The Complete Mount St Helens Experience

Mount St Helens Volcano

Yesterday, I visited the Windy Ridge area of the Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument. This area is located on the northeastern flank of the volcano and is the closest to the volcano that one can physically drive to. It’s a long trip, no matter which way one approaches the site from major metropolitan areas of the region, but one well worth the time. Of course, I recommend visiting the Johnston Ridge Observatory to take in the full view of the volcano and crater, as well as the excellent monument exhibits and video inside the Observatory’s building. But, in order to get the complete picture of what happened to this area during the 1980 eruption blast, a trip to Windy Ridge will give one the complete Mount St Helens experience, as I like to say.

Getting to the Windy Ridge area entails driving on US Forest Service roads in the Gifford Pinchot Forest. To access the visiting areas of the volcanic monument, you will need a US Forest Service Pass ($5), which one can purchase while in the Windy Ridge area of the monument. There are two ways to purchase a pass directly in the area: self-serve stations located in some of the parking areas, or with a transaction from a real person located at the Cascade Peaks parking lot. You will need exact change if you opt to use the self-serve stations. Also, make sure you have a road map of the Mount St Helens vicinity that includes detailed info on the US Forest Service roads. You can pick one up at any ranger station or any of the monument’s visitor centers. These forest service roads are not in the best of condition, so drive slowly and carefully, as there are many twists and turns, drop-offs, bumps and dips. There is not much traffic on these roads either. You are in the wilderness! Make sure you gas up your vehicle before venturing on them. The only way to Windy Ridge is via USFS Road 99. It also dead-ends at the volcano. And, to get to 99, you must take USFS Road 25. As previously stated, it’s a long, tedious drive, but a beautiful one! I did see a few motorcycles, but I wouldn’t recommend it due to rough road conditions.

Spirit Lake

Spirit Lake and Mt Rainier

One of the more impressive sites of the volcano monument that you won’t see close-up from the Johnston Ridge Observatory is Spirit Lake. Here, you will see what happened during the volcanic blast that caused a tidal wave and sloshed millions of blown down trees into the lake, forming a log jam at one end of the lake. You can still see the sun bleached logs piled up along the edges of the lake. There are several pull-out areas with parking lots for one to get out and take spectacular photos along the road approaching Windy Ridge. As well, there are several hiking trails, including one to Spirit Lake.

The other impressive feature of this area of the volcano monument is the scoured landscape. One can’t help but notice the scarred face of the land with all the “ghost forests,” as I refer to them. The volcanic blast literally blew down sections of forest like matchsticks, incinerating and stripping them of their bark and needles. Today, many still stand, sun-bleached and naked to the world. And, in many areas, one can see how nature has reclaimed the land, repopulating itself with greenery and new forests regenerating in the valleys where once was nothing but a grey, ashen, lunar-like landscape.

At the end of the road at the Windy Ridge viewpoint, if one is feeling up to it, he/she can climb the Sand Stairs, a set of 368 steps built into a hillside. At the top, one gets a spectacular view of the surrounding region. From this viewpoint one can see many peaks of the Cascades on a clear day, including Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and even Mount Hood. As well, you’ll get a spectacular view of Spirit Lake and the volcano crater.

Mount Adams

View from atop the Sand Stairs

I hope you enjoyed my armchair visit to the Windy Ridge area of the Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument! If you plan to visit this summer, please bring with you suncreen, a hat, bug repellant, food, and plenty of water, as it gets very hot and dry in this region. Happy traveling!

All photos copyrighted by Peggy Thompson

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About northwestphotos

A long time resident of Washington State, located in the beautiful Pacific Northwest USA. I am retired and enjoy regional travel, exploring all the wondrous, natural settings that the Pacific Northwest has to offer. If you get a chance, visit my Northwestphotos Zazzle store, http://www.zazzle.com/northwestphotos.
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16 Responses to The Complete Mount St Helens Experience

  1. Nice pictures! Ever since I’ve read about the Mount St. Helens, which was many years ago, I’ve wanted to visit this place. Me and my wife visited a place (Owakudani) in Japan near Mount Fuji, which is geographically very similar to this place, and I must admit it was a fantastic experience. Probably that’s why I can really relate to the your post.

    • Nikhil, at one time, Mount St Helens used to be referred to as the Mount Fuji of the United States because of its similar shape symmetry. That was before its eruption, of course. I used to marvel at its beautiful cone-shape symmetry back then. Sadly now, I marvel at the destruction that it has caused.

  2. Spectacular! Thanks for the tour.

    After all these years, the scars are still quite evident… but nature has a way of regenerating. I really must see the area for myself someday.

  3. Having been there several times since 1980, I think you did an excellent job on this post!

    • Thank you so very much for the compliment! I don’t go to the Windy Ridge area very much since it is such a long haul for me, but do I visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory every year. I would like to check out some of the trails at Windy Ridge though.

  4. Beautiful photography! I’m so glad William Kendall told me about your blog….

    • Why, thank you Norma! And thanks to William for nudging you to take a look at my blog. There’s so many wonderful blogs out there, and it’s so hard finding them at times, let alone finding the time to do so!

  5. ldsiebs says:

    What a beautiful post! I was amazed to see all of those logs still floating in Spirit Lake and reading about how they got there. What an image that comes to mind. You did an excellent job sharing beautiful photos and information on the area, thank you!

    • Thank you very much! I’m glad that you enjoyed the photos and information that I presented about the Mt St Helens area. It has always been my intention to share my enthusiasm of the wonders of the Pacific Northwest with others who have not visited or may never get the chance to visit the area. I have visited your blog and I see that you are just as enthused about spending time with nature and sharing it with others. How wonderful! Keep on bloggin!

  6. JimR says:

    Nice images and great story/descriptions

  7. Hutch says:

    Thanks for the tour!

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