While flowers on other mountains nestle against a verdant green backdrop, those on St. Helens often sprout from dead-looking gray soil made up of pumice and ash the volcano spewed out 37 years ago. But there are blooms aplenty.
MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL VOLCANIC MONUMENT — Mount Rainier and Mount Baker are famous for their thick blankets of color. But for a different wildflower experience, head to the still-ravaged volcanic slopes of Mount St. Helens.
While flowers on other mountains nestle against a verdant green backdrop, those on St. Helens often sprout from dead-looking gray soil made up of pumice and ash the volcano spewed out 37 years ago.
Here, the flowers are more than beautiful patches of brightness enlivening a somber landscape: They’re pioneers in a slowly recovering ecosystem. As generations of plants grow, bloom, and die, they improve the soil for future plants. It’ll take hundreds of years to turn this back to the old-growth forest it once was, but flowers are cheerfully leading the way.
If you go
Mount St. Helens wildflower season
Bring a hat, water, sunscreen, and protective clothing: Trails near Johnston Ridge Observatory are often exposed, with very little shade. Early morning and dusk are ideal times to hike.
• Plan to visit the very informative Mount St. Helens Visitor Center ($2.50-$5; (parks.state.wa.us/245/Mount-St-Helens) and the observatory (fs.fed.us/visit/destination/johnston-ridge-observatory) before or after your hike. They’re open during regular business hours, which happen to be the worst hiking times on the mountain.
• Admission to the monument is free, but parking at the observatory or at Windy Ridge is $8, or free with a federal interagency pass or Northwest Forest Pass.
• Pets are not allowed on trails in the monument, so it’s best to leave them home if you’re headed that way.
• When you hike, stay on trails: Human boots can easily damage the fragile landscape.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument website: bit.ly/2uNm5JU
Knowing how much work these delicate-looking flora are doing made me appreciate them all the more.
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Nowhere is the recovery slower than on the vast pyroclastic-flow plain that lies across the volcano’s northern side. According to U.S. Forest Service reports, temperatures reached as high as 1,500 degrees during the blast, scorching — and effectively sterilizing — the earth.
But over the intervening decades, flowers have fought their way into the death zone. Purple-spired lupines appeared first, fixing nitrogen with their roots and adding organic matter to the soil. Today, lupines are still some of the most prolific flowers dappling the gray surface. Scarlet Indian paintbrush and violet penstemon and beardtongue, plus handfuls of pearly everlasting and other white and yellow flowers, have joined them over the years.
The devastated landscape is best explored via trails around the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
As with any mountain, the higher you go, the later flowers bloom. At the observatory, they hit their peak from mid-July to early August, but some of them remain through early September. (The Johnston Observatory is at about 4,300 feet; the Paradise area at Mount Rainier is at about 5,400 feet, for comparison.)
The aptly-named Boundary Trail follows ridges around the mountain and connects to many of the monument’s other trails, with wide-open views at every step.
The Boundary Trail from the Hummock/Boundary trailhead to the observatory, 4.6 miles each way, is an ideal route for taking in flowers. The volcano’s hulking gray mass looms in the distance, making for a dramatic backdrop and quite a contrast to the hardy plants erupting everywhere around it now.
For views of both Johnston and Windy ridges, take the Boundary Trail east of the observatory for about 4 miles (each way) to the .8-mile Harry’s Ridge spur.
A short paved path leads from the observatory to panels describing the blast and its effects. Even from there, you’ll see wildflowers aplenty.
Normally, the Windy Ridge area, on the volcano’s east side, is also a good one for wildflower hikes. The 4.4-mile Norway Pass hike, for example, climbs a ridge to open vistas featuring plenty of pioneer plant species. But heavy snows last winter damaged the access road, Forest Road 99, and it is closed from the junction with Forest Road 25, about 10 miles east of Windy Ridge. And sadly, Forest Road 26, the other route to Windy Ridge from the north, remains closed after a washout two years ago.
Forest Service district engineer Heath Cameron said construction is underway, but the road won’t likely be open until mid-August. Fortunately, wildflowers will still be around, along with the bonus of huckleberries by then.
Cameron said he knows “people are chomping at the bit” to get to the ridge. For now, one option is to bring a bicycle, since the road is open to cyclists and hikers (just watch out for construction vehicles).
Intrepid hikers can reach the area by crossing the pumice plains on the Truman Trail, which branches to the south from the Boundary Trail. But that involves hiking a good 15 miles or more, round trip.
Beyond flowers: the south side
On the mountain’s south side, you could almost pretend the 1980 eruption never happened. Much of the volcanic evidence is from earlier flows and eruptions. And the forest cover is dense enough that flowers are sparse.
This side features some of the region’s best family-friendly hikes. At less than 3 miles round trip and with a moderate grade, June Lake is just enough of a leg-stretcher that you’ll welcome the lake (with waterfall) at the top. Wildflowers are making inroads on a debris slope here, too.
Two of the area’s most iconic volcano-themed hikes are also on this side: Lava Canyon and Ape Cave.
We weren’t interested in subterranean hiking, but the short, paved Trail of Two Forests interpretive trail nearby is both family-friendly and above the ground.
Lava Canyon is a must-do hike if you’re anywhere in the area, although the lower portion of the 5-mile loop is damaged in places, so for now it’s best to stick to the shorter upper loop.