Journeys Around Seattle, #40: Mount St. Helens

August 28, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Another view of the crater, with the lava dome clearly visibleAnother view of the crater, with the lava dome clearly visible This weekend, heading south on a trip to Oregon, we took the scenic route. Instead of following I-5 down to Portland, we headed down a few state highways-- and then a few forest roads-- to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Mount St. Helens will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with natural history-- in 1980, it erupted in the most devastating volcanic event in the history of the United States. Fifty-seven people died, and the entire landscape of the area was drastically altered within minutes.

The south end of Spirit Lake, still filled with logs and driftwoodThe south end of Spirit Lake, still filled with logs and driftwood The reason it's been designated a "monument" and not, say, a national park, is because the landscape around the volcano has basically been left untouched since 1980; there are still great swaths of dead trees scattered across and around the mountain, and Spirit Lake (the nearest lake, just a few miles away from the crater itself) is still full of logs and driftwood that collected there in the initial avalanche.

Surrounding the Monument is the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which has been replanted and helped to recover in places. The dividing line between the two is stark and clear, with a fertile pine forest outside the Monument, and scrub brush and dead wood within.

We made it to the Windy Ridge viewpoint on the eastern side of the crater, where we listened to a ranger give a talk in an amphitheater. He showed us a picture of Mount St. Helens pre-eruption, and went on to explain animatedly how the 1980 eruption revolutionized our understanding of volcanoes, the Cascade Range, and in many ways, the entire natural world. Looking across the landscapeLooking across the landscape Even though 57 people died in the eruption, the knowledge we've gained has helped save many lives around the world as we've been better able to predict volcanic behavior and eruptions.

After leaving the Monument, we made our way south through the National Forest to another nearby volcanic area called the Big Lava Bed. Here, lava from a nearby eruption 8000 years ago covered thousands of acres and left a dangerous, rocky and bizarre-looking landscape of pumice and sharp volcanic rocks which is pretty much impassable to this day. No trails or roads cut through the lava bed, and so we mostly studied it from the outskirts. The landscape of the Big Lava BedThe landscape of the Big Lava Bed The Pacific Crest Trail does run along the edge of it, as do a few roads, and we stopped in a couple of places to walk into the lava bed a few yards. We scrambled over some of the rocks to study some of the lichen which seemed to grow everywhere, and looked into a few of the weird caves and crevices scattered across the landscape. It was dangerous going, though-- I drew blood when my leg barely brushed against a rock-- and we didn't go in too far, electing to continue on south to the Columbia River Gorge and our destination in Portland.


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