Ben and I started planning our September Pacific Northwest adventure before last year even came to a close. Airline tickets were purchased and most of our lodging accommodations were booked as we entered the second week of January. To say that I like to plan things in advance is an understatement.
Part of this trip had been in the making long before last December, though… the part that entailed Mount St. Helens.
Let’s journey back to the year 1997. In February of that year, the natural disaster movie Dante’s Peak starring Pierce Brosnan was released. James Bond, who? Brosnan’s most iconic role to me is that of Harry Dalton, volcanologist for the USGS. While I can’t tell you what kind of critical acclaim the movie achieved (probably because the answer is none), I can tell you that it had a profound impact on 9-year-old me.
After seeing that movie, when a well-meaning adult would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would answer without hesitating: a volcanologist!
The word was bigger than I was at the time, and the answer generally received one of three common responses: 1) a smile with a quiet nod, 2) a blank stare, or 3) the oh so hilarious question, “So you want to be like Spock?” The latter was sometimes accompanied with a chuckle as the well-meaning adult laughed at his or her own joke. I never found it amusing.
My career aspirations eventually changed as I grew up, but I’ve never lost my fascination with volcanoes. So starting our Pacific Northwest adventure at Mount St. Helens was my way of finally getting to see one of the volcanoes I studied with intense passion and obsession up close.
Day 1: September 3, 2015
We headed to the southern side of Mount St. Helens, located in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, to the first destination on our list for the day, Ape Cave. Ape Cave is actually the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States, formed thousands of years ago during an eruption when lava streamed down the southern slope of the volcano; the outer edges of the lava cooled first, creating a hardened crust above the rest of the still-flowing molten stream.
Volcano geek fun fact: The type of lava flow that results in lava tubes is actually unusual from stratovolcanoes such as Mount St. Helens, whose eruptions tend to be more explosive (for example, the Mount St. Helens eruption in May of 1980).
We arrived at the Ape Cave ranger station just after 9 in the morning and were a little surprised to find it closed. In all my pre-trip planning, I had read that the station opened at 9 am, and I had counted on renting the recommended hand lanterns from the station.
Perhaps against our better judgment, we decided to hike the cave with the light sources we did have available to us: a tiny flash light on Ben’s keyring and our cell phone flashlights. Correction: Ben’s cell phone flashlight… because I never downloaded the app on my phone… and was without necessary cell reception to download it at that moment. So much for pre-planning, right? But at least we were dressed appropriately for the cooler temperatures inside the cave!
I find caves to be inherently creepy to begin with (which is probably why I enjoy them so much) but our tiny lights made the dark void of the cave seem even bigger and eerier. We opted to hike the easier lower cave; the more strenuous upper cave would have been impossible without the proper lighting. Even on the easier route, we encountered very few fellow hikers the entire time we were in the cave. Washington state is apparently Sasquatch country, and if we were going to encounter him anywhere, it probably would have been Ape Cave!
Trail of Two Forests
Once we were done exploring the cave and the area around it, we headed to another destination nearby: the Trail of Two Forests. This trail is a quarter-mile boardwalk that loops through lava beds with old growth Douglas fir and western red cedar—the first, more obvious, of the two forests referenced in the trail’s name. The second forest is composed of ancient trees that stood thousands of years earlier, but their only remnants are large holes in the present-day forest floor.
Volcano geek fun fact: The holes interspersed along the Trail of Two Forests are casts of the ancient trees that burned up in a previous eruption of Mount St. Helens (possibly the same eruption that formed Ape Cave). Lava surrounded them and caused them to catch on fire; the lava cooled faster than the trees burned, resulting in three-dimensional lava casts and a graveyard of sorts of the forest that once was.
There is a small detour off the boardwalk for those who wish to adventure through a short tunnel composed of vertical and horizontal tree casts. I ventured down the ladder, but the crawl to the other side was way too tight of a squeeze for my liking!
Our entire day had been kind of cloudy with a few raindrops, but the sky was spitting rain by the time we arrived at the trailhead for Lava Canyon. Thankfully, it cleared up long enough for us to wander through the uppermost sections of Lava Canyon.
There are several signs at the trailhead warning of the potential dangers along the trail. As anyone who has hiked knows, the combination of water and smooth, rocky surfaces can create slick conditions that warrant extra caution with your footing. But the sign below provided the real warning: don’t be THAT hiker.
According to informational signs along the trail, much of the beautiful Lava Canyon was hidden among a lush forest until the May 18, 1980 eruption of the volcano. The eruption sent a 15-foot abrasive wall of mud and rock through the canyon, clearing away the trees and exposing the rock formations and waterfalls.
The entire landscape has been shaped by the erosive forces of flowing water and the volcanic activity of Mount St. Helens. The resulting masterpiece is quite impressive.
Lava Canyon was our last planned stop for the day, but as we began the drive back to our hotel in Kelso, we noticed a small sign that simply read “Stratigraphy Viewpoint” on the road leading to and from the canyon. We pulled over and walked the short distance to what was our first glimpse of Mount St. Helens. Unfortunately, the clouds obscured the peak of the mountain, but seeing the volcano towering behind the mudflow from a previous eruption was still quite striking.
Day 2: September 4, 2015
We checked out of our hotel and made the journey north on Interstate 5, taking the exit for State Route 504. Our final Mount St. Helens destination is probably one of the most well known: Johnston Ridge Observatory.
Volcano geek fun fact: The observatory is named after volcanologist David Johnston; he was on this ridge (not a visitor center at that time, of course) when the volcano blew in 1980. His final words were “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” His body was never found.
The observatory is roughly 50 miles from the interstate exit, and those are 50 winding mountain road miles. About five miles from the exit, however, is the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Seaquest/Silver Lake, and seeing as I’ve never met a visitor center I didn’t like, we stopped.
Upon entering the visitor center, I noticed large poster boards detailing information about climbing Mount St. Helens. “BEN! WE COULD CLIMB MOUNT ST. HELENS! BEN! LET’S DO IT!”
Once the initial excitement wore off, these sad realities set in: such extensive climbing requires permits, usually purchased in advance, and, oh yeah, we’ve never actually done mountain climbing of that nature (requiring skill and training). Sigh. But Ben did suggest that we could return someday with the intention of climbing Mount St. Helens. And this motivator is one reason why I have a gym membership, people!
Back on SR 504, I had my eyes glued outside the passenger side window, where the volcano should be, but where I saw clouds, clouds and more clouds. The landscape surrounding Mount St. Helens is very beautiful, and I do not mean to detract from it at all, but it wasn’t the main attraction. I had dreamed of seeing Mount St. Helens for years, and I didn’t want to come all that way only to leave with the same dream.
The area was certainly mountainous, and that fact combined with our hope to finally see the volcano started messing with our heads a bit.
“Is that Mount St. Helens?” one of us would ask.
“I don’t think so,” the other would answer.
“Are you sure?”
“No. But I think we’ll know when we actually see Mount St. Helens.”
Repeat that conversation 5+ times and you’ll have an idea what the car ride with us would have been like.
About 20 miles from the observatory, we noticed the clouds had broken up a bit and we could actually see Mount St. Helens. Luckily, the revelation also coincided with a conveniently located pull-off. We grabbed our cameras and I ran, afraid it would pop back into the clouds just as quickly as it peaked out. I snapped some quintessential Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake photos and then began jumping up and down like a little kid who just found out she was going to Disney World. Mount St. Helens is kind of like Mickey Mouse in my world.
By the time we made it to Johnston Ridge Observatory, the clouds had already moved back in and reduced visibility of the peak.
We explored the visitor center and viewed several of the exhibits detailing the iconic May 18, 1980 eruption.
Looking out the panoramic windows of the observatory to where the volcano lie hidden behind the clouds, I said to Ben, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the volcano erupted now?” His face was a mixture of horror and confusion. I want to say that my somewhat morbid interest in natural disasters was something he knew about me before we married, but I think that was an—ahem—pleasant surprise that came after we said our I-do’s. It’s a quirk that makes me endearing… right, Ben?
I purchased several items from the gift shop (because just like visitor centers, I’ve never met a gift shop I didn’t like), and we listened to a ranger talk and hiked along a nearby trail that gave me more opportunity to admire the landscape that has been carved from eruptions.
Through the ranger talk and hike, I kept nervously watching the mountain, hoping it would pop out again, but the endless sky of clouds indicated it was unlikely. We said our goodbyes to Mount St. Helens and began the trek to the next stop on our Pacific Northwest adventure: Mount Rainier National Park.