Monday, March 05, 2007
Independence Pass Trail-Mt. St. Helens
I ran across my 2004 field notes and couldn't help but reflect on our experience near Mount St Helens. For about 20 minutes, this was one of our most exciting hikes!
It started out routinely enough--a beautiful October day and just a thought for a hike on the Independence Pass Trail. The drive to the trail takes you through dramatic evidence of the force of the big blast, where skeleton trees still guard the edge of the blast zone, overlooking the millions of board feet of timber felled in the blast. Debris dammed Spirit Lake and caused it to rise some 200 feet above its previous level.
As we drove in to the trailhead and started down the trail, we could see that the mountain was steaming, but this was not a particularly unusual event at the time. We began following the trail through the blast zone where vegetation is slowly recovering. A few birds flitted about in the diminutive greenery: a chestnut-backed chickadee, a northern flicker and a varied thrush. In the sky, we noticed an immature bald eagle and later on, a rough-legged hawk. The gamey odor of elk hung in the air, and tracks in the soft dirt confirmed the recent passing of the herd.
The trail dips down into a small draw where a muddy area showed even more tracks. The mountain disappears briefly from view. As we climbed up out of the draw and I glanced back at the mountain, I have the distinct impression of myself as a cartoon character doing a double-take as my eye bugged right out of my head seeing the mountain beginning to erupt. Inside the crater, black and white ash plumes pulsed upward into the air. Steam soon soared above the crater edge and began to spread.
After about 20 minutes the show was over. We were amazed, but continued on with our hike, enjoying the views, additional bird sightings and the sunny fall day. We completed our hike, returning to our vehicle some five hours later. The area seemed strangely quiet, and I noticed a bright orange tag attached to our truck. We were surprised to learn that the area had been closed because of the eruption. We headed for home, only to find a police barricade blocking the road. The police officer who came to let us out expressed relief that the area was now cleared, as we were the last to evacuate!
Although we can't promise an eruption, you can enjoy the Independence Pass Trail in any event by taking the Woodland exit from I-5, turning east toward Cougar. Follow the signs for Windy Ridge onto Hwy 503, Road 90, Road 25, finally turning left on Road 99 to the Harmony Viewpoint, only 2.7 miles from the road's end at Windy Ridge. A Northwest Forest pass is required.