Saturday, October 1, 2011

Return to MSH

Mount St. Helens is one of my very favorite places to hike.  Unfortunately, it's also a long drive from home.  Although I love hiking this mountain, my visits only average about once a year.

Remember - clicking on any photo will produce a larger view!

MSH rises up from the road

However, last week I had one more vacation day to myself, and I really wanted to go hiking again.  It was the perfect opportunity for another trip to Mt. St. Helens.  Never mind that I'd just driven up to Mt. Hood and hiked 12 miles the day before.  I've wanted to visit the Independence Pass Trail near MSH for many, many years.  This trail takes you to Norway Pass, where there's an incredible view of Spirit Lake and MSH itself.  I'd seen the photos in my hiking book, and wanted to capture some images of my own.

My trailhead for today

So on my last day of vacation, I got up really, really early, and pointed my car towards the Windy Ridge viewpoint.  I'd been there once before, two years ago.  I remembered it being a very long 2 1/2 hour drive.  Yep, the long, monotonous drive was still the same.  I'd been traveling for an hour and a half already, when I passed a road sign that read:  "Windy Ridge - 56 miles."  Ugh!

Dew-sparkled flowers

But I finally arrived at my destination, the Independence Pass trailhead.  The sun was shining high in the sky, and temps were getting hot.  It was going to be a beautiful day.  A beautiful FALL day (it was the first day of fall!)  I noticed a sign at the trailhead that said the Independence Pass Trail was closed a mile ahead.  Hmmmm.....really??  I didn't drive all the way up here for nothing did I?

From this trailhead, my map showed two trails that would take me to Norway Pass.  There was the more scenic Independence Pass trail, which followed the shoreline of Spirit Lake, and was supposed to be very spectacular (according to my Sullivan book).  And there was the Independence Ridge trail, that I knew next to nothing about.  My initial plan had been to hike both trails as a loop (out on one, and back on the other).  Since there were two trail choices, I decided to go ahead and hike a mile in on the trail, and check things out for myself.

MSH and Spirit Lake from Independence Ridge Trail

From the very beginning, the first mile was great.  I immediately got views of Spirit Lake and the famous truncated volcano itself.  The lack of trees made for some nice wide open vistas.  Flowers were still blooming, but there were also some fall colors in the mix.  Huckleberry bushes were everywhere, their leaves a brilliant shade of red.  Flowers, fall colors, great weather, and sunshine.  I love hiking in autumn.

Boo!  Trail closure!!

I reached the trail junction and discovered, much to my disappointment, that the Independence Pass Trail was indeed closed.  There was no explanation as to why.  I was tempted to ignore the sign and hike the trail anyway.  I pondered this for a minute, but since I was by myself, decided this probably wasn't a good idea.  The Independence Ridge Trail was still open, and would get me to my destination.  Instead of a loop, my hike would now be an out-and-back on the same trail.

Red huckleberry leaves

Since I knew nothing about the Independence Ridge Trail, I thought it would be a boring slog.  But I was pleasantly surprised.  The next 2 1/2 miles were an absolute delight.  Huckleberry bushes lined the path, their leaves a beautiful shade of red.  And each bush was loaded with yummy plump berries.  Ummm.....made for some great snacks.

Awesome paintbrush

Flowers of every variety popped up from the forest floor.  There was lupine, paintbrush, fireweed, purple daisies, and many other types that I didn't know the name of.

The last fireweed blooms

I began the hike through hills cleared by MSH's huge blast.  Weathered, dead trees littered the ground everywhere.  As I continued towards Norway Pass, I noticed small conifers and bushes growing up between these old logs.  Birds flitted through the underbrush, and chipmunks scurried across the ground.  I noticed more animal poop on the trail than I've seen anywhere else.  I even saw lots of elk hoofprints in the dirt.  The natural environment was recovering just fine.

Mt. Rainer peeps from behind the hills

I contoured around the hills rising up from Spirit Lake's north side.  Mt. Adams and Rainier came into view.  Looking north towards Mt. Rainier, one could see the extent of the volcano's eruptive force.  Downed trees littered hillsides for miles beyond my position.  It's amazing how dramatically the landscape was affected by the blast.  As many times as I've visited MSH, I'm still awed and humbled by the enormous scale of devastation.

The wonderful view from Norway Pass

Of course, with so many wonderful sights and flowers to photograph, my progress was not exactly speedy.  So it was after 12 noon when I finally reached Norway Pass.  As I came upon the famous vantage point, my jaw dropped.  The view towards Spirit Lake and MSH was even more spectacular in person!

Butterfly posing for me

Norway Pass was such a beautiful place.  Not only did it have such a great view of the lake and mountain, there were also flowers blooming, butterflies soaring, and the adjacent hillsides were covered with bushes displaying fall colors.

Fall colors on the hillside

I was really hungry, but before I sat down to lunch, I took the time and photographed each and every one of these wonderful sights.

Another picture-postcard view of MSH

This was hands-down my most favorite lunch spot ever!

Mt. Adams and Meta Lake

I spent about 45 minutes at Norway Pass, taking pictures, and soaking in the views.  I felt so lucky to have sunny, clear weather.  It would be a shame to hike all this way and not be able to see this wonderful scenery.  I wanted to stay all afternoon.

But.....I had the return trip to my car, and I still wanted time to visit the Harmony Trail.  So reluctantly, I shouldered my backpack and bid this special place goodbye.

Sideways trees litter the hillside

The return trip to the trailhead was much quicker.  The morning sun had been better for photography, so there wasn't as much to distract me.  However, the afternoon sun did cast some nice light on Mt. Adams and Meta Lake, far below me.  I got a couple good images of the mountain-lake combo. 

Fall colors on the Harmony Trail

I arrived back at my car around 2 pm.  There was still enough time for me to explore the Harmony Trail, just over a mile down the road.  The Harmony trail was a short path that led visitors to the edge of Spirit Lake.  This is the only place in the entire National Volcanic Monument that people are allowed access to the lake's shore.

The trail descended down through a thick growth of bushes and alder trees.  The mid-afternoon temps were toasty, so the shade was most welcome.  The trail emerged out onto a barren plain.  The surrounding hills rising up from the plain were void of any tree growth.  It was an eerie, desolate place.

Spirit Lake shoreline

I made my way down to Spirit Lake's shoreline.  The lake sparkled in the afternoon sun.  The remains of MSH's stubby core anchored one end of the lake like a silent sentinel.  The multitude of logs that jammed Spirit Lake in the days after the eruption, had now all migrated to the shoreline and formed a large woody raft.  The huge amount of log debris prevented my access to the lake itself.  A little disappointing.  I was hoping to actually touch the waters of Spirit Lake.

Although the Harmony Trail was kind of a bust, I felt a sense of accomplishment that I'd finally visited Norway Pass, a place that'd been on my "hiking bucket list" for years.  It was totally worth the long drive.  There will definitely be more return trips!



  1. Truly stunning photos... I want to go hiking with you someday :)

  2. you have great destinations for hiking. so gorgeous. thanks for sharing


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