Monday, August 4, 2014

Summitting Coldwater Peak

My summer wildflower tour wouldn't be complete without a visit to Mt. St. Helens.  Beginning in mid-July, colorful flowers carpet the barren landscape around this mountain.  Some of the best floral displays occur along the Boundary Trail from the Johnston Ridge Visitor Center to Coldwater Peak.

Dewdrop-spangled lupine

For the past three years, I've driven the long two hours to follow this trail.  One of my very favorites, it's a "must-do" on my summer hiking list.  But although coming close, I'd yet to summit Coldwater Peak.  A long hike, (nearly 13 miles) both prior visits I'd run out of time, and had to stop short of the goal.

The paintbrush are out in force!

Two weeks ago, I decided today was the day.  I rallied my friends Young and John, enticing them with glowing descriptions of the beautiful landscapes.  We arrived at the Johnston Ridge Visitor center to chilly temps and thick clouds.  Not exactly the conditions I'd hoped for, but at least it wasn't raining!

Furry friend

My friends and I started out on the Boundary Trail from the visitor center parking lot.  The parade of flowers began almost immediately.  Although there wasn't the large purple carpets of penstemon like last year, lupine and paintbrush almost made up for the deficit.  Plus, many of the lupine's petals were drenched in dew droplets, which made for some fine photo ops.

Entering Devil's Elbow

For the first two miles, our path ambled downhill across desolate plains scoured by Mt. St. Helen's 1980 eruption.  When the volcano exploded, this area took a direct hit.  But bright patches of vivid orange paintbrush and deep purple lupine brightened an otherwise stark landscape.

Young traverses Devil's Elbow

At the two mile mark, the trail abruptly changes direction and follows a ridge southward around a gravelly plateau.  The trail across this ridge is narrow, with steep slopes above and cliffs below.  Dubbed the "Devil's Elbow," it's not for the faint of heart.

But there is a reward for this treacherous traverse.  Reaching the plateau's point gives visitors wonderful up-close views into MSH's collapsed crater.  Sadly, there were no views today.  MSH decided to be shy, and hid behind thick clouds.

First glimpse of Spirit Lake

But this plateau offered other views, almost as nice.  Looking to the east, my friends and I glimpsed the southern end of Spirit Lake, and above it the treeless slopes of Windy Ridge.

Wildflower-lined trail

Then it was back on the trail, winding through a lovely flower-strewn gully.  This section had a small spring flowing through it's center, and all sorts of green vegetation had taken root here.  Some of the trees and brush were almost tall enough to offer a little shade (if there would've been sun!)

Heading up the ridge above Harry's Saddle

Then my friends and I climbed up a hot, dusty path to a low point between two ridges, named "Harry's Saddle."  This feature's namesake was none other than Harry Truman, a crotchety old man who ran a resort on Spirit Lake, and famously refused to evacuate before the 1980 eruption.  When the mountain blew, he and his 40 cats perished.

Incredible views of Spirit Lake

From Harry's Saddle our trail began to climb.  We trudged up a steep ridge, amongst more barren landscapes.  Weathered old logs and stumps littered the hillsides, ghostly remnants of a pre-eruption forest.

Although the scene in front was barren, all one had to do was glimpse behind for some amazing views of brilliant blue Spirit Lake.  The higher we climbed, the better the scenery.

Young finds some wild strawberries

Lots of low shrubs covered the hillsides.  Amongst the greenery, eagle-eye Young spotted a bunch of ripe wild strawberries.  Although smaller than their domesticated cousins, these tiny berries packed a huge punch of sweet flavor.

Yummy wild strawberries

Mmmmm good!  Young and I could've picked berries all day.  But John reminded us if we wanted to reach the top of Coldwater Peak, we needed to keep moving .

Dead trees from the eruption litter the slopes

More elevation gain, climbing the ridge through ghostly gray tree stumps.  Although the cloud layer lifted slightly, revealing more of the surrounding hills, MSH remained firmly hidden.

Walking through the ghost trees

Reaching the ridgetop, my friends and I were greeted with a new panorama.  Round, ultra-blue St. Helens Lake sat far below, while the peaks of Mt. Margaret wilderness popped above the eastern sky.  Flowers again began to line our path.  We dipped down a steep slope and walked through a unique rocky arch.

Photo op at rock arch

Looking at our watches, I was surprised to discover it was well past 1:30.  No wonder my stomach was grumbling!  Hoping we'd soon stop for lunch, I was a little disappointed when John suggested we push on to Coldwater Peak's summit and eat there.

Contouring around St. Helens Lake

Still over a mile from our day's goal, my enthusiasm for summitting began to wane.  Not only ready for some nourishment, I was also worried we'd end up finishing the hike at a really late hour.  But John and Young were set on reaching the peak's top, so I reluctantly followed their lead.

Coldwater Peak summit is in sight!

The trail contoured around the side of St. Helens Lake.  Lupine grew in great abundance, and before long we'd climbed high enough to get glimpses of Spirit Lake, over the ridge from St. Helens Lake.

We hit a junction, and then the climbing began in earnest.  Ascending 700 feet in a mere 0.6 of a mile, this was a sweaty slog.  And, looking towards the summit, I was disappointed to see it cloaked under a thick bank of fog.

Nice lunch spot

But, after what seemed an eternity, like ghosts out of a cloud, the summit's radio towers came into view.  Yahoo!  John found us a nice perch on the rocks, and we settled in to a well-earned lunch break.

Although there were no views to enjoy, I was still happy to be sitting on top of Coldwater Peak.  After two tries, I'd finally made it!  Now that the climbing was done, I was glad my friends had pushed me into completing this goal.

Flowers line the summit trail

But the afternoon was getting late.  Bellies full, and legs rested, it was time to head back.  The romp back down was a pure delight.  Numerous flowers bloomed thickly along Coldwater Peak's lush green slopes.  On the way up, I'd been too preoccupied with reaching the summit to stop and photograph anything.  But nothing was stopping me now.

Western Pasque Flowers (aka "Hippy on a Stick")

Some of my favorite blooms were the shaggy seed pods of the Western Pasque Flowers, or as I like to call them, "Hippy on a Stick."

Shades of pink and blue

These ultra-pink flowers (sorry, have no idea of the name) contrasted great with the bright blue waters of St. Helens Lake.  As I descended, the fog began to lift, offering tantalizing peeks of the landscape below.

Colorful lupine

The lupine here was gorgeous.  It came in several different shades of purple.  I've never seen different colors within the same plant.

Heading back to Harry's Saddle and Spirit Lake

After lots of camera clicks, we reached the main trail again.  From here, it was a quick romp back around St. Helens Lake, through the rock arch, and down the treeless slope back to Harry's Saddle.

Walking across a moonscape

Returning across the sandy plains, we again trekked around Devil's Elbow.  Only two miles left from here!  But I'd forgotten that the final stretch back to the visitor's center was uphill.  After nearly 11 miles, and over 2000 feet of climbing at that point, to our tired bodies this final leg seemed to go on forever.

Colorful flowers brighten the trailhead

After a long day's hike, there's no sweeter sight than glimpsing your vehicle in the trailhead parking lot.  (Especially if said vehicle contains post-hike goodies of microbrews and kettle chips!)  My friends and I cracked open some cold ones, and toasted to another successful hike - and now summit bragging rights!

Stats for the day:  13 miles traveled, 3000' total elevation gain.  Another year's visit checked off the list.

Sharing with:  Our World Tuesday and Wednesday Around the World


  1. Awesome shots of this stark yet beginning to be so colorful trail! pretty long hike for a day hike and no wonder you were excited to see your car. What amazing power this volcano eruption had. We loved seeing this area earlier in the summer when we went up the Colombia river. What a great story of your hike linda!

  2. Linda, what an awesome hike at Mt St Helen's. The wildflowers are gorgeous and I love the views of the Spirit Lake. Very pretty scenic shots..Great post, thanks for sharing. Have a happy day!

  3. Love all the wildflowers, the beauty of the still visible desolation and Spirit Lake. You captured it all so beautifully.
    We live in the shadow of MSH and love its captivating beauty.
    Awesome post!

  4. The flowers are just beautiful! I just finished reading Wild, so I'm a little obsessed with hiking right now. I loved reading your adventure :-)

  5. Nice series- great views and lowers

  6. Boy, you find some spectacular places to hike! Your photos make me want to get out somewhere a little more challenging around here - but it's raining today.

  7. I push my hiking pals all the time, but sometimes it's great to be the one who's pushed, right? Loved those Western Pasque Flowers.

  8. Congratulations on finally making it to the top. I think I would have been too busy taking photos of all those wildflowers to have made much progress.

  9. More gorgeous images Linda. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Linda, you take the most amazing hikes! I love the scenery and the wildflowers are breathtaking! I have a Pasque flower in my garden and the spent blossoms look similar.

  11. What a lovely hike!

  12. Just simply breathtaking Linda! It's amazing that after all that destruction, Mother Nature sets to work once again. Thank you for a fantastic hike!

  13. Linda, I'm so glad you took me along with you - I don't know if that steep ridge would have stopped me! The otherworldly view of the sentinel trees as you hiked upward was thrilling. My feet didn't hurt a bit! (Bet you slept well that night.)

  14. Congrats for pushing on even though you were very hungry. The view from the top was worth. Yep, easy for me to say as I sit in my chair looking at your photos. :)

  15. OHMYGOSH! What a beautiful place. And what spectacular photos! I don't even know where to start; I love them all. That second, though, really rises to the top. Awesome!

  16. Wow! I have been to the top of Mt. ST. Helens - but I was in a car and we could not see beyond the reach of our own arms!!

    I think I will need to try again!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  17. With every post, I'm more convinced I should move to Washington. Are all these hikes within a short drive of somewhere?

    I love lupine too. It's my favorite. The hippie on a stick is pretty great though.

  18. Hi Stewart M - Thanks for your comment. Just wanted to let you know, you can't drive to the top of MSH. When you visited you most likely went to Johnston Ridge Visitor Center, which is very, very close to the crater.

    Karen - All the hikes I do are within a 2-hour drive of Portland Oregon, this one included.

  19. What wonderful views of the flowers and such along the way, even if you didn't get to see the mountain.

  20. Wow, 13 miles! even when I was young I never attempted a hike that long.

  21. Awesome, Linda! I always feel like I'm along for the hike when I read your posts.. my legs even grow tired & my belly hungry. :)
    As a good friend of ours recently said, theirs no comparison to the taste of a wild berry.
    And those Western Pasque Flowers! I've never seen those before. Hippy on a Stick for sure!
    This was a totally cool summit adventure - Nice work!

  22. That's another very pretty hike - lovely photos. I'd enjoy spending some time around that mountain.


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