June 27, 2016
Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, WA
Johnston Ridge is nowhere significant from a peak-bagger’s point of view, but does offer some unique perspectives of the nearby volcanic giant – Mt. St. Helens. This is a very special volcano thank to the 1980 eruption – the summit was gone and the mountain was changed forever. Over the past few months I’ve successfully ascended a few of the volcanoes in the Pacific NW, but for some reasons I didn’t get a chance to attempt Mt. St. Helens even though it’s pretty much the easiest, also the smallest among those. To make up for that I figured a visit to the nearby Johnston Ridge would at least give some up-close view of the volcano, along with the aftermath of that eruption.
A narrow, winding but paved road (SR 504) brings thousands of tourists to the nearby Johnston Ridge Observatory every year in summer months and from this tourism center it’s only a mere 5-minute walk to the summit of Johnston Ridge. To accompany the tourism a whole bunch of trails were developed, with some actually leading towards distant peaks like Harry’s Ridge, Coldwater Peak and Mt. Margaret. My friend Yujia came visiting from Lowell, Massachusetts and I would like to show her around the impressive nature of our Pacific NW. A hike like this seemed like a right introductory especially considering she’d never seen a volcano up-close. With weather on our side, the plan was to hike past the summit of Johnston Ridge, along Boundary Trail towards the distant Harry’s Ridge. I actually didn’t do much research and in terms of how far we could go we’d decide purely based on how well we felt.
It’s about 2.5 hours from Seattle to the parking lot at the end of SR 504. I drove the first half, down southwards along I-5 and then Yujia took over the second half eastwards along SR 505 and SR 504. The road trip itself was more scenic than expected since much of the terrain was along open ridge crests. The downside was the heat. We didn’t make to the parking lot until almost 1 pm and it’s apparent that the sun was beating down on full force. The hike to the summit of Johnston Ridge was actually on a wheelchair accessible paved trail, with no difficulty whatsoever. After grabbing some obligatory pictures we immediately turned our attention to the trail ahead.
But before moving on we had to find a somewhat shaded place to have lunch. We brought up some luxury food from our previous day’s dinner and I believe it was my first time eating crabs on (near) a mountain top.. Back to the hike itself, we had no difficulty following the trail down to a broad saddle. There’s some elevation loss involved but not by much. Upwards and onwards the trail stayed on climber’s left side of the ridge crest, bypassing a bump and then we arrived at another saddle.
For the next section the trail took a sharp turn traversing along a narrow ledge, with some exposure to the right side. The difficulty increased in no time but Yujia handled it very well. After making through that section we got to a fine viewpoint with Spirit Lake nicely displaced in front. Time wise I knew there’s no way we could make to Harry’s Ridge but we still wanted to explore the trail for just a bit more. Now officially in an area called The Spillover, we kept traversing for a while before calling it a day.
The return went fairly smoothly. For that narrow section we still had to be extra cautious and the final section going back up to Johnston Ridge’s highpoint was quite a slog under the hot afternoon sun, but overall it was a quick process. Looking back we also got some better pictures of Mt. St. Helens thank to the better sun direction.
Realizing we still had some extra time to kill I made the call to visit the nearby Coldwater Lake. It was a spontaneous decision as I didn’t do any research about it but based on the map I figured the scenery shouldn’t be disappointing. In fact, the late afternoon sun was perfect for photographing and it was quite a peaceful environment.
Now it’s time to go back. From where we were it’s not a short drive to get back to Seattle. There were a few more scenic pull-outs along but we didn’t bother to stop as the dinner at Seattle Downtown was apparently more alluring. Overall I’d say Johnston Ridge and the surrounding area was better than my expectation. The hiking opportunity was abundant and more importantly, it offers a head-on view of the north side of Mt. St. Helens and that’s something folks who only go for the climb wouldn’t see directly. It’s a place I’ll go back someday.