Destinations: Mount St. Helens, Roddy Scheer captures the volcano’s explosive beauty.
As I rounded the curve in my van, there before me, in all her majesty, stood Mount St. Helens, aglow in the golden morning light. I pulled into the Bear Meadow turnout, parked and walked over to the spot where unemployed taxi driver and amateur photographer Gary Rosenquist had risked life and limb 25 years before to shoot those famous time-lapse photographs of the mountain in mid-eruption.
That morning — May 18, 1980 — Rosenquist and some friends were camped out illegally inside the peri-meter cordoned off by federal officials to protect people from an imminent eruption. When his friend pointed out that the north side of Mount St. Helens looked like it was starting to move, Rosenquist ran over to his tripod-mounted camera and clicked the shutter. The mountain started to implode on itself as it spewed ash skyward. In a panic, Rosenquist snapped off a few more shots before snatching his camera and diving into his friend’s station wagon for a harrowing ride out through ash falls and debris.
Twenty-five years may have passed, but Mount St. Helens is showing no signs of calming down anytime soon. Last fall, the mountain commenced a new phase of volcanic activity that, while less explosive than 1980 so far, has managed to fill up much of the existing crater with new magma. Meanwhile, photographers from around the Pacific Northwest and beyond have been flocking to the mountain to capture their versions of geologic history in the making.
Luckily for these shutterbugs, the federal government has made access easy. In 1982, Congress created the 172-square-mile Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument to facilitate research and education on the volcano and its effects. With this infusion of funds, the Forest Service, which administers the national monument, rebuilt and improved roads and bridges destroyed by the 1980 blast. It also constructed a series of visitor centers offering informational exhibits and interpretive displays along with expansive views of the mountain and its recovering surroundings.
Most of the roads in the monument are closed due to winter conditions by late October, and often don’t reopen until May, when the majority of snow starts to subside. The main exception is State Route 504 (SR 504), which is usually open year-round as far as Coldwater Ridge, weather permitting. (The visitor center, however, operates at reduced hours and days during the winter.) This road leaves Interstate 5 at the town of Castle Rock (two hours south of Seattle and an hour north of Portland), and gains 4,000 feet in elevation over its 50-mile course up the side of the North Fork Toutle River valley, which bore the brunt of mudflow damage during the 1980 blast.
Along the way, photographers can get their bearings and plan their visit with a ranger at the Silver Lake Visitor Center near Castle Rock. Further up the road (milepost 27), they can hop aboard a helicopter at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center (summer only) for a half-hour aerial tour of Mount St. Helens and environs, and relive the day 25 years ago when Portland photographer Gary Braasch captured award-winning shots of the eruption in process as wingman in his friend’s chopper. Such fly-overs can be a gold mine for aerial shots on clear days, but photographers should remember that as long as Mount St. Helens remains in an eruptive state, air traffic cannot fly within five miles of the crater.
Continuing up SR 504 by car, the next stop, especially for the long-lens crowd, would be Weyerhaeuser’s Forest Learning Center (milepost 33) — not so much for the indoor displays on forest ecology and the history of logging in the area, but more for the possibility of getting some wildlife shots. Several large herds of Roosevelt elk roam the river valley below, and Weyerhaeuser has set up free spotting scopes for visitors. Retired loggers are on hand to help tourists and photographers alike pick out the surprisingly well-camouflaged ungulates on nearby cliffs.
Coldwater and Johnston
As SR 504 ascends closer to Mount St. Helens, the views begin to open up. At milepost 43 — two ridges and seven miles away from the mountain — sits the majestic Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center at 3,091 feet in elevation. The view from the back deck takes in Coldwater Lake, Johnston Ridge and Mount St. Helens itself. Because the facility sits due north of the crater, warm afternoon light can highlight the azure color of Coldwater Lake below and careen off the right side of the mountain, making for postcard-quality photography opportunities.
To avoid the crowd of snapshooters on the deck, those looking for fresh angles can set out on foot via the Winds of Change hiking loop, which meanders for a third of a mile along Coldwater Ridge through cut-over fields salvage-logged by Weyer- haeuser just prior to the 1980 eruption. In June and July, opportunistic wildflowers such as lupine, penstemon, fireweed, Indian paintbrush and apargidium crowd the ridge’s slopes. Under the right conditions — in the golden light of late afternoon — the use of graduated neutral-density filters can showcase Mount St. Helens in the distance, with a pointillist tapestry of purples, pinks, reds and yellows filling in the foreground.
While Coldwater Ridge serves as the hub of visitor activity at Mount St. Helens year-round, the Forest Service usually opens the road above it to Johnston Ridge during the summer months only. The observatory there offers close-up views of the mountain and its crater, as well as the still-desertified pumice plain directly beneath. Some of the best hiking trails deep into the monument begin at Johnston Ridge. The Forest Service has yet to decide, however, whether ongoing volcanic activity at the mountain — just 5.5 miles away — warrants keeping Johnston Ridge closed throughout the entirety of its summer season as well. After all, Johnston Ridge was named posthumously for David Johnston, a federal geologist who perished there while monitoring the 1980 blast.
Off the beaten path
While the vistas from SR 504 provide compelling pictorial fodder indeed, photographers should keep in mind that the road plays host to most of the 3 million or more tourists stopping by Mount St. Helens in any given year. For more unique images, photographers in the region during the summer months, when obscuring clouds and rain are much less frequent, should allocate at least a few extra days to check out other parts of the national monument.
Although its terminus at Windy Ridge will remain closed as long as the volcano is active, Forest Road 99 (FR 99), approaching from the east, offers some great alternative angles on Mount St. Helens. Emerging out of a typical Pacific Northwest old-growth forest, complete with serene waterfalls and campsites under towering Douglas firs, the road rounds the curve to Bear Meadow, where Gary Rosenquist had evaded roadblocks to get in position for his great time-lapse shots 25 years ago. There the views open up onto an other-worldly “ghost forest” of standing dead trees, the life stripped out of them by superheated gas flows emanating from the mountain during the 1980 eruption.
The best views of log-jammed Spirit Lake are along FR 99. The collapse of the mountain’s north flank in 1980 sent a mudflow of unprecedented proportions directly into the lake below.
Today, Spirit Lake’s water level is 200 feet higher than it was prior to the 1980 eruption, and its surface still plays host to countless tree corpses, condemned to float endlessly until the forces of erosion turn them into so many splinters. The remains of several people, not to mention lodges, cabins and summer camps, remain buried hundreds of feet below Spirit Lake today.
Due to Forest Service closures, the Cascade Peaks viewpoint is the last stop along FR 99. Fortunately, a restaurant there caters to hungry visitors, and the panoramic views of Mount Adams, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens don’t disappoint. But until the volcanic activity subsides, the very best views of the east side of the mountain — from Harmony, Donnybrook, Smith Creek and Windy Ridge — will remain off-limits to the public.
Still other photographic options abound farther south. The main attractions off Forest Road 83 (FR 83) include the Trail of Two Forests, where an old-growth forest has sprung up on top of a clearly visible 1,900-year-old lava flow, and Ape Cave, a 2.5-mile-long underground lava tube accessible to hikers equipped with two sources of light and gear suitable for cold, damp conditions. Located at lower elevations, these sites are open year-round, weather and road conditions permitting. Meanwhile, another key attraction off FR 83, Lava Canyon, where an errant mudflow from the 1980 eruption sent floods of debris down the Muddy River, is closed for now as well.
While the recent volcanic activity at Mount St. Helens may frustrate photographers looking to replicate specific images they’ve seen in books and magazines, it also presents a unique opportunity to shoot images of live volcanic events.
For some shooters, the chance of capturing an explosive volcanic event in process is reason enough to keep a camera bag packed and the car gassed up for a quick jaunt to Mount St. Helens. Indeed, if another cataclysmic eruption does occur, those fool-hardy enough to get close might just get home with the shots of a lifetime.