castle Rock and travel east on Highway 504 about 45 miles to Coldwater Lake. During the summer season, this highway is open all the way to it’s end at Johnston Ridge Observatory, 7 miles on from the lake. Find the trail around the lake either from the boat ramp or the Science & Learning Center up on the hill above the lake. The Hummocks Trail is directly across Hwy. 504 from the turnoff for Coldwater Lake. This part of Mount St. Helens is open from about late April until the snow flies in November. Johnston Ridge is open from mid-May until late October. There is an $8 fee to use Coldwater Lake or Johnston Ridge Observatories during the summer season.