Sunday my family and I took a day trip up to Mt. St. Helens. It was a beautiful, sunny, 70 degree day that beckoned for a Sunday drive with the sunroof open. Our path started heading north on Hwy 503 on the Lewisville Hwy through the back communities of Amboy and Cougar, then onto the curvy road up towards Windy Ridge Observatory. Along the way you’ll pass many rolling hills dotted with small farms and logged mountainsides. As you head up and up, you catch glimpses of beautiful valleys and vistas then the terrain changes to dense forest.
Finally a sign pointed us up towards Windy Ridge where the road winds you up the steep hillsides that surround St. Helens. It isn’t just one peak standing alone, it is set in the Cascade Mountain Range which means many mountains all close to each other, thus lots of twists and turns on the edges of steep mountains and ravines that showcase the volcanic history of the area.
The drive is worth it. As you head up and up, notice the trees and plants change from alders and vine maple to Douglas fir to noble fir to finally, barren. Luckily, there are many turnouts on the last leg of the drive, as you WILL want to pull over and stand in awe at the grand landscape before you. You can see from St. Helens to Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. We had a debate whether we were seeing Mt. Rainier or Adams, but signage won the day and Adams was the huge mountain in view. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest all my life and never realized Mt. Adams was taller than the iconic Mt. Hood. From the different outlook stops you can see different views of St. Helens as you approach, vistas that overlook deep green valleys, and the steepness of the terrain. At the end of the road is Windy Ridge Observation. It is not much more than a parking lot with explanatory signage and some bathrooms, but WOW what a location!
Yes it is windy!
It is called Windy Ridge for a reason. I’d recommend leaving your baseball hat in the car, as it will probably blow away. We brought a picnic, but opted to eat it in our car instead of outside. Smart move. As we sat in the car, the wind gusts were rocking the car.
Our kids chose to climb the stairs to a higher viewpoint (recent knee surgery precluded me from joining them) and they got some beautiful photos from there. From the observation area, you are facing the gaping hole left when the volcano exploded May 18, 1980 – just a blip in time on the geological clock. You are really close and can see the new dome that is slowly building inside the crater. There is an amazing view of the former Spirit Lake, a mere shadow of it’s former beauty. There are explanations of how the force of the explosion left some areas completely devastated, while others barely scratched. You can see the pumice fields that pelted the area and left it akin to a moonscape.
38 Years Later and Still Recovering
Many parts of the forest have been replanted to aid in the recovery. Some areas have purposely been left unaided in order to study how nature recovers on its own. Many hillsides of trees downed in the explosion all face one direction and were left as part of the natural cycle of a forest’s life. While I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife other than a crow bravely trying to keep afloat over the parking lot in the strong winds, I hear that wildlife returned fairly soon to the area.
A Different Way Home
On our way home, we wanted to opt for a different way home and avoid the curving roads we arrived on. We drove back on the same road that clings to the hillsides on the way down and headed towards Randall, Morton, and Mossyrock on the way to meeting up with I-5 about 20 miles north of Kelso/Longview. This section of the drive is still kind of curvy at the beginning, but drops you down in a beautiful valley where you drive on lovely paved roads, nice and flat, and it is easy going from here on out.
Not for Inexperienced Drivers
A word of warning for those that are considering the drive. The curvy roads with no guardrails can be a bit unnerving – especially as you drive along roads cut into a cliff with a long way down on the other side. I don’t recommend doing this with inexperienced drivers. And please please put away your cell phone when driving! There are plenty of opportunities to pull over to take photos along the way at designated waysides. Don’t be fussing with your drink or your music. The road is not in great condition and there are many places where there are dips, sinking, and crumbling areas. Drive slowly! Make sure you have enough gas too, as the nearest gas station is about 25 miles away. From Battle Ground, the trip took about 3 hours to get to the top, and another 3 hours home, so allow at least 7 hours for the day trip. The roads up to the summit are closed in winter. June and July are great times to go.
Definitely worth the drive.