I made a strategic error in adventure planning this week, my last hike before Camp Gigi changes my flight pattern for a couple of weeks. All the current trip reports on the WTA website for Loowit Falls were from Johnston Observatory, rather than Windy Ridge, because the road to the latter just opened after winter snows. Also, it’s one of the least hiked trails at the Monument. I know how to get there, so I didn’t feel a need to make sure I knew every little detail. Turns out, I should have perused last year’s trip reports.
I leave a bit earlier than usual. There’s a chance of showers mid-afternoon; I want to be back to the car before they come. I pick up my latte at the Avenue Espresso that opens at 5:00—earlier than my familiar one. I love the drive on US Hwy. 12, and wish I could stop and take photos. I’m late for the pink sky sunrise over Mt. Rainier, but catch the residual glow. I don’t take a photo of the four farm workers, waists bent, picking whatever crop it is. Or the cows grazing in a cloud of brilliant daisies, the risen sun just above the horizon. A crow leaves its roadkill too late, then flies into my bumper instead of away from it, the thud making my heart hurt.
I wind up the forest service road from Randle, the view alternating between Mt. Adams and Mount St. Helens, and finally Spirit Lake. This is not the blast zone, and the valley is green and beautiful, in contrast to the starkness of the path of the eruption 39 years ago. I can’t believe I get to live here.
I arrive under the forecast partly cloudy skies to an empty parking lot a bit before 8:00. The high cloud cover will keep the heat down on this 100% exposed trail, but is not obscuring the main feature. Perfect. There was one hiking party getting into their car at the bathroom when I got out of mine, before I knew I didn’t know where the trailhead was. Before I knew the signage was crap. They unlocked a gate across a gravel road at the far end of the lot, drove through, re-locked it, and were gone. I’m alone.
I knew the trail with the steps was the Truman Trail, I’ve been there. But does it connect with the Loowit Trail, or do I want to go where the car headed? Crap.
I look at the posted map, and I’m still not sure. Another car arrives. The driver uses the facilities, heads back to her car, and I still don’t ask! She drives to the other end of the lot and parks. I look at the map again and determine I really am not confident, so I hoof it to the gate, hoping she hasn’t left. I’m going to have to speak. She emerges from her car as I walk up and confirms that the gated road leads to the trail to Loowit Falls. She recommends when I get to the fork to go on down the road, not up the trail. The up one gets to the falls too, but has a washout that is very tricky.
I walk and walk, curving along the edge of the hill, the huge valley and rugged hills dropping off the other side. Nothing has said it’s two miles on the “researchers only” road to the trailhead. I take many photos of Mt. Adams, as I did on the drive up. She has snow. And a conical top. She looks like a mountain.
I come around a bend on the walking road and there is the ravaged St. Helens, up close. Loowit is the Native-American name for Mount St. Helens. Puyallup natives called the mountain Loowitlatkla, meaning “Lady of Fire.” She lived up to her name that May day in 1980. If my middle name weren’t Helen, I would call her Loowitlatkla.
I arrive at the fork to confusing signage, but head down as counseled. When I reach the actual trailhead, there is a sign to the falls: two miles. In addition to the two I’ve already done on the road, it doesn’t quite match the 9.2 round trip the WTA said it is. I’m not sure the woman in the parking lot steered me right, but then I didn’t read any trip report updates on condition of the trail. I’m glad I asked my sister traveler. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a different trail. I’m here, it’s a perfect, beautiful day in a fascinating place. It will be fine, wherever it leads. And there is always Mt. Adams.
Unlike other trails I hike, there are no true destinations at Mount St. Helens. Signage is mileage to intersections with other trails. They all loop around, this way and that. Without a map to add up mileage, I have no idea how far it is to, well, anywhere. Maybe I could loop and get back to my car, but I don’t chance it, since I didn’t research it. Out and back it will be.
This national monument is a beautiful study of nature’s resilience; but I remember when this place was different, and I still ache for her former glory. I try to visualize how enormous she must have been, standing at her base. What I remember vividly is the lighter than air pumice rocks (still here, or here again), and being able to walk right up on her flanks (distinguishing this mountain from Rainier) to pick huckleberries. Less clear memories are of canoeing on forest-lined Spirit Lake; and, I think, camping. Did we camp here? Someday I will dive into the thousands of slides in my childhood home and find answers to many questions.
There are no lush wildflower meadows here, and I’m not sure there ever were. I hike through the dusty plain where clumps of purple penstemon rule. There is yarrow and paintbrush. When get home, I ID pussypaws and desert parsley, and purple monkey flower in the willow copse at the creek. And there are huckleberry bushes! I thrill to see a fern!
Prairie lupine—a smaller, ground cover version of the taller meadow variety—pops up amid the rocks and spreads into a dense mat. I read that each fall dropped leaves add nitrogen and organic matter to the pumice and the dead stems trap windblown seeds of other species. Prairie lupine was the first plant on the Pumice Plain, just two years after the eruption, thanks to the cataclysm happening in spring, trapping seeds under ground, protecting them from the extreme heat. Mother nature is astounding.
Earth will get rid of us humans when we have destroyed her to the point she can no longer care for us and herself as well. We will become dinosaurs, and she will be left free to heal on her own. Again.
There are washouts on this trail too, into and out of the deep trenches dug by lava flows, and I get a little freaked out. My parking lot savior catches up to me as I contemplate leaving the steep dust on the “trail” and climbing down boulders into the gully, with no idea how I will get up the other side. (Or how I will get down the previous one that took me five minutes to get up, planting my poles and kicking in my boot toes, waiting to gather courage for the next step.) She says it’s worse than it was last year, but sits down and slides to the bottom. Better to do it on purpose than to hit hard when a boot fails. It seems to me that is less environmentally protective than the rocks route, but I follow suit. It’s how I had already figured I would get down the previous bank. The people behind me use the boulders, and I go back up that way on the return.
I breathe again when I get to the other side. With only 800 feet elevation change, I almost didn’t bring my poles. There are more reasons than elevation gain and decline to need poles, and I use them again for a creek crossing. It seems some trail rerouting might be in order, but I understand the terrain is still shifting. What works this year, might not work next year, so hikers are left on their own to make do, with the caveat not to leave the trail and trample the fragile ecosystem.
The Loowit Falls area is the eruption’s Ground Zero, as close as you can get to the volcano’s bulge without a restricted access permit. The mountain is so close, at this angle she doesn’t look like a single mountain. It’s easy to see how ranges have formed over the eons, becoming a series of lesser peaks rather than a single snowy gem. I wonder if there used to be more standout peaks in the Cascades and what it looked like then. You can almost see the passage of the ages here. The Falls cascades out of the mouth of crater and into a barren chasm. Sadly, the trail doesn’t get close enough to see the pool.
The waterfall, which someday may be bigger or may go away completely as the land continues to shift—it’s already shorter than it used be—is not the spectacle on this trail; that would be the wonder of regeneration in this sterile landscape. I saw it not long after the eruption, when it was, literally, black and white. It is truly amazing how far it has come. Birds are singing, bees are pollinating, ants are moving dirt, seeds and cones are germinating, mountain goats are reproducing, water is shifting the landscape, caterpillars are playing whatever part it is that caterpillars play.
As I leave the plain, the clouds are moving in, capping Mt. Adams, obscuring St. Helens, completely hiding the bit of Rainier over the returning-to-beauty lake. It drizzles briefly as I walk back along the road, the potential showers hitting the windshield as I sit in the car to finish my lunch. There are more people now, trudging up the steps to the viewpoint on the bluff in the rain, the mountains all but vanished in cloud. I feel smug. The early bird reaps the reward.
This post is dedicated to my mother and father, who showed me love for this wild place.
And who taught me the value of rising early.