The Into the Crater Experience

I finally did the Into the Crater hike, something that I've been intending to do for several years. The day started with Matt, our lead guide opening a gate at Windy Ridge. We drove through onto a dusty, rough road down to a parking area. Guides are required because this hike ventures into an area where there is no trail for a good part and hazards abound.  Early on we had a glimpse of the east side of Mount St Helens, then the marine layer of cloud moved in. Half an hour later, we eased above the cloud with our first unique sighting, Loowit Falls dropping out of the crater. Higher up vegetation becomes minimal, the scenery quite desolate; off public trail now we hiked in and out of steep ravines comprised of loose material and rock hopped over creeks. As one moves along, constant concentration on foot placement is a must. Mountain goats, the adults were looking pretty shabby as they shed, this year's offspring looked better.  Finally over a ridge and we are into the crater proper, hiking near the east crater side up toward the glacier. We encounter a small stream with brilliant green algae; the only stream in which I saw anything growing. The water was very clear and 121 degrees F! Our final push up to the glacier was the typical trek for the day, steep, loose material. At our lunch spot, about 100 yards from the face of the glacier were interesting views, Mount Rainier to the north, black basalt intrusive dikes stick out of the east crater wall, the face of the glacier covered with rock and dust, and layers of pyroclastic flows. I wanted to pose for a photo leaning on the glacier face, but changed my mind. Why? The crater is a noisy place with rocks tumbling off the glacier face, sometimes water and gravel pouring from under the glacier, and rocks rolling down the crater walls for hundreds of yards. Suddenly the biggest rock fall I or anyone else had seen broke loose on the east crater wall. I took a video clip. A botany surprise, while prairie lupine is by far the most prominent plant on the pumice plain below the crater, there was none in the crater. The most common plant was pink pussy paws, Calyptridium umbellatum.  

On the way out I a grabbed a shot of us descending what is called the Sasquatch Steps, steep and loose, trekking poles appreciated. Another goodbye shot of Loowit Falls -- we had been well above that. In the afternoon the sweep of blooming lupine minus the early morning cloud was stunning, hundreds of acres. A different route back, now on the public trail, took us to a spring surrounded by pink monkey flower. This was a prime watering spot for hikers, cold, clean water that burst out of the mountain side. The weather had been perfect with great visibility.  My GPS at the end of the day showed 10 miles with 2,200 feet cumulative elevation gain, normally for me that would be a moderate hike -- except so much was off trail over challenging terrain. Along with great memories and photos, I took home sore quads and a scraped elbow, but it was worth it. If you’ve been pondering on doing this hike, I recommend stop pondering and start doing.

By David N.

The Mount St. Helens Institute is dedicated to helping people of all ages gain an understanding of the natural processes and cultural heritage of the Pacific Northwest’s volcanic landscapes. The Mount St. Helens Institute is proud to operate under a special use permit from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and is an equal opportunity provider.