On Walkabout to See What's Out There

Road Less Traveled to Mt St Helens

By: BriarCraft, 9:58 PM GMT on July 13, 2012

In May, we traveled to Mt St Helens from the west, along the Toutle River to Johnston Ridge Observatory. That approach offered sweeping vistas of the old lahar flows that changed the Toutle River forever. We got to look almost straight into the crater, but we didn't get to see Spirit Lake, only about 5 miles away. To do that requires some rugged hiking for the direct route or a drive of about 130 miles. Not practical for a simple day trip.

Heading east on US Highway 12 past Mossyrock and Morton to Randle, it was apparent that the late arrival of summer had delayed hay harvests. It seemed that farmers everywhere were making hay as fast as they could.

Traveling along with Cowlitz River for part of the way, the waters of Riffe Lake reflected the blue sky so closely that I just had to stop to take a picture. Mossyrock Dam is the tallest dam in the State of Washington at 606 feet from bedrock. Riffe (rhymes with "life") Lake, named for a community it covered, has 52 miles of shoreline and is 23 miles long and is a popular spot for boating and fishing.

Although I didn't know it when I set out for the east side of Mt St Helens, the trek to Windy Ridge would not have been possible back in May. In fact, it would not have been possible before July 12, the day I went there. Officially, Forest Roads 25 and 99 did not open until July 13, but they were ready to travel by the afternoon of the 12th. Landslides had blocked both Forest Roads, requiring a new bridge to be built.

After leaving US-12 at Randle, there are no services available along the way -- no food, no gas, no water, no cell phone reception. There are a few chemical toilets provided by the Forest Service, but that's it. Forest Road 25 winds through dense forests, then Forest Road 99 climbs the foothills surrounding Mt St Helens to Windy Ridge viewpoint. In several places, the road dips sharply where the soil beneath has slid or sunk. Rather than filling in these large dips, the Forest Service has simply patched pavement to make the drop-offs a bit more manageable. If you're not paying attention, it is very easy to hit one of these too fast and damage your car. So, while the scenery is nice, it doesn't make for a relaxing drive.

Unlike the western approach, there are no interpretive centers as you approach the mountain from the northeast. There are half a dozen viewpoints with small parking lots and there are several wide spots in the road where one can pull over briefly for a quick look and perhaps to snap a photo. Since the road was not yet officially open and there was little traffic, I was able to stop here and there for a few seconds to snap a quick shot from the driver's seat.

8.5 miles from Mt St Helens, this 1972 Pontiac Grand Prix was left undisturbed after the eruption. The picture at top is from a Forest Service sign at the site, showing how it looked in 1980. The bottom picture is what it looks like today.

At the end of the line, Windy Ridge, there are 361 steps to reach the official viewpoint. A few brave souls actually make that climb, braving strong winds, no hand rails, and steps that aren't spaced quite right for comfortable climbing. I didn't even try. Going up is hard on quadriceps and hips. Coming down is really tough on knees. Even young, athletic types are seen stopping every 50 or 100 steps to rest.

Below are some of the photos I took along the way. If you want to see more, there are 26 photos in the series.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.