Late on October 12, 2004, the media reported that lava at the surface in the crater of Mount Saint Helens was giving off a visible glow at night. Now that I had to see! Being in the Great Northwest during the volcano's awakening was a matter of luck, since I had scheduled a trip to visit my parents months before. When things started to get interesting, I figured that I could sneak away for a night or two to hike the Mount Margaret Backcountry and get a bird’s eye view of the action. That plan died when the Forest Service closed the entire Backcountry to entry as a precaution should the activity become more violent. But this report of a red glow really got me thinking – there had to be a legal and safe way to get a look, one that didn’t involve the dollars required to leave the ground.
A quick scan of topo maps north of the crater provided hope. The next ridge north of Mount Margaret, Goat Mountain, was 5400 feet high, surely high enough to see over and into the crater. A visit to the Gifford Pinchot Web site didn’t list the Goat Mountain Trail (#217) as one of those that was closed. Unfortunately, I looked further, and on another page, conflicting information was present. A call to the Forest Service on the morning of the 13th yielded an “I think it’s open, but you had better check with our trails guy – I’ll put you through to his voice mail”. Several hours later, I gave up waiting and went for a day hike on Mount Hood. When I returned that evening, my mother reported the call had come, and the trail was open.
That night, the volcano cam showed a definite bright spot in the center of the black image. I was pumped!
I was on the road early the next morning, but took my time driving to the trailhead. I did a couple of short hikes to waterfalls on the way, and then had lunch at the Cascade Peaks Restaurant. That’s where the road up Windy Ridge ended with a familiar colored green pickup and a couple of rangers blocking passage. I was surprised that less than a dozen cars were there at road’s end on such a beautiful day. The view there was good, but the eastern wall of the crater hid the lava dome from observation.
The Goat Mountain Trail begins in the Green River valley near Ryan Lake at about the 3300 foot level. I started up hill at 1:15 PM in blazing sun and without a breath of wind. The first half mile climbed though scattered 20 foot trees, planted after the 1980 blast removed the old growth. Then a mile long switchback contoured north and back south through a pleasant forest untouched by the volcanic calamity. A few short switchbacks later the trees began to thin as the ridge crest was attained. Views of the volcano opened up about the same time.
A short time later, I found myself on the 5100 foot eastern summit of the mountain. It was a huge bald with just a few scattered trees and a great view that included not only Saint Helens, but Jefferson, Hood, Adams, Goat Rocks, Rainier, and the Olympics. The main summit to the west looked like a far less inviting place to camp, so I dropped the pack and relaxed for awhile before setting up the tent.
Later that evening, I continued west on the trail, planning to bag the true summit. The trail dropped a bit, and then left the ridgeline to contour south of the summit. I left the trail there, and followed intermittent game and boot trails up the western ridge. I scrambled up a small rock outcropping I mistakenly believe to be the summit, then had to down climb and contour to a short bushwhack to the actual top.
The view of the volcano there was not quite as good, as the bulk of Mount Margaret stood directly in front of Saint Helens. I continued west from there, descending toward a saddle where the trail was visible crossing the ridge. Where the ridge became more rugged, I decided to drop directly to the trail and head back to camp.
After dinner, I wandered about the large eastern summit, enjoying the fading daylight and the growing alpenglow on the peaks. After dark, the volcano was brightly backlit by the lights of Portland, and no matter how hard I tried to imagine it, I couldn’t really see any glow in the crater. I went to bed in high spirits. A nearby owl provided musical entertainment. Although the lava had failed to put on a show, it was a great day.
Before dawn, I sat in the door of the tent studying the crater with my telephoto lens. There did seem to be some faint glow then, but it was far from exciting. I took a few time-lapse photos that do show a little glow. One of them is posted.
Coyotes sang nearby, and further off, several elk welcomed the morning with constant bugling. I went in search of them with the camera, but never managed to get more than a fleeting glimpse of one nice bull.
Overnight, a marine cloud layer had moved in. Just a few hundred feet downhill, it was a gray morning, but on the summit the sun shown brightly. Experience told me that as the morning warmed, the clouds would rise up and block my view of the volcano. I managed to dry my tent in the sun, and then pack it just before that came to pass.
It was a quick trip down to the car. Fresh elk tracks preceded me downhill much of the way. I never saw another person on the hike. There were two cars at the trailhead when I arrived, but they were gone on my return. Perhaps they were hikers heading down Green River.
That day never saw any sun in the valleys. I can’t help but think that I was the only person near the volcano that saw it that day, except for those lucky enough to be flying.
It was a great trip. I’d highly recommend Goat Mountain for a day hike or overnighter. The trail is fairy steep, but not as bad as I expected. Much of the tread is smooth, without large rocks. There is no shortage of 1980 pumice though. The trail continues on to Deadmans Lake and Vanson Peak. I hope to follow it further next time.