|Mount St. Helens viewed from Harry's Ridge|
Difficulty: Moderate, due to steep dropoffs on a narrow section of trail; not recommended if you have a fear of heights
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $8/person access fee for hiking near Johnston Ridge, or Northwest Forest Pass
On the morning of May 18, 1980, over two and a half cubic kilometers of dirt, rock, and snow comprising the top 1300 feet of Washington State's conically-shaped Mount St. Helens sloughed off the north side of the mountain in the largest landslide in recorded history. The resulting eruption of the Cascade stratovolcano was massive- the largest in the contiguous United States in the 20th century. Glaciers melted instaneously, trees were downed by the sonic blast of the eruption, mudflows carried away bridges on the Toutle River, noon skies in Yakima were pitch-black from volcanic ash, 57 lives were lost, and one of the most beautiful and symmetric volcanic cones in the Northwest was obliterated, leaving a gaping northward-facing crater overlooking a landscape buried in mud and hot rock. Recent minor eruptions, the formation of a lava dome in the crater, and the quick formation and advance of the Crater Glacier in the past third of a century all attest to Mount St. Helens as a living geological landscape. The hike to Harry's Ridge is one of the best ways to survey the volcano's gaping maw and see first-hand the results of awesome geological power. The view from atop the barren ridge encompasses not only St. Helens but also two other Cascade stratovolcanoes, the blue water and log rafts of Spirit Lake, and the devastated but recovering landscape to the north of the volcano.
Although this hike is not too demanding in terms of elevation gain, it does have a fairly narrow section that is cut into a steep mountain slope. While not unduly dangerous for anyone who has appropriate hiking gear and crosses cautiously, it will likely prove difficult for hikers who have a fear of heights. Thus, while the merits of this trail make it an excellent hike, I can't recommend this full trail to anyone who has a fear of heights. This narrow section of trail occurs 1.5 miles into the hike; abridging this hike at the start of the narrow section allows for good volcano views but no views of Spirit Lake.
I hiked this trail with a friend at the end of May, after the road up to the Johnston Ridge Visitor Center had opened for the season. We set out from Seattle together in the morning, following I-5 south to exit 63; we then followed Route 505 east past Cowlitz and Toledo to a junction with Route 504, where we turned left onto Route 504 and followed it east to its dead-end at the parking lot for Johnston Ridge Observatory in Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which is administered by Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
We headed to the visitor center first: to hike in the area, you'll need to pay and pick up a wristband that indicates payment. After briefly browsing the exhibits inside, we headed out on the trail, heading out to the left (east) from the large viewing platform just outside the visitor center. The paved path made a short and gentle ascent to the top of the ridge, providing a sweeping view towards the crater of Mount St. Helens and the devastated plains at the northern foot of the mountain.
|Mt. St. Helens, seen from the Visitor Center|
|View along Johnston Ridge towards Harry's Ridge|
|Paintbrush on Johnston Ridge|
|Paintbrush along the trail|
About a mile and a half into the hike, the trail came to a bend in the ridge; here, the wide trail suddenly narrowed to just a foot wide in places as it turned south and cut through the sides of a loose, rocky slope. For a third of a mile, the trail hugged the side of the mountain; with dropoffs to the right of the trail. While not particularly difficult, this segment of trail may pose a challenge to those with a fear of heights; either way, you should be more cautious while hiking this stretch of trail.
|Narrow section of trail with drop-offs|
|View back towards Johnston Ridge and the Toutle Valley|
We soon entered an odd landscape of hummocks, small hills that almost seemed as if they were mounds of earth deposited at random by a giant. These hummocks actually formed from the 1980 eruption- they are large chunks of the former summit of Mount St. Helens, deposited in the massive debris avalanche during the eruption. The forcefulness of the eruption carried large, intact chunks of the mountain across the valley, depositing them at the foot of Harry's Ridge. The formation of these hummocks in the 1980 eruption solved a long-standing mystery regarding the origin of hummocks in other parts of the world. Most notably, the origins of a field of hummocks to the northwest of Mount Shasta in California were unknown until similar hummocks formed at St. Helens in the 1980 eruption, suggesting that the Shasta hummocks also formed from massive debris avalanches resulting from an earlier eruption of Mount Shasta.
|Hummocks at the foot of Harry's Ridge|
In this landscape of recovery, wildflowers were much more noticeable than they would have been in a deep forest, allowing us to more easily spot collections of avalanche lilies blooming by the trail.
Soon after we started the final ascent, Spirit Lake came into view. Mount Margaret rose to the north of the lake and Mount Adams appeared to the east, its massive snowcapped form almost magical as it floated above forested surroundings. Although Spirit Lake existed before the eruption, its current size and shape were set by the eruption and the resulting pyroclastic flow, which raised the lake level and flooded the northern ends of the valley near Mount Margaret. The huge landslide at the time of eruption also left hummocks at the north end of Spirit Lake.
|Hummocks in Spirit Lake|
|View of Mount Margaret and other peaks north of Spirit Lake from Harry's Ridge|
Two more volcanoes were also visible: Mount Adams rose to the east above deep blue Spirit Lake and Mount Hood was visible in the distance to the southeast, seeming almost like a parasite on Mount St. Helen's eastern slopes.
|Mount Adams and Spirit Lake from Harry's Ridge|
After appreciating the views, we retraced our steps to the trailhead.