Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Springtime at Mt. St. Helens

Ugh, June has been a month!  Due to a 2-week trip back home, and a very persistent case of plantar fasciitis (yes, I still have it) my hikes this month has been severely curtailed (a grand total of one, if you've been following my "2022 hiking challenge" page).  After trying to do too much walking for the past 2 weeks I finally came to the realization my foot's not gonna get better unless I let it rest.  That means no hiking - period.  So this past weekend has been spent sitting home feeling glum because I'm missing out on some great weather (it's finally stopped raining) and the wildflowers are starting to bloom.

But my forced inactivity also means a chance to get somewhat caught up on this blog.  So to start things off, here's a recap from a mid-May trip to Mt. St. Helens.

Early morning light on MSH

I always love to visit Mt. St. Helens in late spring when the snow is still on the mountain and the trees are beginning to leaf out.  The crush of summer visitors has yet to arrive so there's a better chance of seeing wildlife.  I'd heard reports that other hikers had spotted mountain goats near the Johnston Ridge Observatory.  The promise of mountain goat sightings is what inspired me to take the long drive up to Washington state and see my favorite erupted volcano - high gas prices be damned!

Coldwater Lake

Because one has a better chance of spotting wild animals in the early morning, I drug myself out of bed in the wee hours in order to make the 2-hour drive in time for sunrise.  I didn't quite get going early enough, and caught daybreak somewhere along I-5.  But I did arrive at nearby Coldwater Lake in time to take advantage of some great morning light.  It shone on the newly-leafed green trees, making them appear golden instead of green.  (My photos look like they were taken in October instead of May!)

Coldwater Lake and Minnie Peak

On the way up to Johnston Ridge, I always make a stop at Coldwater Lake.  Not only does it have lovely views of the lake and surrounding mountains and ridges, it also has a nice bathroom with real flushing toilets that's open 24-7.  Very important after driving for two hours!

Volcano view from Johnston Ridge

Today the fantastic morning light did not disappoint, and I spent several extra minutes capturing the beautiful scenery around the lake.  But I didn't want to miss out on any potential wildlife sightings, so after a good half hour I pulled myself back into the car for the final 10-mile drive up to Johnston Ridge.

Lots of snow still lingering

The road to Johnston Ridge Observatory is closed in winter months and usually opens around Mother's Day weekend.  This year, for some reason the road opened in late April.  The night had been cold, and as I pulled into a parking spot in the nearly-deserted lot my car slid on a patch of ice.  I wasn't going very fast so no problem, but as I looked around I noticed that nearly all the ground adjacent to the parking lot was covered in snow.  The Observatory, shuttered since 2020, wasn't open.  I walked past the silent building for a front-row view of MSH, pleased to have the entire viewing platform to myself at this early hour.

Cliffs below Johnston Ridge Observatory

There's a nice trail that starts at the Observatory, climbs over a small ridge, and drops visitors at the beginning of the Boundary Trail.  You can also access the Boundary trail via a paved path at the far end of the parking area.  Since I was already at the Observatory, and didn't want to retrace my steps across the parking lot, I decided to take this connector.  At first, it was fine.  Then after cresting a high point the path wound across the northern flank of the ridge.  This side of the hill was covered in a thick coat of snow.  I immediately lost the trail and floundered through the slushy, slippery snowfield.  The side slope got steeper, and I realized if I slipped, it would be a perilous downhill slide.  Not having any traction devices (I'd foolishly left my microspikes at home) I decided it would be much safer to backtrack and take the trail from the parking lot.

Drainages make cool patterns in the soil

The parking lot trail was also snow-covered but at least it was relatively flat, so I floundered and post-holed the half mile to the Boundary Trail's official beginning.  Thankfully the Boundary Trail was snow-free here, and I set off down this familiar path, scanning the cliffs below for mountain goats.

Parts of the Boundary Trail were very much snow covered

Mt. St. Helens looked fabulous with her winter coat and I took many photos of her open crater.  The land below the mountain was green with new growth.  I loved the sinuous drainage gullies radiating from MSH's flanks, making artsy paths across the lowlands.

Mama goat and baby

Then I spotted a few white dots on the cliffs far below.  They appeared to be moving.  Were they goats?  Hastily attaching my large zoom lens, I zeroed in on the objects.  Yes - yes, they were.  Even better, it was a mother goat with a little one.  I spotted several other goats scattered about.  But they were all so far away it was hard to get decent images.  While thrilled to see mountain goats, I was disappointed they weren't a little bit closer.

Curious chipper

Although far, far away, at least I'd spotted some goats.  This goal realized I continued down the Boundary Trail.  I didn't make it much farther before encountering a totally snow-covered trail.  Although I could've kept going, the fact that I didn't bring any traction devices made me decide to turn around.  Better safe than sorry!  (Besides, my plantar fasciitis-riddled foot wasn't digging snow travel) 

Tiny plants in Hummocks pond

I hadn't driven all this way to not hike, so I pointed my car downhill to the Hummocks Trailhead.  At an elevation 1700 feet lower than Johnston Ridge, there was no snow to be found.  A short 3-mile path winds through piles of rocky debris left over from the 1980 eruption.  Mother Nature is slowly healing this area, as evidenced by large groves of alder and multiple shallow ponds full of birds and frogs.

MSH view from Hummocks Trail

The first alder-lined pond was full of tweeting birds so I quick switched to my zoom lens.  Of course, all the birds decided to hide right after the lens change.  I continued on, past more small ponds, gleaming blue in the morning sun.

Toutle River

In a half mile I came to a clearing with stupendous views of MSH.  Time to switch back to my landscape lens, which I did, and then proceeded to capture many images of this stunning scene.

One of the many small ponds along the Hummocks Trail

I continued on through the Hummocks, the landscape alternating from lush alder forests to desolate, rocky moonscapes.  Much of the eruption debris blown from the mountain landed here in large piles.  The trail wound over and around many of these landforms.

Commanding view to the west

One viewpoint offered a grand view of the Toutle River's gravelly channel.  When the eruption instantly melted the mountain's glaciers, this river was the recipient of tremendous amounts of mud and debris.  The huge resulting landslide and mudflow altered its course, leaving tons of rocks and detritus behind.

Bright green undergrowth

After the river viewpoint, my trail dived into the alder woods once again, passing many tiny pools and rivulets, all surrounded by the greenest vegetation I'd seen.

Elk sighting!  Too bad I had my landscape lens on at the time.

I met a couple going the opposite direction that warned me of a mother goose who was being very protective of her nest, hissing at everyone who walked by.  I passed the protective goose who voiced her displeasure and continued towards a nearby opening in the trees.  Approaching the opening, I was surprised to see an elk grazing directly ahead of me.

Tree swallow

An elk sighting!  This was totally unexpected as it was nearing late morning and these beasts were usually bedded down by now.  Naturally, I had the wrong lens on my camera.  Could I change lenses without drawing the elk's attention?  As I was reaching for my lens cap, which was in my pants pocket, a granola bar wrapper that just happened to be in the same pocket made a crinkling sound.  That got the elk's attention and she lifted her head and stared my direction.  Uh-oh!  There was no way I could move now.  The elk and I had a stare-down for several long minutes before I couldn't stand still any longer.  Once I moved, the elk and an uphill companion that I hadn't realized was there, quickly galloped away.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Hoping all was not lost, I switched to my zoom lens and followed the trail to where the elk had been grazing.  But by now the animals were long gone.  Oh well, since I'd gone to the trouble of putting the long lens on my camera, maybe I could get a bird or two.

Pretty butterfly hiding behind some leaves

So I did - first capturing a cute yellow-rumped warbler that kept hopping between trees, and then a beautiful blue tree swallow who landed on a nearby treetop and stayed put for several minutes.  And finally a delicate butterfly decided to visit some nearby flower buds and I focused through a bunch of leafy vegetation to get my shot.

Coldwater Ridge

By the time I finished the 3-mile Hummocks Trail my foot was hurting.  Although I would've loved to hike a bit of the trail around nearby Coldwater Lake, I knew that was pushing things.  So I drove over to the picnic area by Coldwater Lake, ate my sandwich, and ventured down to the lakeshore for a few final pics.  Although the midday light wasn't near as stunning as first thing in the morning, I still got some great views of the lake and nearby snow-capped Minnie Peak.

Walkway at Coldwater Lake

Although I didn't get the close up wildlife views I was hoping for, I was lucky enough to spot mountain goats, several birds, experience lovely morning light and a surprise elk duo.  Mt. St. Helens was lovely as always and I'm glad I had the chance to see her before most of the snow melts away.  Now I need to return for wildflower season - very soon!


  1. Lots of variety in this post. But you also covered a lot of territory.

  2. The views are just stunning especially the Colwater Lake one. Sorry to hear of your foot problem and yes i think you will have to rest it.

  3. Gorgeous! What a bummer about the foot, plantar fasciitis sucks! When I had it a physical therapist friend found the most painful spot in the sole of my foot and counseled me to press my foot onto a golf ball in that painful spot multiple times a day. It stretches the affected muscle. That helped me.

  4. These springtime snowy shots of MSH are gorgeous. Goats, elk, birds and butterflies were a bonus. I've also decided that I must totally rest the ankle or my tendonitis will linger. It's a bummer since we're entering prime wildflower season here.

  5. Such a bummer about your foot! I hope resting will work wonders. As always, your images are stunning!

  6. WOW lots of sweet spring time sights! It's tough to rest when the beauty beckons. Wishing you a speedy recovery!

  7. Oh, the joy of your visit for me! A perfect day in every way, except for your foot. Sure hope that improves quickly!

  8. Wonderful pictures! You must let your foot heal. I’m struggling with the limits of poor ligaments and their side effects. I miss being able to hike.

  9. What a great hike! Stunning photos!!

  10. Linda - Wonderful photography! I was an elementary aged child (circa 1949) when I lived in a northern suburb of Portland. As a kid I hiked many of these trails. It is comforting to me to see folks traveling in my footsteps seeing those 'paths less traveled'. We live now in north Florida - but will always return back to Oregon and Washington. We will never see it all - but we still try. Please respond and I'll tell you who told me about you. Jim


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