Mt. St. Helens National Monument, Washington – Lava Falls Trail

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We arrived at Mt. St. Helens National Monument on a Friday. There are not a lot of campgrounds in the immediate area of Mt. St. Helens and those that there were, were full. We hauled ourselves off into dispersed camping in the Gifford-Pinchot NF, right on the edge of a deep gorge looking at the mountains south of St. Helens and caught up on some reading, did a little biking, walked a bit and just generally enjoyed a beautiful spot in the forest while we waited for Monday.

On Monday we drove up to Lava Falls, on the south side of the park and got our first look at the mountain that caused so much news a little over 32 years ago. You can visualize how immense Mt. St. Helens must have been as it is still a very large mountain even with the roof blown off. The Forest Service is very sensitive about Mt. St. Helens and so we would have limits on what we could hike. Most of the the upper mountain is closed to hiking without a special permit (only available online, in advance – tough luck for us), and the crater itself (on the north side) is completely closed to public access. Still, there is plenty of good hiking in the Monument.

The south side of Mt. St. Helens is, due to the impressive blast crater on the north side, now the backside of the mountain. All the force of the blast went north, but there was still a lot of action on the south side, mostly due to Lahars.

Lahars are mudslides caused by the superheated volcano instantly melting the snow and ice, and thawing the frozen ground, around the mountain. As a result rivers of water, mud, ash, rock, and other debris rocket down the sides of the mountain at tremendous speed. A Lahar scours the land down to bedrock, removing topsoil, bushes, trees, buildings, etc, whatever is in it’s way.

When Mt. St. Helens blew, one of the Lahars raged down through the path of the Muddy River scouring trees and soil off of the 2500 year old lava flow that is the bed of the river. The Muddy River, and it’s marvelous waterfalls, is no longer hidden in the forest as it had been for millennia. The Lava Falls trail follows the course of the river on the steep cliffs above the river for about 2½ miles until it meets the Lower Smith River.

Way Cool Suspension Bridge over the Muddy River.

The waterfalls are spectacular. The trail crosses a suspension bridge then continues down canyon until the Muddy meets the Smith.

Columner Andesite (Basalt) Canyon Walls in Lava Canyon.

After hiking, and a nice Deschutes Mirror Pond Ale (for re-hydration purposes don’t ya know), we found another excellent dispersed campsite just a mile from the trail, several hundred yards off the access road, and right near the June Lake trailhead that would take us up closer to the south side of the big mountain tomorrow.

Factoid: I was curious as to why the mountain is called Mt. St, Helens (no appostrophe) as if it were named after more than one Helen. Seems it’s named after Lord St. Helens, an early British Explorer of the region. I don’t know where he got his name.


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