Mount St. Helens  (MSH)
Visitors Resource Packet
Compiled/Written by Lloyd & Doris Anderson
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Mount St. Helens - Hikes/Trails/Walks

See also:  1b, 3b & Map in Awesome Brochure

Johnston Ridge Trail.  This is our #1 trail recommendation.  It views much of the area containing recent creation geology--the crater and lava dome, Step Canyon, valley erosion, the Pumice Plain and South Coldwater Canyon.  From it the view of the Observatory just gets better and better.  It follows the crest of Johnston Ridge to the east until it is interrupted by a north-south ridge, the southern portion of which is called the Devil’s Elbow.  The trail continues along the west side of Devil’s Elbow until it rounds the end of the elbow and heads north.  At this point about half of Spirit Lake comes into view.  The rest is hidden by Harrys Ridge.  The distance to this overview is 1.75 miles.  If  the 3.5 mile round trip is too far to hike, just go part way.  Difficulty: moderate.  Be sure to take this sheet on your hike.

Trail Name:  For location purposes we call this trail the “Johnston Ridge Trail,”  but it actually bears a name which is meaningless to the general public.  It is a short extension to the 32 mile Boundary Trail #1 which once formed the boundary between two forest service districts.  This extension does not appear on older maps since it was built in 1997.  We first hiked it on June 7, 1998.  However, it has quickly become very popular and many people walk it. 

Want to go further?  Less than half a mile beyond the Devil's Elbow overview of Spirit Lake is the junction with Truman Trail (#207).  This trail descends to the Pumice Plain and later climbs to Windy Ridge.   Truman Trail also provides access to Loowit Trail (#216).  A half mile further is the Harrys Ridge Trail (#208), a 0.6 mile spur to the top of Harrys Ridge.  The viewpoint looks 1300’ down on Spirit Lake.  Another 3.75 miles will reach the top of Coldwater Peak, a breathtaking vista.  One reason it is breathtaking is that you will be looking 3000’ down on the upper Coldwater Creek Canyon.

Detailed description of trail scenery: 

Valley Floor to the North.  Hiking east from the Observatory one can soon see SR 504 on the left as it begins to climb from Coldwater Lake up the South Coldwater Canyon and then makes a horseshoe bend to ascend Johnston Ridge.  In the ten miles from Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center the highway descends from 3200’ to 2700’ and then ascends to 4200’.  At the 2700’ level one can take the Hummock Trail on the south side of the highway and experience the valley floor where the debris avalanche swept down and later erosion caused deep canyons; or, Coldwater Lake interpretive walk on the north side.  This access to the valley floor far excels hiking to the valley floor and back up from the Observatory.  Further along the trail, a spectacular rapids appears just downstream from the horseshoe bend.  This is the outflow from the Spirit Lake drainage tunnel.  You are crossing the “saddle” (lowest elevations) of Johnston Ridge where the avalanche scattered debris on the crest and into South Coldwater Canyon.  The plain beside the highway is material that flowed up and over Johnston Ridge!  It came with such force and velocity that it climbed 1000’ up Johnston Ridge and flew across the valley on the left, scouring its north rim to bedrock.  Identify the “trimline.” 

Crater & dome.  As one proceeds the crater and dome take on never-ending new angles.  The west edge of the crater cannot be seen from the Observatory deck, but comes into full view over the distance of this hike.  As one rounds the Devil's Elbow (end of our hike) and gains sight of Spirit Lake, one has reached the closest point to the crater and dome.  Small wisps of steam can be seen rising from various points on the dome.  The ranger says this goes on all year long but is more pronounced after a cold night. 

Canyons formed in a day.  Meanwhile, on the right in the valley below, one only sees the Toutle River (North Fork) meandering to the West at first.  But soon one begins to see more clearly those canyons formed in a day.  Since the trail follows the crest of the ridge, one continually views those many canyons from one perspective, then another and becomes overwhelmed with their proportions and complexity.  (See 3b.)   The canyons grow and then shrink, going this way and that, a labyrinth or maze of drainages. The canyons are all sizes and shapes and therefore hard to count. 

Step Canyon.  As the trail continues, Step Canyon, a gigantic gash in the center of the crater’s mouth, becomes more prominent.  Although Step Canyon ranges up to 700’ in depth, it is not very impressive from the Observatory.  A lovely waterfall, fed by the late spring melt, plunges hundreds of feet into the canyon, ricocheting off a ledge half way down.  A constant strong wind lifts spray above the top of the falls mixed with dust blown up from the depths of the canyon.

Loowit Canyon.  Near the east end of the mouth of the crater is a depression which must be Loowit Canyon.  It is as hard to see as Step Canyon is easy to see, apparently because it has a more northeast orientation.  It is the dominant canyon seen from the east side.  One can trace the ribbon of a stream below the canyon, but it does not merge with the stream from Step Canyon as it did in 1997.  Rather, it continues to flow onto the Pumice Plain and into Spirit Lake.  A ranger said a landslide had diverted the stream from its former course during the 97-98 winter.  The same landslide closed that portion of Loowit Trail for a time.  Lower Loowit Canyon became buried.  (Poor Steve Austin.)

Spirit Lake.  A bend to the left brings us to the Spirit Lake viewpoint, the farthest end of our hike.  From this vantage point we see the west finger and all of the south end of Spirit Lake, but few of those famous logs.  Possibly they get bunched up at the north end of the east finger of the lake or maybe they are just too small to see.  That large Pumice Plain stretches south from the edge of Spirit Lake.

Weather on this June 7, 1998: sunny with occasional clouds.  About 73 degrees.  Even with a light covering of sun screen, my arms began to get red within half an hour, so I applied more sun screen.  I experienced no more reddening.  Clouds floated above the mountain but increased until the top of the mountain disappeared about 5:30 pm.  The wind became quite strong as we approached the Spirit Lake overlook.

Hiking Time/Conditions: we stopped often to look at the canyons in the valley and spent about an hour each way plus half an hour at the Spirit Lake overlook.  The trail was dry with occasional dust blown in our face from the person in front.  The wind was actually strong at the overlook.  It was delightful walking along the crest of the ridge but we were a little uncomfortable when the trail turned south onto the slope of another ridge.  For a short distance the path was narrow, ascending on the left and descending 1000' on the right.  Generally the slope was 60 degrees and the path sometimes narrowed to a half foot due to erosion.  We met people continually on the trail.  When I returned later in the summer the trail had been repaired and comfortably wide along the side of the ridge.

Hummocks Trail (#229).   MP 45, across highway from Coldwater Lake; 2.3 mile loop on Toutle River Valley floor.  (See “Valley Floor to the North” above.)  Hummocks are chunks of the mountain that did not break apart as they plunged into the valley in the great avalanche.  Experts can determine where each hummock came from because the mountain has many different lava mixtures.  Some hummocks are up to 200’ in height.  Moderate difficulty.  Observe biological recovery in the valley buried by an average of 125’ of deposit.

Birth of a Lake Interpretive Trail.   MP 45, at the Coldwater Lake parking lot.   A much easier and more developed version of the above; 0.25 miles long.  Difficulty rating: easy.  Restroom at parking lot.

Winds of Change Interpretive Walk.   MP 43, 50 yards west of the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center.  “Join a forest interpreter to discover how the stone wind of the 1980 eruption slammed into Coldwater Ridge and how with the gentle winds of time, plants and animals have returned.” -VG.  A 0.25 mile loop offers sweeping views of the Toutle River Valley and Mount St. Helens. 

Loowit Trail (#216) is the premier trail of MSH, covering 27 miles as it circles the mountain at its base.  It is not crossed by a single road and is reached by feeder trails.  It is a challenging hike across rough terrain.

South Coldwater Trail (#230A).  Trailhead/parking lot at MP 44.  Travels along and above south side of Coldwater Lake.  3.1 miles, each way.  Difficulty rating:  moderate.

Hiking Cautions/Reference.  Take plenty of water.  There is none along the way.  In the Blast Zone you will be hiking on shadeless terrain.  Secure up to date trail guides in visitor center bookrooms.  A recommended map is the forest Service MSH National Volcanic Monument topographical map.                             Lloyd Anderson, Rev 6/15/01



Directory of Walks, Interpretative Trails & Overviews


Silver Lake Visitor Center Wetlands Interpretive Trail – to be open summer of 1999

Sediment Retention Structure Trail.  Take the one-mile spur called the Sediment Dam Road south from SR504 near milepost 21.  Park in the gift shop parking lot and walk the 3/8th mile trail that first stops at the base of the dam then continues to the top of the dam. 

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center Overviews (2).  Mile post 27.  The east overview looks up the wide Toutle River Valley.   The south overview is a dramatic view looking across the valley below.

Hoffstadt Creek Bridge West End Viewpoint.  Mile post 29.7.  Three large interpretive plaques.  Most spectacular of the highway’s 11 new bridges.  Marks entrance into the blast zone.

Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center Interpretive Trail.  Mile post 33.5.  Biodiversity theme.  One-mile round trip trail descends 250’ towards the valley 1300’ below.  Overlooks the 650-acre state elk refuge.

Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center Playground.  Shaped like volcano landscape.  To right of visitor center.

Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center Overview.  Dramatic view of the valley below.  To left of visitor center.

Elk Rock Viewpoint.  Mile post 37.  Best view of the debris-filled Toutle Valley before Johnston Ridge.

Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center Winds of Change Interpretive Trail ¼ mile loop.  Adjacent to visitor center.

Coldwater Lake Birth of a Lake Interpretive Trail.  Mile post 45, Coldwater Lake Recreation Area.  ¼ mile loop.

Elk Bench Trail.  Travels east from Birth of Lake Trail #211D along north side of Coldwater Lake.  ¾ mile one way.

Hummocks Trail #229.  Across highway from Coldwater trails.  Good parking lot.  2.3 mile loop on the floor of the valley through the avalanche debris. 

Loowit Viewpoint.  Mile post 52.  Best viewpoint of the volcano until the Johnston Ridge Observatory was built.

Johnston Ridge Observatory Eruption Trail.  ¾ mile loop adjacent to the Observatory.

Upper Observation Deck.  Up a 60’ ramp/stairway on the east side of the observation deck to the highest point on the ridge.  Provides a 360-degree, unobstructed view of the area.

Johnston Ridge Trail.  Goes east from both the parking lot and the upper observation deck for 1.75 miles (one way) to a partial view of Spirit Lake.  Gives ever-changing views of the crater and valley between.  Magnificent scenery.  Comes within 4 miles of the crater.  Traverses a disconcerting slope of several hundred yards toward the end.  The trail is actually a stretch of the 30+-mile boundary trail and joins with Truman trail at the 2.5-mile marker to go to Windy Ridge.

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