Staying and working in Washington and Oregon this past summer, hiking the Loowit trail around Mount Saint Helens was one of the highlights. I did this 30 mile hike in early July, finishing early on the third day. After connecting via June Lake on the south side, the trail winds around the flanks of the mountains, staying at around 3000′-5000′ of elevation.
When the mountain erupted in 1980, the north side of the mountain was ripped out, with the south untouched. View from the south, on the drive in:
View from the trail on the north side:
It is this incredible contrast that makes this such a cool trail to me, the transition from a verdant Washington landscape into a moonscape and back again.
Despite this being July, after heavy winter snows and a cold spring there was several feet of snow on the trail in the mountain’s southerly aspects. Saw a few people skiing down from closer to the summit, and regretted a bit leaving my skis in California (another time). With no path to follow, the first day was mostly route finding off trail. This improved on the north side of the mountain, which was mostly clear of snow (wind scouring). Views of Mount Adams and Mount Hood from the early part of the trail.
The snow was pretty easy to travel in and I made decent time, but started hitting small canyons which needed to be traversed, and on the west side of the mountain went down into the monster below, with steep, very loose walls maybe 100-150 feet high.
This was about 2/3 of the way to my destination for the day, a campsite along the Toutle River. Having looked at the mountain and map, I figured there were going to be more canyons like this, and instead of trying to tough through it I followed the canyon out, made my way through the trees and snow and found another trail (#238) which rejoined the Loowit trail before too long. Even still, I made it to the campsite with just an hour of light left. A group of two hikers I was near (the only other through hikers I ran into on the trail) opted to climb out of the canyon and stick to the contour; they made it to the campsite about the same time as me, but it sounded like they had a pretty rough time with canyons and cliffs (they were fitter and much faster than I was).
Above the Toutle River campsite:
Going clockwise, the Toutle River is the last place to camp for 10 miles; the blast zone where the mountain opened is day use only with no off trail travel or crater access allowed. Trying to get to the crater seems a little crazy, though, as I passed below it was usually steaming and there were a few landslides. View into the crater, with steam rising in the left and center and dust from a slide on the right.
On the north side of the mountain there are areas where plants are starting to recolonize, but for the most part the blast zone is desolate.
Around the east side the forests returned, though the trail still stayed above them as it traversed several pretty large canyons. With less snow I could follow the trail here easily and made much better time than the previous day, covering over 20 miles and nearly finishing the trail.
Looking out over the Plains of Abraham on the mountain’s east side. This is well away from the blast zone at this point, but still with plenty of evidence of the eruption. The dead trees on the far mount and its neighbors all lay flat against the ground, and all aligned directly away from the crater’s opening.