Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Social Distancing at Mt. St. Helens

May 18th was Mt. St. Helens' 40th "eruptiversary" (aka the 40th anniversary of its famous 1980 eruption).  In honor of such an event, I decided it was only fitting to give the old girl a proper visit.

Keeping my social distance from MSH

So the following weekend, I grabbed hiking boots and backpack and made the 2-hour drive north to pay my respects.  It didn't cross my mind that maybe Memorial Day weekend wasn't a good time for such a visit.  But when I pulled into the Hummocks Trailhead parking area and there were already a dozen vehicles at 8 am, I knew I'd have some company.

Alder forest on the Hummocks Trail

Johnston Ridge Observatory, the closest visitor center to the mountain, usually opens their doors Mother's Day weekend.  But due to COVID it still remained closed in late May.  As a matter of fact, you couldn't even drive up there.  The road to the Observatory was barricaded at the Hummocks Trailhead.

One of many picturesque ponds

But I'd already hatched a plan.  From reading online hiking reports, and pouring over a few maps, I knew that the Boundary Trail would take me from the Hummocks parking area to the Observatory.  A portion of the trail I'd never hiked before (because driving up the steep hill to Johnston Ridge was much easier!)

Creek crossings

Because climbing up to Johnston Ridge straight from the Boundary Trail wasn't enough I decided to first begin with the Hummocks loop.  This trail wandered 2.5 miles through an area dotted with small hills and ponds.  Low-angle morning sun, just beginning to peek over the mountains, lit up the adjacent Alder woods beautifully.

The hummock mounds are being covered in trees

Formed by the landslide created by Mt. St. Helens eruption, this area was initially a badlands of barren rockpiles covered in gray ash.  A gravelly plain next to the Toutle River, it consisted of small hills, or mounds, of rock debris with tiny ponds wedged in between.  Although bleak and barren in the years immediately following the eruption, 40 years of  healing had filled it in nicely with tall trees and lush green plants.

Morning light through the trees

And luckily so far I had the trail all to myself (I assumed all the other hikers were hiking the loop in the opposite direction).  I passed by a cute little pond, surrounded by thick alder groves.  At the far end, I crossed the outlet creek via a couple of well placed wooden bridges.

Green now covers the devastation

The light was so fantastic for photography, it took me much longer than usual to cover the first mile. After twisting and turning through the alder woods, the trail finally popped out into an open area.  It was here I got my first full view of MSH herself.  She was glorious as always, surrounded by a halo of pebbly clouds.

First view of MSH

About then I encountered my first hiker, an older man.  I was wearing a buff, so I quickly pulled it over my nose and mouth.  The man did the same, and keeping an appropriate distance apart we briefly chatted about the local trails.

Toutle River

From this first viewpoint, the trail dived in and out of the woods, and up and down a few of the hummock hills.  Great views were had on each little summit.  At one point, I got a great look down into the Toutle River, it's channel surrounded by a wide, gravelly plain.

Tiny lupine

And of course the wildflowers were just getting started.  I saw a few nice patches of tiny lupine flowers, wild strawberry blooms, and a few hardy Indian Paintbrush pushing themselves up to the sky.

Many ponds dot the Hummocks loop

Although I thought I'd hiked the Hummocks Loop many, many years ago, I didn't remember a thing about it.  So today's trek was like discovering a new trail all over again!  And what a fine trail it was.  I made a mental note to definitely return for fall colors.

Boundary Trail junction

After a very slow, copious photo-taking two miles, I finally arrived at the junction with the Boundary Trail.  Situated in the middle of a large clearing, the mountain's white summit filled the horizon.  It was quite the impressive sight.

Fantastic views of MSH from the Boundary Trail

Okay, time to start up to Johnston Ridge!  Sitting 1700 feet higher than the Hummocks I was in for a climb over the next 4-ish miles.

Entire hillsides of decapitated trees from the eruption

After passing by a few straggler hummocks and another nice pond, the forest opened up to a barren ridge.  Although the MSH views were stellar, it was sad to see all the broken-off tree stumps scattered about, still-visible casualties of the eruption.

Crater close-up

As I began the first of several steep climbs, I gazed at the barren landscape and wondered why trees had failed to establish themselves here.  I'm sure the scientists studying this area have an answer.  (I could probably also Google it too).

Time to climb!

But lack of trees made for stunning vistas.  Topping the first ridge I could see far down the Toutle River drainage.  At one point I even spotted the western end of nearby Coldwater Lake.  And of course, the views of MSH just kept getting better and better.

Barren hillside

So far I'd only encountered a dozen other hikers.  When passing each other on the trail, one of us would politely step off, turn away, and pull up their face covering (usually it was me).  The lack of people and the fact that most everyone I'd met so far was keeping their distance and/or donning masks made me feel safe from any virus transmission.

Nearing Johnston Ridge

It seemed to take forever to reach Johnston Ridge.  The muggy weather and the fact that I wasn't yet in top hiking shape didn't help.  But little by little, I covered the distance and elevation until I finally spotted the road and Loowit Viewpoint.  It was weird to see both totally void of people and cars.  I did a quick pass-by of the viewpoint, checking out a few of the information plaques.  But my destination, and lunch spot, weren't far now.  Only another half mile!

Empty Johnston Ridge Observatory

The final ridge between Loowit Viewpoint and the Observatory was extremely picturesque.  Not only were the mountain views impressive, the hillsides were dotted with tiny white blooms of wild strawberries.  I thought it was the prettiest section of the entire hike.

Killer mountain views from the observatory

Finally the trail led me to the road in front of the Observatory's large and completely empty parking lot.  Following the pavement I climbed the last steep walkway to the building itself.  Usually an extremely busy place, it was strange to be the only person there.

I had the place to myself!

Perching myself on one of the low plaza walls I took a well-deserved break, eating my lunch while taking in the fabulous views of MSH.  The mountain looked so close it appeared only a short jaunt would bring you to it's crater (I know better, MSH is much farther away than it looks).  A young couple with large backpacks strolled by, and I learned they were heading towards Mt Margaret for a couple nights of camping.

Wild strawberry flowers

Except for the backpacking couple passing through, I had the Observatory plaza to myself the entire time.  After lunch and a few selfies to commemorate the occasion, I decided it was time to return to my car. 

The hillsides below Johnston Ridge were full of wild strawberry blossoms

Heading back down the first ridge, the light was nice, so I snapped a few more images of the flower-lined trail.  Judging by the abundant amount of blooms, it looked to be a good strawberry season.  I made a mental note to plan a visit later in the summer when the berries were ripe.

I need to come back at berry time!

Early starts are always a good thing.  On my way back down, I ran into at least five hiking parties between the Observatory and Loowit Viewpoint.  It seemed the rest of the world had woken up and decided to hike the same trail as me.  If I'd been even a half hour later I wouldn't have had Johnston Ridge Observatory to myself.

Wildlife sighting

Past Loowit Viewpoint the parade of people continued.  Still, most folks were being polite, covering their faces, and stepping aside, so I had no issues.

Lovely red currant bush in bloom

While descending, I passed a few lovely red current bushes in full bloom, which called for a quick photo stop.

Red currant flower close-up

The closer I got to the Boundary Trail/Hummocks junction, the more people I encountered.  And the closer I got the parking lot, the less considerate people became.

Toutle River's barren channel

By the time I returned to the Hummocks Trail it was packed with people.  This short scenic loop brought out the novice hikers in droves.  At the junction, I was dismayed to see several kids clearly off trail, kicking rocks down a hill.  (In this sensitive area that is still recovering, hikers are supposed to stay on the trail)  I was saddened to see several picked wildflowers lying in the middle of the path.  And nearly every group (and most were large) I encountered wouldn't move aside at all and no one was covering their face.  As I covered the final half mile to the parking lot, tired from having hiked nearly 10.5 miles, my patience wore thin as I continually had to step off the trail to let mobs of people pass by.  It was the longest half mile of my life!  (Note to self - never visit Mt St Helens on a holiday weekend)

Goodbye MSH!

Despite the rough ending, it had been great to visit Mt St Helens, hike a new trail, and honor her 40th eruption anniversary.  Wonder what the area will look like in another 40 years?


  1. Great shots! I live near Skyline Drive and I avoid it on weekends, except for a drive-through visit after 5 PM when crowds are heading out.

  2. Great to see how nature is slowly re-establishing herself. If the mountain starts to cough then be sure to be more than 2 metres away!

  3. ...nature is the one thing that we can count on during these crazy days!

  4. Hello, It has been close to 25 yrs or more since hubby, son and I have visited MSH. These views are so much better, it is nice to see the park coming back to life. I love the views of the trail, wildflowers and MSH. It is good to get ahead of the crowds. Great post and photos. Have a great day!

  5. I'm totally fascinated by the Mt St Helens eruption and the landscape recovery. Even though it's blown it's top it's still a spectacular and beautiful mountain.
    We are having some awful problems with a new group of people accessing the outdoors who would normally stay in the pubs and clubs of towns who now have nowhere to go. We are seeing inconsiderate social distancing behaviour a lots of littering etc causing resentment from local people and the regulat outdoor community

  6. The views from the observatory are unreal. MSH looks close enough to touch. Although you don't want to discourage people from getting out for a walk, it is very frustrating and upsetting to witness the ignorance of some people. Similar problems have occurred here with gates being left open, dogs allowed off the lead and worrying sheep and cattle. I believe an educational programme is needed urgently to remind non hikers of the country code they need to follow.

  7. Mt St Helens has always been a fascinating event for me. It was amazing and people didn't know what was happening or what did happen for a while. Every time you visit Mt St Helens you give much more information about it.

  8. What a great post! Love your photos and commentary. After my first visit a couple years ago this places has become more special to me and I look forward to a return visit.

  9. I hope you are still hiking this lovely place in another 40 years!!! Lovely shots as always...I don't think there is such a thing as a bad shot of MSH area (unless it was of a trail full of people!).

  10. You got wonderful images of the trail and that beautiful mountain.

  11. Awesome! Again wonderfu photos of my favourite mountain. Thankfully you are always the early bird and are rewarded for the effort. The Hummocks trail is delightful and such a contrast to the full blast zone. How cute is your image of the chipmunk / squirrel!

  12. What fabulous photos of MSH and your trail. I don't even hike the more popular trails near my house on weekends, let alone a holiday! Our town is busy with tourists again. We have many visitors from states having an upsurge, so Bob and I find the most lonely paths possible. Hope you have a safe and happy summer, Linda.

  13. What lovely photos. Too bad people are so stupid...seems like there are always some that make life difficult.


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