Yesterday, I visited the Windy Ridge area of the Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument. This area is located on the northeastern flank of the volcano and is the closest to the volcano that one can physically drive to. It’s a long trip, no matter which way one approaches the site from major metropolitan areas of the region, but one well worth the time. Of course, I recommend visiting the Johnston Ridge Observatory to take in the full view of the volcano and crater, as well as the excellent monument exhibits and video inside the Observatory’s building. But, in order to get the complete picture of what happened to this area during the 1980 eruption blast, a trip to Windy Ridge will give one the complete Mount St Helens experience, as I like to say.
Getting to the Windy Ridge area entails driving on US Forest Service roads in the Gifford Pinchot Forest. To access the visiting areas of the volcanic monument, you will need a US Forest Service Pass ($5), which one can purchase while in the Windy Ridge area of the monument. There are two ways to purchase a pass directly in the area: self-serve stations located in some of the parking areas, or with a transaction from a real person located at the Cascade Peaks parking lot. You will need exact change if you opt to use the self-serve stations. Also, make sure you have a road map of the Mount St Helens vicinity that includes detailed info on the US Forest Service roads. You can pick one up at any ranger station or any of the monument’s visitor centers. These forest service roads are not in the best of condition, so drive slowly and carefully, as there are many twists and turns, drop-offs, bumps and dips. There is not much traffic on these roads either. You are in the wilderness! Make sure you gas up your vehicle before venturing on them. The only way to Windy Ridge is via USFS Road 99. It also dead-ends at the volcano. And, to get to 99, you must take USFS Road 25. As previously stated, it’s a long, tedious drive, but a beautiful one! I did see a few motorcycles, but I wouldn’t recommend it due to rough road conditions.
One of the more impressive sites of the volcano monument that you won’t see close-up from the Johnston Ridge Observatory is Spirit Lake. Here, you will see what happened during the volcanic blast that caused a tidal wave and sloshed millions of blown down trees into the lake, forming a log jam at one end of the lake. You can still see the sun bleached logs piled up along the edges of the lake. There are several pull-out areas with parking lots for one to get out and take spectacular photos along the road approaching Windy Ridge. As well, there are several hiking trails, including one to Spirit Lake.
The other impressive feature of this area of the volcano monument is the scoured landscape. One can’t help but notice the scarred face of the land with all the “ghost forests,” as I refer to them. The volcanic blast literally blew down sections of forest like matchsticks, incinerating and stripping them of their bark and needles. Today, many still stand, sun-bleached and naked to the world. And, in many areas, one can see how nature has reclaimed the land, repopulating itself with greenery and new forests regenerating in the valleys where once was nothing but a grey, ashen, lunar-like landscape.
At the end of the road at the Windy Ridge viewpoint, if one is feeling up to it, he/she can climb the Sand Stairs, a set of 368 steps built into a hillside. At the top, one gets a spectacular view of the surrounding region. From this viewpoint one can see many peaks of the Cascades on a clear day, including Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and even Mount Hood. As well, you’ll get a spectacular view of Spirit Lake and the volcano crater.
I hope you enjoyed my armchair visit to the Windy Ridge area of the Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument! If you plan to visit this summer, please bring with you suncreen, a hat, bug repellant, food, and plenty of water, as it gets very hot and dry in this region. Happy traveling!
All images property of Peggy A Thompson