In the days following the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, I learned that ash from the volcano would eventually circle the globe. As a grade school kid living in the shadow of a bunch of other high mountains, the saga that unfolded in the Pacific Northwest fascinated me.
Years later, it still does. Maybe more than any single location in that part of the country, a visit to this scene of volcanic violence has been on my mind for some time.
I got a chance to head that direction last week, but with just two days to explore the area, this leg of the trip turned out to be a barnstorming tour, hitting the highlights of one locale briefly before moving on to the next.
It wasn’t enough, but at the same time, was plenty good. The drive west from Spokane to the Cascades stoked my appetite to see more.
Spokane reminds me a lot of Denver. It’s relatively dry, but gets enough snow and rain to support large stands of pine and spruce forests, which grow thicker as you move east. But 20 minutes west of the city, Washington state flattens and dries out, leaving a rolling landscape that supports mostly scrub brush, irrigated farms and sporadic vineyards.
But I noticed something else. Rocky outcrops occasionally jutted out the hillsides, revealing blackened stone. In the fields, rocks of similar composition littered open rangeland. It reminded me of the vast grazing lands of northeastern New Mexico, territory no good for farming because underneath thin topsoil were the hardened remains of ancient lava flows.
Washington, like the rest of the West Coast, is known for its seismic activity. The great Cascade peaks are all volcanoes, powered by an offshore subduction zone where one tectonic plate reluctantly slides under another. Once these fault lines slip, massive earthquakes and tsunamis can result. Pressure deep underground also pushes magma to the surface, which in turn erupts to form the enormous piles of ash and rock that, on most days, look like grand mountain scenes.
But here I was, hundreds of miles from that fault line, and evidence of volcanic activity was all around.
It became more stark once Interstate 90 crossed the Columbia River. A deep gorge has been carved into the landscape, with layers of volcanic rock exposed by the gash in the earth carved by the river. It’s worth a stop to take it in.
Across the bridge, the landscape begins to change. The gentle hills of the middle of the state give way to bigger, steeper slopes. In the distance, barren mountains appear. And beyond them, you can see the snowy peaks of the Cascades.
I knew that once we entered the range, it would become much greener. But out here, the rain shadow of the Cascades leaves behind a desert that extends south into Oregon. Most great mountain ranges do this: On one side of the range, atmospheric moisture is hemmed in, dropping rain and snow in abundance, creating lush forests and grasslands. The other side is left with thirsty scrublands and deserts.
West of Yakima, there are a number of roads that lead to Mount Rainier National Park, the first stop on this jaunt. Mount Rainier is a bucket list climb for me, so seeing it was high on my list. As it turns out, even in mid-May a number of passes and roads leading to the park are closed, still buried under snow. But we got there, only to be greeted by thick clouds and occasional rain.
I knew the mountain was huge – much bigger in mass than anything in the Rockies, and at 14,410 feet above sea level, one of the highest peaks in the contiguous United States. We got to see the peak up to about 10,000 feet, and it is indeed enormous. This much I would tell, even with the top 4,000 feet or so socked in by clouds. Funny thing about the Cascades – they don’t always avail themselves to the views craved by tourists. We saw what we could see, then beat a path toward Mount St. Helens.
The hope was that the weather that cloaked Rainier would clear out by the time we got to Mount St. Helens. But all the way up the road leading to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, it was clouds, rain and fog. There was a good chance there’s be nothing to see at all.
Once we got there, we got what I’d call “a true mountain experience.” Winds were hitting us at 20-30 mph, laden with rain and sleet. Once at the observatory, most of the mountain was shrouded in swirling gray mists.
Oy. What to do. I could see right up to the bottom of the crater, but no further. Socked in again. But with the winds blowing hard, I thought there might be a chance it would blow enough of the cloud cover away to reveal more of the mountain.
So I hiked out on the ridge, my attempt to wait it out. Clouds whipped by, and high whistling sounds whipped through the tree limbs of the few evergreens that were growing out here. Once lush with old growth forest, Mount St. Helens erupted with such violence that it wiped out thousands of acres of woodland, buried Spirit Lake, and caused a collapse of the mountain that caused its summit elevation to drop by more than 1,300 feet. Pre-eruption, its near-perfect conical form earned it the nickname “America’s Mount Fuji,” but now it’s shaped like an amphitheater, with a small but growing lava dome at the bottom of the bowl of the now hollowed-out mountain.
Even with so much hidden from view, seeing the landscape around the mountain was fascinating. Grasses and willows now carpeted the scarred land, the area a mix of browns and light greens surrounded by forest covered ridges. I imagine from the air, it looks like a giant scar (which it is), with Mount St. Helens at the epicenter.
Hiking out on the ridge, I fought the winds, the cold and the rain. One day I’d like to hike the munros of Scotland, and I imagined the weather was a lot like this. I confess to having the wrong clothes to be out there in those conditions, so it didn’t take long to get a bit soaked. Hiking back to the car, I gave up waiting out the mountain, snapped the best pics I could and called it a win. It’s a marvelous place, and I hope to come back on a day when the weather is more forgiving.
A night’s sleep means turning back east, but not before making one last stop, this one requiring far less effort. On the Oregon side of the Columbia River, east of Portland, tall waterfalls drop from steep cliffs. Of these, Multnomah Falls is the most dramatic. A thin, silvery band of water drops 611 feet from the cliffs above, falling into thickly wooded, moss-covered basins below. The drive to the falls is pretty, and you can pull over to see other handsome waterfalls as well. But Multnomah is the monarch of the Columbia River Gorge falls, made more majestic by a bridge centered about a third of the way up that makes for an excellent viewing deck. Scores of camera-laden tourists happily made their way up to the falls, looking for that perfect pic. Honestly, you’d have to have terrible photo skills to not get something gorgeous.
Driving back east toward Spokane became a review of what was seen on the way out west. It’s easy to looks at landscapes and see “mountains,” “deserts,” “hills,” “rivers” and whatnot. But what struck me is that all these landscapes were related, made the way they are because huge pieces of the earth are in a slow-motion collision eons in the making. Everything is connected here, born from the same ongoing geologic trauma. Sometimes that brings on cataclysmic eruptions or earthquakes. But on nearly every other day, we’re given natural spectacles that stick in our memories for years to come.