Lady Loowit beckoned me yet again. And how can one resist such a siren song?
For whatever reason, Mount St. Helens doesn’t seem to draw in the hikers like nearby national parks and forests. Maybe it’s due to the vast areas without shade in the blast zone, maybe it’s the long drive from Seattle, maybe its the lack of water. The area, forty-one years after total devastation, still can feel like a barren post-apocalyptic land. But here you can find solitude on the trails and jaw-droppingly beautiful sights, even from the visitor’s center.
There are several trails in the greater Mount St. Helens area, including a few backcounty sites. Unlike the popular Loowit trail that circumnavigates the mountain, overnight sites in the Mount Margaret backcounty are only available to those with permits from Recreation.gov. Many of the sites only allow spots to one permit holder, which meant we had to settle for a Thursday instead of a Saturday. Turns out, we were grateful for the extra rest, but keep in mind while demand here isn’t as high as other areas, the supply is lower.
We found a car camping site nearby to get an earlier jump on the trail, before the sun got too high. The drive to the Johnston Ridge Observatory Visitor Center (technically closed at the moment, but not really), named for volcanologist David Johnston (who many hailed as a hero lost in the eruption on May 18, 1980), was stunning, with tons of scenic pullouts. While the summer summit route is from the south, this trek has you viewing the mountain from the north, in direct view of the blast zone. The visitor center sits at over 4,000 feet elevation and while it says it’s four miles from the mountain, it felt close enough to reach out and touch. It had me all the more in awe of the time I stood atop that mountain.
It is a little odd, walking around the visitor center with a huge pack and poles while most had purses or small daypacks. The trail is advertised as dry, but at the right time of year one could get by with snowmelt, so we had brought extra water and a filter. The first two miles are shared with the popular dayhike to Harry’s Ridge, so we were sharing the trail with many others in awe of our view. The trail would occasionally dip out of view of the mountain, but with wildflowers everywhere, it was hard to complain.
The trail ebbed up and down for that first two miles, but as we approached the turn to Harry’s Ridge, my heart sank as I looked at the trail that wound up, up, up a mountain. Surely that wasn’t ours? Unfortunately it was, with the USGS equipment atop Coldwater Peak taunting us. Huffing, but patting myself on the back for bringing trekking poles, I heaved myself up the ridge.
Up we climbed in elevation, Spirit Lake, still littered with logs frozen in time from 41 years ago, emerged, with a very bare-looking Mt. Adams above. We could also see Mt. Hood to the south of MSH. It was a feast for the eyes! Although as a lifelong Washingtonian I am very embarrassed to share I kept insisting to the boyfriendo that Adams was Rainier. Oops…
While trip reports were scarce, I had learned about this trail from another hiking blogger, Every Two Pines, who had assured some guaranteed shade was coming up. The map we had snagged from the Rangers at the visitor center also had a prominent mark for the Arch, elevation 5322 feet. The arch beautifully framed Mt. Adams, and is an excellent resting point if wanting to get some time out of the sun. There were some more narrow spots in this section, so if afraid of heights, I’d maybe advise another trail (like Harry’s Ridge). From here, the trail became a roller coaster again, taking us down and up and down and up again as we skirted the western side of St. Helens Lake, an even more stunning shade of blue than Spirit Lake.
The hillsides around us were lush and green, like a scene from Switzerland. It was nice to see such stunning blue and green when so much of the state felt dry and brown. I was also a bit more comfrotable knowing how far we could see (and armed with bearspray), so kept a keen eye out for a bear, elk, or mountain goat in the grass. We also passed our first patches of snowmelt. I admit, I am not versed in the safety of snowmelt for drinking water–do you boil, let cool, melt, then filter? That issue would have to be the boyfriendo’s, as I was moving at a pace not much faster than the snow was melting. We were approaching the Dome of our permitted site of Dome Camp.
We made it to the sign for our camp. There was a trail leading down a small valley to solar privy, and one very obvious campsite, a flat patch of dirt ringed by beams. There were other small tent spots with better views up high, but the wind was already whipping at us, so I elected to stay somewhere less exposed. As soon as the tent was up, I promptly flung myself into it for a rest. I do poorly at elevation, and the trail in had been hard.
After a rest, the boyfriendo and I switched places. I decided to explore camp a bit and hopefully scout some water from the nearby snowfields. Luckily, the snow closest to us was on such a slant there was a clear trickle of snowmelt that could easily be filtered! It was deliciously cold, too. The peace of mind knowing we wouldn’t have to worry about water anymore was priceless. Keep in mind water sources like this might not be flowing in the morning as much. My anxiety reduced, I had a beer I had hauled in and dinner and the rest of the evening came to pass. Exhausted from the trek in and the elevation, I had the best night of sleep backpacking I think I’ve ever had, despite mice crawling on the tent.
Morning light emerged, the various mountains around us blanketed by fog. Breakfast and packing up camp flew by. I had crunched the numbers, and between consuming food, beer, and water, I was guessing my pack would be a good 4-5 pounds lighter than the trip in. I was also hoping to be slightly more acclimated to the high elevation.
The morning light around us was breathtaking. While the trail in had us facing away from the mountain after the arch, the trail back would have us in full view at nearly all times. And it bears repeating–what a view it was!
Being less tired and hot, I could also pay better attention to the land. Even when not staring into the crater of MSH, the signs of the eruption were everywhere. Pumice was still under our feet all over the trail. Spirit Lake and the hills around us were still full of logs blown out of their trunks by the force of the eruption and resulting landslide. Our gear and bodies were covered in a layer of dusty ash. Trees in the blast zone resembled that of a new Christmas tree farm, maybe two feet high at the most. It is one of the most unique landscapes one can hike in!
The dirt also revealed tons of fresh ruminant footprints of varying sizes (deer? Elk? Mountain goat?). I kept my head on a swivel as we got closer to the arch. A half-mile from the arch is the signed spur to Coldwater Peak. At only 0.7 miles each way, I had really hoped to have the stamina for this grueling side-trek, but it just wasn’t in the cards. We stopped in the shade of the arch one last time for a snack, and prepared for a huge downhill portion. While we were getting closer to the mountain, we were also getting lower, which meant our heart-stopping view would only soon be breathtaking.
The downhill miles flew by, even with the sun scoring our skin. On the way in, it had felt somewhat demoralizing to still see the visitor center and parking lot from five miles in, but on the way back, I was grateful to see them start to loom larger and larger as the miles came and went. We had measured out only 2L of water for the way out, knowing the visitor’s center had cold water fountains and bathrooms waiting for us. By the end, I was doing my final mile limp, and layers of dust and sunscreen and ash and sanitizer and the oily salmon jerky I had eaten the prior day permeated my skin. The trail was definitely at my upper level of comfort for gain and mileage, and again, my pack was heavier than it probably should have been, and as gorgeous as it was, I was ready to be done. Slowly, I made it to the car and tore off my pack.
I have never looked forward to washing my hands more! Bonus–the visitor’s center parking lot had a food truck with hamburgers and hot dogs! We weren’t quite hungry yet, but if we had been, this would have been a godsend. Instead, I limped from the car to the visitor center where I washed my hands three times and got my NPS cancellation. Once it opens fully, the visitor center is a great resource for info on the blast and volcanoes, and fully worth the trip even just for a day visit. But the trail was possibly the best trail I’ve backpacked on (tie between this one and Toleak–I’ve been killing it this year!). If I was stronger, I’d be interested in seeing if the slightly-further-away Margaret Camp had more of a view, or staying in a view site at Dome Camp, but all in all, I’ll be back. There’s even options for loops and multi-nights here! Just remember to set that alarm for the 7am permit release (Typically March 1st) and be prepared to be flexible on dates.
Distance: While there’s several dayhikes from the visitor center, including Harry’s Ridge, if backpacking you will need to go minimum 7.0 miles one-way to reach the first campsite, Dome Camp (or Ridge Camp if you take the Coldwater trail). There are many other routes and trails possible.
Elevation: Total gain depends on destination, but you start at over 4000 feet, and gain and lose a lot on any trail. The higest point on the trail was 1300 feet higher than the trailhead.
Parking: America the Beautiful or Forest Pass at the parking lot, but Backcountry permits are required for overnight stays.
Bathrooms: The visitor center at the trailhead has flushing toilets and running water, and Dome Camp had a pit toilet, as well as other camping sites. PLEASE remember to put only waste in the pit toilets–I was disheartened to see tons of garbage in there.
Food Storage: I believe a bear can is required.
Fires: No fires allowed at this elevation.
Best Beer Bet: The town of Cougar has Parker’s Steakhouse and Brewery, but we weren’t quite hungry yet, so will save for next time.