Great Escapes: Places to plan on visiting after the pandemic is over
Ridges offer contrasts at Mt. St. Helens
By Tim Clinton
You can’t get there from here.
That’s what we found out the hard way when we got to Windy Ridge near Mt. St. Helens, wanting to find a connection to keep driving to the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
But a locked gate blocked the only road that went beyond the Windy Ridge parking lot and we were forced to go back the way we came and save Johnston Ridge for another day.
So the foursome I was with piled back into the car one week later and returned, this time going directly to Johnston Ridge.
What we found out was that both sides were worth the trip to Southwest Washington, offering different adventures along the way and vastly different views once we arrived.
The way to Windy Ridge was wild and winding with potholes and ruts galore.
It weaved its way through a thick forest, then suddenly came out into a world of much smaller and evenly-sized trees.
We were now entering the blast zone carved out when Mt. St. Helens blew her top during a massive landslide the morning of May 18, 1980.
Life is slowly but surely returning to the area, from alders, firs and alpines to flowers and brush.
Thanks to the smaller size of the trees, the mountain itself suddenly pops into view and reappears again and again as you drive, along with its close neighbors – Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier – as well as Oregon’s Mt. Hood for a brief moment.
The road offers vistas from pullouts along the way until at last you come to the wide parking lot at Windy Ridge.
From here you get a view of the northeast side of the mountain, right into the crater with the lave dome that has gradually built up since the 1980 blast.
A switch-backed path goes up a hillside and offers a view over some hills and trees in between the ridge and the mountain, and on one side of the lot you can look down on log-strewn Spirit Lake.
Spirit Lake cannot be seen from the Johnston Ridge observatory on the northwest side of the mountain at the end of Highway 504, but the view right into the crater is much more point blank with nothing between you and the mountain except the landslide zone that includes a deep canyon carved out in only the 40 years since 1980.
The road to Johnston Ridge is well paved the whole way, and you can look down on the Toutle River where a mudflow came crashing down the valley after the 1980 landslide and blast.
You can also look up and see the west side of the mountain and part of the crater to the left.
From there the road winds down to the shores of Coldwater Lake, which was also created in 1980, then back up again as you get closer and closer to Johnston Ridge – and the mountain itself.
The road ends in a wide parking lot, and from the southeast side of the lot is a trail that takes you to the observatory.
You can go inside and take a look at the mountain and at presentations and films about its eruptions, or walk along the outside to take in an unobstructed view and snap pictures.
Either way – and either side of the mountain – is well worth the effort it takes to get there.
How to get there:
To get to Johnston Ridge, take the I-5 exit onto Highway 504 at Castle Rock and stay on it to its end, or take the Highway 505 exit until it goes through Toledo and joins 504, where you take a left.
To get to Windy Ridge, take Highway 12 (White Pass) from either I-5 or the Yakima side. Follow the Mt. St. Helens and Windy Ridge signs south from near Randle.