Through March, join snowy Saturday outings with Mount St. Helens Institute.
It’s a different side of Mount St. Helens.
The typical adventure to the Northwest’s most active volcano has visitors staring down the throat of the caldera from the Johnston Ridge Visitor Center.
While impressive, it tells only part of the story. A winter journey to the “back side” of the mountain — the southern section that was largely spared from the 1980 eruption — offers a whole new perspective, especially when you know where to look.
On a recent visit, I set out on snowshoes with the Mount St. Helens Institute, a nonprofit organization that offers guided winter excursions.
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Our 4.8-mile round trip to June Lake was part snowshoe outing and part outdoor school, highlighting the flora, fauna and volcanic features that might go unnoticed by the untrained eye.
Serenity hides devastation
Snowshoeing on an active volcano is unlike other kinds of snowshoeing I’ve done in the Pacific Northwest, and guide Bob Appling helped us see the hidden signs disguised beneath four feet of snow.
He pointed to a huge hunk of stone near the trail that was the size of a recreation vehicle. “That’s a volcanic bomb,” he told us.
When the mountain blew, photographs showed the vertical eruption that went five miles in the air, but then that cloud came back down, bringing boulders like this one with it, he said. “I’ve found them as far as 14 miles away.”
They cooled as they traveled through the air, and some have a crust that looks like artisanal bread. When they hit, the skin shattered and fell away.
Just to our south, Appling pointed out Marble Mountain, which is a shield volcano. St. Helens erupted with a blast, but Marble Mountain oozed lava, which pooled in the meadow we were standing in.
Later in our hike we passed a canyon, and Appling described the scene during the eruption. Glaciers melted quickly, sending a slurry of mud and debris — called a lahar — down every valley and creek bed on the mountain.
I tried to imagine what it would have been like standing in that spot when St. Helens blew — how the ground would have trembled, followed by the earsplitting booms.
The awesome rush of melted sludge would have leveled every tree in the valley, house-size boulders would have rained down from the sky, and then everything would have become covered in a fine powdery ash.
These images filled my head, and a moment later we were off again, clomping through the snow-blanketed forest. Instead of gray, ashy death around us, we cruised through charming winter bliss.
Canyons of snow
While glimmers of post-apocalyptic doom were occasionally brought to mind, our hike to June Lake was lovely. The route winds through big sections of second-growth forest filled with noble firs, hemlocks and Douglas firs.
The new snowshoers in our group caught on quickly (it’s like walking but with clown shoes, our guides told us). Soon, we were fording little streams and crossing natural snow bridges that spanned canyons of snow packed as tall as a person.
Our guides showed us snowshoe-hare tracks and noisy gray jays that zoomed overhead.
I was worried that hiking with a group of 22 people would feel loud and obnoxious, but once we hit the trail everyone spread out, and I usually felt like I was hiking with only four or five people at a time. The crunching of snowshoes is noisy whether you’re alone or with a big group.
A surprising lake
Mount St. Helens Institute outings go to varied destinations, but they all end with a rewarding natural wonder. Our group was treated to a picturesque, elbow-shaped lake tucked into a cliff, with several waterfalls plummeting off the rock face.
American dippers frolicked on the lake surface. To the average hiker, they were just tiny brown birds, but our interest soared when we learned that they hunt by walking on the lake bottom and have a second set of eyelids that serve as goggles.
June Lake sits on a bench just below St. Helens, near the tree line. The jagged peak forming the high side of its crater hid in the clouds somewhere above us.
As we ate lunch, the mountain’s schizophrenic weather changed from fog to overcast to sun to snow to brilliant blue skies in 45 minutes.
And then, quite suddenly, there it was.
The volcano that blew to bits was rising out of the earth like a jagged, broken tooth, dazzlingly bright in the sunlight.
Once again, it was a new perspective of an impressive Northwest icon.
If you go
Mount St. Helens Institute winter hikes
Mount St. Helens Institute offers guided, naturalist-led snowshoe hikes on Saturdays now through the end of March; see bit.ly/1czxMPP. Trail difficulty is moderate and it’s a good way for newcomers to try the sport. Cost is $45 per person. Snowshoes and poles can be rented for $15.
The nonprofit institute partners with the U.S. Forest Service through a special use permit, offering more than 150 public trips and education and outreach programs annually; mshinstitute.org.
About June Lake
A guide service is not required to visit June Lake, and it’s a good hike for snowshoers of all skill levels. The moderate trail is 4.8 miles round trip. Expect to ford small streams along the way.
Snowmobile and cross-country ski trails can also be accessed from the trailhead.
More details about the trail: