Three years ago Meg and I hiked to the summit of Mount Saint Helens. We were new to hiking, and it was our first major summit. Despite avid research, I was not prepared to climb over pumice boulders and through ash in the extreme heat. We summited and made it home in one piece, but it was a route that seriously tested me mentally and physically. I spent fifteen minutes on the edge of the crater crying from both misery and joy, and falling in love with Washington volcanoes. Ever since that day, I have wanted to return to the monument with Meg to backpack in the blast zone. I knew that Dome Camp, with its view right into the crater would be the perfect spot to spend the night and reflect on how far we have come.
Mt. St. Helens and I have a rough history. I cried up her flanks to the summit in 2014. In 2015, I bought permits to climb to the summit again but had to cancel due to a lightning storm. I backpacked near Spirit Lake, only to take a wrong turn at the first junction and find myself on a washout 600′ above Spirit Lake. We bailed once it started getting too dark to make it to our campsite, the only time I have had to truly give up while backpacking. We returned the following week and I was surprise sick; the entire first day was a blur. I was determined to not give up again, so I pushed through and admittedly had a good second day. This year, I hoped to break my curse, enjoy Mt. St. Helens and relished returning to the volcano with Meg.
When an opportunity to snag a mid-week permit on Wednesday and Thursday to Dome Camp, with a view straight into the crater emerged, I jumped at the chance. We were going back to Helens!
Boundary Trail no. 1
We arrived at Johnston Ridge Observatory at 11 am and checked in with a ranger about conditions on the trail. The rangers didn’t know if Dome Camp still had water, so we each decided to carry 5L and bring a water filter, just in case. Given the lack of shade for the majority of the trail, we knew we would need more water than usual, and didn’t want to take risks in an unforgiving environment.
We strapped on our large packs, covered ourselves with sunscreen and walked through the parking lot to the paved trail. It felt a little ridiculous surrounded by tourists, walking on a paved trail with all of our overnight gear, but after about a quarter-mile, the trail transitioned to pumice and ash. The trail initially traverses the ridge, then turns north, so this section of the trail was our closest view of Mt. St. Helens. She loomed impressively large, and the landscape is desolate and hot. This area includes the direct blast zone where virtually everything was obliterated. Unlike later in the hike, where downed or stripped trees are the norm, this section of the trail is almost all ash, pumice and a few shrubs. We alternated between hurrying to get out of the area with no shade or water, and wanting to stop and enjoy the unworldly environment.
After walking along the ridge for a few miles, we dropped lower through mounds of pumice and ash that looked like mini volcanoes, then across another ridge, where things started to get a bit more green. A heavy, rusted bridge covered a washed out section and the trail climbed to a broad saddle. To the right is Harry’s lookout, where the majority of the people on the trail were heading, but we turned to the left, and we began to climb up long switchbacks.
The trail was lined with strawberries and the sweetness in the air was almost overpowering. Switchback after switchback we rose above the shallow saddle until, at last, St. Helen’s Lake came into view. We stopped for a little lunch then continued on along the backside of the foothill. After a few more switchbacks, the trail narrowed significantly with a steep drop-off.
As we rounded the corner, the trail led to a spectacular rock arch. It dramatically framed Mt. Adams and was pretty neat to walk under. We crossed over the ridge via the rock arch and continued traversing across the basin. Views of Mt. St. Helens, St. Helens Lake, and Spirit Lake continued to get better and better. The trail traversed under Coldwater Peak, and we decided to wait until for the following day to climb when we had reliable water. The strawberries and mountain huckleberries lining the trail slowed our progress as we ate our way across the basin.
The trail continued traversing above St. Helen’s lake. Unlike the earlier section of Boundary Trail, this region has many skeletal white trees. Most lay flat (or floating in a lake), though others remained as truncated stumps, a mere reflection of their original massive size. We crossed many saddles that seemed like they surely must be the campsite, until we finally arrived at Dome Camp. The first tent site was on a ridge, with phenomenal views of the volcano and Spirit Lake. It was the exact spot I have been dreaming to stay since our first summit. However, there was also a cozy tent site tucked behind the ridge, in a field of wildflowers, that was even more appealing than the ridge site.
While the ridge campsite had incredible views right into the crater, the wind had picked up and was gusting at about 25 mph. We decided to pitch the tent in the sheltered area and enjoy sitting on the ridge. This decision was validated when clouds rolled over and obscured Mt. St. Helens. With the views quickly becoming white mist, we set out to make dinner. We finished the Underwood can of sparkling wine–way better than the Pinot Noir–and cooked up some ravioli with dehydrated pasta sauce. I also packed in some flourless chocolate cake for dessert, which proved to be delicious and totally worth the weight.
As the fog continued to encroach on our campsite, we crawled into bed for a solid night’s sleep. When we woke at 6:00 the next morning, the skies were blue and Mt. St. Helens was glowing in the sunrise. I left the tent at a run, grabbing my camera and scrambling up the trail, to the viewpoint where St. Helens lake was visible. We sat enjoying the mist covering the valley below Mt. St. Helens for about an hour. A herd of elk galloped through the meadow below us, crunching branches as they rushed past. Despite having my camera in my hands, they ran so quickly I was not able to grab a picture. In all honesty, it was my first time seeing elk in the backcountry and I simply wanted to soak it all in. We have gone some incredible places backpacking, and seen some jaw-dropping things, but this moment at sunrise with the elk and the mist has a spot in the top five.
Eventually, the desire for coffee was stronger than the desire to sit in the warm sunshine, watching the light crawl across the valley. We returned to camp, made breakfast and packed up. We retraced our steps above St. Helens Lake until we reached the junction to Coldwater Peak.
With packs full of water, we were ready to climb Coldwater Peak. The side-trail to the summit is 0.7 miles with gentle, though exposed, switchbacks. The grade starts off very mild but gets increasingly more difficult as you get higher. It was completely worth the quad burn it for the views, however. In all honesty, we doubted the views would be that much better than what we could see from the normal trail, but halfway up Mt. Rainier appeared over the ridge. The craggy rocks lining the trail seemed wild and spectacular and being able to point to Coldwater Peak for the rest of the walk back and tell tourists we climbed that made it totally worth the side-trip.
With Rainier, Adams, Hood, Shasta, and of course, Mt. St. Helens all visible, it was one of the most incredible panoramas I have witnessed. The clouds still filled the valley and we appeared to be floating above the cloudline. We shared the summit with scientific equipment and could see our return trip stretched before us. The parking lot was both tantalizingly close and impossibly far.
Boundary Trail no. 1
We headed back down the Coldwater Peak trail and onto the Boundary Trail. We soon reached the arch again, stopped for more pictures and a rest on the cool rocks. Pushing on, we made it back to the saddle and into the hot, treeless blast zone. We continued despite our fatigue and sun-tiredness until stopping about half a mile before the car to eat lunch. Our lunch spot ended up being perfect; it looked directly on a herd of elk relaxing in the sun. They appeared to be the same group we saw that morning and they looked miserably hot on a mound of pumice. Whereas our morning group ran so rapidly we couldn’t take a picture, these elk were so still that I pulled out binoculars to make sure they were not dead.
We reached the observatory, changed into real clothes and popped into the ranger station to give them an update on the water source. After seeing so few people over the previous two days, it was quite the culture shock to be in the busy observatory. We attempted reading about the trail and eruption but were simply too tired. Three hours later, we returned home, I ate a burrito and slept for a long time.