Mount St. Helens: Boundary Trail Day Hike

Noble Knob’s bad luck and a volcanic disaster

Owning a car isn't necessarily enough to get to Mt. St. Helens.

APRIL 25, 2006 — In early April 2004, I decided to try to impress my then-girlfriend by taking her on a trip to the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to tackle Noble Knob Trail, a hike described in 100 Classic Hikes in Washington. 100 Classic Hikes is the best $12.97 I’ve ever spent on a travel-related book; the authors give you the feeling that you have two in-the-know friends, experts on every glorious climb in Washington. The book even lets you know the best time of year to try a given hike, but my resistance to forward-planning and weakness for warm weather often causes me to disregard those suggestions, occasionally to my detriment. After the two hour drive to the Corral Pass road on the way to the trailhead, we discovered a gated and snowed-in road, making it impossible to get to the trail (my car isn’t the kind of car that enjoys off-road travel). She sure was impressed. We ended up enjoying the privacy of a beautiful tree-canopy covered hike on Deep Creek Trail, but Noble Knob was out of reach. We later broke up. Whether it was due to the Noble Knob incident, I’ll never know.

Later that spring, at the end of May, I decided to try to impress two friends by taking them to Noble Knob. I knew the Corral Pass road would finally be open because the weather had warmed and winter was gone, so I didn’t bother to call the nearby forest ranger station in advance. Thus it was to my complete surprise that the Corral Pass road was still gated and snowed-in when we arrived. They sure were impressed. We confronted nearby Clear West Peak as an alternative and enjoyed the challenge of the snow-covered paths, but Noble Knob still eluded me. One of those friends moved away soon after. Whether it was due to the Noble Knob incident, I’ll never know.

Noble Knob taught me a lesson: early in the hiking season, always check on road conditions before driving multiple hours to a trail.

As previously advertised on Without Baggage, I decided this past weekend to visit Mount St. Helens, the volcano responsible for the most deadly and economically destructive volcanic eruption in United States history and the largest debris avalanche in all of recorded history. One of the most active volcanoes in the United States, Mount St. Helens erupted as recently as March 8, 2005, when a 36,000-foot plume of steam and ash emerged from the volcanco. The US Forest Service has been monitoring the volcano continuously as a new lava dome continues to grow on the volcano’s top.

I learned by calling the Forest Service in advance (I learned my lesson!) that due to these recent volcanic events, they prohibit climbing to the top of Mount St. Helens and have closed most of the trails immediately adjacent to the volcano’s enormous horseshoe-shaped crater to keep hikers safe from lava, steam, and ash. On top of that, it’s still early in the hiking season, so many of the roads in the Volcanic Monument are closed due to snow; specifically, the road to Windy Ridge Viewpoint, considered one of the best (and hardest to get to) places to see the volcano, was inaccessible. Nevertheless, I knew a road near Windy Ridge that I could take to see great views of the mountain and eventually arrive at Ape Canyon, an underground cave network that is one of St. Helens’s most popular tourist attractions.

So, I set out on the three-hour drive from Seattle to the east side of Mount St. Helens. On State Route 12, about one hour from Windy Ridge, a sign advertises a minor side trip to a viewpoint about a half mile up a mountain. Ready for a break, I shifted down into second gear and started making my way up the paved road; but when I reached the end, I was thoroughly disappointed. I could barely make out Mount St. Helens on the horizon through the underbrush. Whoever labeled the parking lot at the end of Short Road a “viewpoint” probably also thinks that the Olive Garden is the epitome of fine food and the Counting Crows is the best band ever.

Regardless, after reaching the top, I noticed a gravel road continuing up the mountain and guessed that maybe this “viewpoint” wasn’t the viewpoint at all. I drove another quarter-mile as the road quickly became steep enough that my car’s tires were starting to slip. Clearly, this gravel road was neither related to the promised viewpoint nor was it designed for rear-wheel drive, German coupes. Not wanting to slip down the mountain, I began driving in reverse back to the “viewpoint” — right off the side of a steep incline and into a ditch. A man who lived at the top of the gravel road came down the road curiously with his dog to see what I had done. He sure was impressed.

The man helpfully mentioned that a “guy lower down the mountain had a bulldozer,” but I wasn’t sure how that would help, and I certainly didn’t trust a farmer with a bulldozer to excavate my car from a mountain ditch. Near the edge of cell-phone coverage, I called trusty AAA and within a half hour, a tow truck arrived from a nearby town. Two hours later, after the most creative winch techniques and chain-tethering I have ever seen, the truck driver managed to correct my ridiculous mistake. “I’ve seen worse,” he said. “Glad you called me. The other guys would have your car in pieces by now.” I was disappointed that my bumper had sustained some damaged, but surely that was better than my car being in pieces, I thought. I tipped him and hoped to salvage the day by making my way toward Ape Canyon.

Thirty minutes later, I arrived in the beautiful Gifford Pinchot National Forest and was well on my way to seeing the volcano up-close — that is, until I reached the junction of State Routes 25 and 76, probably more accurately described as the junction of Huge Snow Drift and Impassable Snowed-In Route. I had sustained three hours of driving and two hours in a ditch and all I had to show for it was a snowdrift. I later learned that I should have paid more attention to the recorded message when I called the Forest Service: yes, they closed the road to Windy Ridge, but they also closed the southern segment of State Route 25 to Ape Canyon. I sure was impressed with myself.

Disappointed, I turned back and drove to nearby Randle, where the Big Bottom Bar & Grill consoled me with on-tap root beer, a big bacon and swiss burger, and an adorable waitress. Nevertheless, the trip provided the best lesson in car towing I have ever gotten and a beautiful drive through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Late in the summer of 2004, a friend and I took a third attempt at Noble Knob, and I finally succeeded in completing the hike. We saw not only beautiful views of Mount Rainier but also dazzling flower meadows which can only be seen in summer. In retrospect, I’m skeptical that Noble Knob was solely responsible for the end of my relationship with my girlfriend and my friend moving away. Combined with the other two hikes I discovered through my three attempts at Noble Knob, the flower meadows made the whole debacle worthwhile.

Sometimes, even when you don’t arrive at your expected destination, it doesn’t matter much. Just try not to drive into a ditch while you’re on your way.

The closest you can get to the moon

The astounding scenery around Mt. St. Helens tells a story of a horrifying natural disaster.

COLDWATER RIDGE, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Wa. — On Sunday, May 18, 1980 at 8:32 AM, an earthquake prompted Mount St. Helens in Washington State to erupt, causing its north face to collapse in a massive rock-debris avalanche — the largest in recorded history. Pressurized gases in the volcano hurled the volcano’s north face into nearby Spirit Lake, over a 1,300 foot-high ridge, and then fourteen miles down the Toutle River. The explosion triggered a stone-filled wind that toppled 150 square miles of surrounding forest, an enormous mud flood that caused rivers and lakes to overflow, and a mushroom cloud of ash that turned day into night in cities as far as 200 miles away. While the sound of the eruption was heard as far away as British Columbia, terrified loggers only 2 miles from the volcano heard nothing — due to the way the sound traveled — until a torrent of ash and stone pasted them to the ground and eventually burned them to death. For hours following the blast, the ash-filled air made it impossible for people to see their hands in front of their faces and news footage showed cities at noon in complete, midnight-like darkness.

According to the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, the eruption released an amount of energy equal to 27,000 times the energy released by a single Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb. During World War II atomic bomb tests, testers stood within a couple miles of the detonated test bombs (with eye shields) and felt only wind from the blast; when Mount St. Helens erupted, it destroyed everything in the 150 square miles surrounding the volcano.

Today, Mount St. Helens is one of the most beautiful and dramatic recreation areas in the Pacific Northwest.

Clearly, I couldn’t pass up a chance to see the volcano on a perfect Seattle Sunday. After my personal volcanic disaster, I took a significantly easier route to Mount St. Helens the following day and drove to Coldwater Ridge. On the way, I stopped at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center near Silver Lake, where I took a quick walk through its museum and watched The Fire Below Us, a documentary film about the 1980 eruption. Obviously a relic of 1980s nature-documentary filmmaking, the film’s tone was often ridiculous and melodramatic but managed to convey the terror of the eruption despite its synthesized music, purple-turtleneck-covered host, and dramatized re-enactments of victims’ stories. The movie was worth watching simply to see news footage of nearby ash-covered cities and actual video of the volcano’s eruption.

Mount St. Helens spews smoke and ash while being observed from Loowit Viewpoint
Mount St. Helens spews smoke and ash while being observed from Loowit Viewpoint

After my ’80s flashback, I continued on to the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, where an animated forest ranger greeted a group of us and gave us a rousing description of the volcano and its eruptions in front of a glorious backdrop of the volcano itself. After stern warnings about closed hiking trails and the Park’s current climbing ban (scientists fear that the recent 2005 eruption makes climbing to the top of the volcano too dangerous), I coincidentally ran into a friend on the way to start my hike. After getting the low-down from a ranger about the few open hiking trails, we learned that while the Park had officially closed the Boundary Trail near the volcano due to snow, a large portion of the trail was passable. That’s all we needed to hear.

My friend and I started out on the short Hummocks Trail and quickly split off onto Boundary Trail.

Wow. Because the 1980 eruption toppled all trees surrounding the mountain and killed all vegetation, hiking near the volcano feels like a walk on the moon. While plants and wildlife have started returning to the area, you can still see miles and miles of trees smashed into the ground and large foothills of volcanic ash and dirt (called hummocks). The Mount St. Helens landscape looks like no other place I’ve ever been on Earth, and it looks especially foreign in the Pacific Northwest, an area normally covered with enormous fir trees. Above, you can see over forty photographs of the hike. Be sure to take a look — they’re stunning.

The two of us hiked about nine miles and reached the Loowit Viewpoint, which gives hikers an exceptional 360 degree view above the valleys surrounding the volcano. The distance from Loowit to the peak of the volcano isn’t far; for a moment we considered climbing to the top. But as we stood on Loowit peak, we saw the volcano forcing puffs of smoke and ash out of its top. Maybe the National Park Service had a reason for the climbing ban after all.

But if they lift the climbing ban later this summer, expect another essay — written from the crater on the top of Mount St. Helens. Until space tourism takes hold, it’s the closest anyone can get to the moon.

Mount St. Helens: Boundary Trail Day Hike Details

Day Hike: Volcanic
Mount St. Helens, Washington
10.5 miles
2,123 ft gain — 2,132 ft loss
2,454 ft min — 4,287 ft max
Physical Challenge 4 of 10
Psychological Challenge 6 of 10
Beauty 6 of 10
Uniqueness 8 of 10

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