Mount St. Helens: Windy Ridge Viewpoint

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There are two great viewpoints, where you can stare deep into the heart of an angry, murderous mountain, that not long ago, blew its top and leveled the surrounding landscape.  The closer of the two, and less visited, is Windy Ridge.  I first visited here as a child, about 10 years after the May 18, 1980 eruption.  I came back in 2004, and then again on this trip, in 2011. Each time I return, the landscape seems to recover a bit more — a few more plants, some mature trees — but it remains anything but normal.

To get to Windy Ridge, travel US 12 to the town of Randle, about an hour east of I-5 (or in the case of this trip, head west from Packwood, Washington).  Turn south on Washington 131, which quickly turns into Forest Service Road 25.  After about 20 miles of winding, narrow pavement…

… and this thrilling crossing over a temporary bridge (the original one was apparently washed out), you eventually reach the turnoff to Forest Road 99, which takes you into Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

After a few more miles of curvy driving, the main attraction begins to make an appearance.  It’s brief at first, looking over a still-intact landscape.  But before long…

… you round a corner, and the world changes.  The border of the monument roughly follows the edge of the blast zone, where super-heated gasses swept across St. Helens’ surrounding hills, knocking down most trees, and burning the rest.  Now, more than 30 years after that eruption, some of those devastated trees still stand, naked.

The road takes you to numerous viewpoints and turnouts.  I skipped most of them, but I still stopped at one of my favorites — one that I remembered vividly from my visit as a child.  The Miner’s Car was tossed into the air, then flattened during the eruption.  It landed in the spot where it remains today, though the ravages of rust are taking their toll, and I wonder if much will remain for me to see on my next visit, in a few years.

Old logs still litter the ground near the Miner’s Car.  But in stark contrast to the dead trees, plenty of new life springs from the ground, covering the area with wildflower blooms.

On up the road, you will come to a viewpoint that provides a nice look at Spirit Lake.  When the mountain erupted, a landslide triggered a massive wave to sweep across the lake, crashing into the surrounding hills.  The water washed countless trees into the lake, and many of those old logs still float on its surface today.

All that debris formed a dam across Spirit Lake’s natural outlet, and for a couple of years after the eruption, the lake’s water level rose to dangerous levels.  The Army Corps of Engineers eventually dug a tunnel, allowing the lake to drain.

Windy Ridge Road ends somewhat unceremoniously, at a large parking lot with a few vault toilets and a couple of trailheads.  Don’t expect a gift shop or concession stand here.  The only reward for driving out to this lonely viewpoint is the view itself.

And that view is spectacular.  From Windy Ridge, you have a clear view into the mountain’s blasted-out crater.  A small cone has begun to rebuild inside.

For an even better view, you can hike along that ridge you see in the foreground.  Or, you can climb the hill directly behind this spot.  I huffed and puffed my way up its 361 steps, back in 2004.

I mentioned that Windy Ridge is the more remote, more difficult viewpoint to reach.  The easier one is Johnston Ridge — about 50 miles east of I-5, on Highway 504.  The two observation points used to be connected, before the eruption blasted away the road. 
Rather than tackle a long trail, I knew I needed to make some progress towards my final destination for the night, Portland, Oregon.  So, I backtracked down Forest Road 99 to 25, then headed south.

Road 25 journeys through Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and eventually takes you to Swift Reservoir, where you have an expensive opportunity to fill your tank with gas.  From there, Road 90, Curly Creek Road, and Road 30 (Wind River Road) allow you to continue the trek southward.

Most of this route is so deep within the forest that you don’t see anything but trees.  There are supposed to be at least three waterfalls in the area, including the redundantly named Falls Creek Falls.  Back at the general store at Swift Reservoir, I was assured that these waterfalls were near the road, and easy to spot — but I didn’t find any of them.

The only thing that was easy to spot was the Clearwater Viewpoint.

From here, you have a view of the backside of Mount St. Helens.  The blast mostly went in the opposite direction, so from this side you don’t have a good view into the crater.

One attraction worth visiting on St. Helens’ south side is Ape Cave.  This lava tube is not filled with primates — instead, it derived its name from the boy scout troop that first explored it.  If you want to do a little exploring of your own, bring a couple of reliable, bright flashlights.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Packwood to the Road 99 turnoff…

… the drive out and back on Road 99…

… then further south on 25 and 90…

… and 30, on to Carson, Washington:

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