Late Fall Mountain Tour


Mt St. Helens pre-eruption
Once upon a time, way back in the twentieth century, a work assignment caused me to drag our little family from the Upper Midwest out to the Pacific Northwest. Family and friends left behind weren’t real sure what to make of us. Why would they move way out there? Have they lost their minds? Don’t they realize Oregon and Washington are populated by drug-using hippies and weird folks that just don’t fit in anywhere else? Ok, there were enough semi-normal people to make some jet airliners up in Seattle, but everyone else is just plain strange. Maybe, after a few months, they’ll come to their senses and come back to Wisconsin.

It felt like raw adventure. I’ll never forget my first close-up view of a snow-capped Mt. Hood as the plane skirted its flanks on the long final into Portland. I was mesmerized. It was the embodiment of a rugged pioneer spirit, the raw power of crashing landmasses, and a reminder of the impermanence of the status quo. In some small way we were following the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery. I was changed.

Once a year or so, during that span of 8 years out here, Dar and I would load the kids into the family station wagon and head for Mt. St. Helens, about 40 miles north of our home in Vancouver Washington. The first time was about 7 or 8 years after the mountain de-topped itself in 1980. Windy Ridge was usually our destination, an area on the north-northeast side of the mountain, directly adjacent to Spirit Lake, the closest easy access point for urban explorers like us.

During the 1980 eruption, a massive landslide and the resulting lateral blast were directed northward, toward Spirit Lake and Windy Ridge. It blew off the top 1300 feet of the mountain and created a 2000 feet deep divot down through the core of the mountain. With all that pent-up energy suddenly set free, the blast moved across the landscape at more than 300 mph with temperatures that exceeded 700f degrees… killing 57 people who were unlucky enough to be in the area. It literally sterilized the ground to the point that nothing grew on this baked soil for years afterward. To reinforce the sense of lifelessness, the landscape of white-ish gray ash was also littered with lightweight light-colored rocks called pumice. The foamy air-filled rocks are so light they will float on water. A “fallout” produced during the eruption, pumice is created when superheated lava is quickly depressurized and cooled, and then carried out of the volcano by the blast.

Through a series of these visits during our 8 years out here we witnessed the land slowly, very slowly, coming back to life. Our first visits revealed no sign of anything growing, not even the smallest weeds. And this was 7 or 8 years after the eruption. But a few years later a few small tenacious snippets of green started to pop up through cracks in the baked crust.

Life was returning.

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In October, from the 15th through the 20th, we took a few days between grandkid childcare duties to take a closer “peek” at a couple peaks of the northern Cascades. But rather than explore the western slopes of our two targets, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier, (the slopes in easy view of the traveling masses on busy I-5 between Portland and Seattle… well, when visibility permits... which isn't often this time of year… but I digress), we thought we’d do the lesser-explored eastern sides. The normally “iffy” late Fall PNW weather was predicted to be nice for a couple days, so we hit the road before that could change. We had about 5 or 6 days before we’re due at our son and DILs home in the Seattle area.

Day One

Under mostly sunny skies, we started in Woodland WA and drove eastward along the Lewis River on the eponymous road. The drive from Woodland through Cougar and on up to Windy Ridge in the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is close to 100 miles, but it’s slow going. With the curves and slow-going, a traveler should plan for at least three, maybe more like four, hours. But the good weather and the lack of traffic on this weekday made for easy and enjoyable traveling. About the last third of the drive is on Forest Road 25, which is paved but not in the best condition.

Mt. St. Helens behind us
We found the intersecting road that goes into the National Monument toward Windy Ridge. For the first couple miles, memories of our family visits nearly 30 years ago were kindled. Things hadn’t changed much. The eruption had minimal impact at this point in the drive and adding 30 years to already very large trees just made them a little very larger. But after a few more miles, we entered the blast area and now I’m paying attention -- looking for change. You can imagine, if you try, how the blast raced over the ridges and hills here… creating devastation on some slopes and leaving others, in the lee of the blast, virtually unchanged. But the further into the Monument one goes the more complete the devastation is. And still is. Even after 35 years. I was anticipating more growth, more life, to contrast with my memories from my last visit. Don’t get me wrong. Life is returning. It’s just not as much as I was thinking I’d see. The ground was so utterly cooked that even after 35 years of seeds floating around and finding cracks in the soil in which to embed… after 35 years of growth promoting rain and sun… there’s still a long way to go.

We drove to the parking area next to Spirit Lake… the same one we had taken the kids to all those years ago… and hiked around the area. An overlook perched atop a hill, 368 steps above the parking area, provides a wonderful overview of the area and the hollowed-out mountain just 4 miles away. From this vantage point you can see inside the crater, through the eruption created breach on the north side, where the new growing volcanic dome inside the crater is visible… the plug that will one day blow away with the next eruption.

Forest Road 99
Wanting to retrace our route during one of our earlier visits, we took the less traveled Forest Road 99 northward. When things settled down after the eruption, sometime around 1985, somebody decided to spend some money on roads and facilities to handle the influx of anticipated visitors.

What’s interesting about this road is that it traverses a complete range of devastation from complete to nearly nothing at all. It’s a primitive road, only one lane wide in most places, with spaced wider spots to facilitate passing other vehicles from either direction. Well, they decided to completely re-pave this road with top grade quality asphalt. They also put money into very stately rock and mortar masonry monuments/signs to demark the border of the new National Volcanic Monument as well as a large state-of-the-art wayside park at Ryan Lake.

Well, it’s all slipping away. It’s neglected, not maintained, and rapidly deteriorating. It doesn’t appear they’ve spent a dime on it in the ensuing 30 years.. The nice asphalt road is being undercut by water in many places… and has actually washed away in a few. At least someone dumped a load of gravel into the gaping holes to keep the road open. Only the basic structure of the stately monument/sign remains… and that is leaning at a precarious angle in preparation for washout, collapse, and a slide downhill any year now. The state-of-the-art wayside park is similarly neglected. We felt like we were getting an early preview of the ruins from the once-great American Civilization. Our best guess as to the reason for the condition of the Monument over here is that resources and energy have been diverted to the Johnson Ridge Observatory over on the other side of Spirit Lake. This new facility is closer to civilization, and caters to travelers on I-5. I guess, from a bang for the buck standpoint, it does make some sense.

During our time on and along Forest Road 99, we didn’t see another person. Not one. The night we spent boondocked at the Ryan Lake wayside was one of the quietest and darkest nights we’ve ever experienced.

Day Two

The next morning we broke camp and headed north again to the junction of Road 99 and Road 24, which then heads on into Randall WA. The northern end of 99 looked even more neglected than the southern end… if that was possible. It was along in here that we did actually see another person, the one and only during those two days, a very surprised and wide-eyed fellow in a small pickup going south. I believe he was as surprised as we were.

We drove to the town of Randall, on US-12, and then eastward through Packwood. A few miles further US-12 takes a bend to the east but we took WA-123 to the north and into Mt. Rainier National Park. Since National Parks pretty much close up by this time of the year (budget cuts, idiot politicians, misplaced priorities…) there was no discernable official presence of any park staff whatsoever. I don’t know where they all go in the Fall and Winter… but there wasn’t anyone here this day.

Climb through Stevens Canyon to Paradise
The drive up to Paradise from the east side gate is spectacular. The road follows Stevens Creek, a stream descending the flanks of Rainier and a tributary of the Cowlitz. This little stream, not so little today as a result of recent heavy rains, has cut a significant canyon over the years. Stevens Canyon reminded us of the many similar canyons we drove through during our Alaska trip his past summer. And with the bright autumn blue sky, the Stevens Canyon drive was a real “trip” to remember.

Paradise Visitor Center - Closed
At Paradise, the parking lot was nearly full. Nice weather in Fall, especially in the PNW where people know what’s coming, is something to be savored. But despite the crowd, there was not one Park official to be found. I think it was a Friday and this time of the year the large Visitor Center is only open on the weekends… so it was locked up. The large Paradise Inn Hotel was likewise closed… only a handful of workers sealing it up for the Winter. There was one toilet facility that was open (thankfully), but that was it. Despite all these folks paying taxes and supporting the National Parks, and wanting to enjoy a great October day at a National Park, there’s no money to keep facilities or people on staff. We’d rather buy bombs and war machinery than spend a little on National Parks in the Fall. It’s amazing how many people are hoodwinked by career politicians into being fearful and going along with this bullshit. End of mini-rant.

We decided to hike “up the hill” a ways to see what we could see. Took Skyline Trail up to Glacier Vista at about 6400 feet of elevation. The glacier we’re closest to here is the Nisqually glacier, and the highest part of Rainier is right there in front of you… soaring another 8,000 feet into the bright blue sky… just a couple miles away. The clear air and unlimited visibility provided a rare visual treat.

Not being acclimated to 6000 feet of elevation, the vertical component of our hike was a good workout and a bit of a challenge. Felt good though.

Our camp on Summit Creek
With daylight growing short, we retreated back down the hill to the east in search of a camp for the night. The resources we had pointed to a small NFS campground off US-12 and a few miles further down a dirt road. Summit Creek Campground was a weird little facility. Perhaps 5 or 6 campsites… about as rustic as a drive-in campground could be. No other campers. Neglected, but with a stocked pit toilet. Difficult maneuvering, even for our 4WD pickup truck. We selected the most level site which still wasn’t very level. We’re in dense forest, the weather had turned cloudy and colder, and night was falling. Good night.

Day Three

Over coffee, decided to explore along US-12 to the east, the White Pass summit area, and Rimrock Lake. Stopped for lunch at a cafe at White Pass, where we perused a logbook of thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m impressed with the number of people that use that trail. Long distance hiking like that is attractive to me in some ways, but I don’t feel enough passion for it at this point in my life to take steps to actually do it. And that makes me sad. We make our choices, life goes on, and the world continues to turn.

Slopes decorated with Larch trees - the only Coniferous
tree that loses it's needles every year.

Rimrock Lake is a large impoundment of the Tieton River that provides water for agriculture and communities on the east side of the Cascades… the largest being Yakima. We drove the loop around the south side of the Lake and checked out (and noted) a few campgrounds and boondocking areas.

Continued on US-12 all the way thru Naches and to the edges of Yakima before turning around and going back to a NFS CG along the Tieton River called Windy Point. We picked a primo site along the river and set up camp.

Day Four

Inclement weather kept us in camp all day. A nice break in our excursion.

Day Five

Mountain Goat
Drove east again on US-12 to the junction with WA-410, which we took northwestward toward Chinook Pass. Another nice day kept us busy absorbing sensory inputs from the environment. WA-410, which follows the Naches River and then the American River to the summit of Chinook Pass and back to the west side of the Cascades. This is not an all season road. It’s closed in the Winter through the highest portion over the pass. During the Winter, there are only 4 routes through the Cascades in the State of Washington: US-2 (Stevens Pass), I-90 (Snoqualmie Pass), US-12 (White Pass, which we visited a couple days ago), and WA-14 along the Columbia River. The resulting sense of isolation is something savored by true “west side” Northwesters.

A peek at Rainier from Sunrise
Our goal for the day was the Sunrise area of Mt. Rainier National Park. That’s right, we’re going back into the Park. Paradise isn’t the only destination close to the mountain, the other is Sunrise on the northeast side of the peak. Of course, there won’t be anything open up there, but we’d like to drive up and see what we can. The closer we got to the pass and the mountain, it became clear that the peak was occluded by clouds, not a solid deck of clouds, but enough to keep it mostly hidden.

So it was over the pass, down the hill a ways to White River Road, and back up toward Sunrise. There were fewer people at the top than I’ve got fingers on my left hand, and the cool temps and wind kept us inside the truck cab for our planned picnic lunch. But for a few minutes, the clouds parted and treated us to a good view of the mountain from this side. A very enjoyable time.

Along WA-410 east of Chinook Pass
So now what? Time to think about a camp for the night. Our resources didn’t show many prospects further down the hill and toward the Seattle metro area. We ultimately decided to backtrack again… go back over Chinook Pass… to another NFS CG we checked out earlier in the day. Sawmill Flat CG was open and completely vacant, so we had the run of the place. We picked another pleasant site along the Naches River and settled in for the night.

Day Six

We started the day not sure if this would be the final day of our excursion or if we’d find another camp further down the hill for one more night. For the third time we drove over Chinook Pass and continued toward the Metro area. Didn’t find a camp for the night but did find a very good time at the Historic Mint Restaurant and Alehouse… lunch and good craft beer over which we reviewed the past few days.

Time to shift gears from explorers to grandchild care.
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