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Johnston Ridge Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Looking towards Mt. St. Helens from the Eruption Trail (bobcat)
Garter snake, Boundary Trail (bobcat)
Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), Boundary Trail (bobcat)
View to Castle Lake, Johnston Ridge (bobcat)
Blasted stumps, Eruption Trail (bobcat)
Map showing the west end of the Boundary Trail with the Hummocks and Eruption loops (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: Hummocks TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Johnston Ridge Observatory Trailhead
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: In and out
  • Distance: 10.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1830 feet
  • High Point: 4,315 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Summer into fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No

Contents

Hike Description

Mount Saint Helens' eruption on May 18th, 1980, created a swath of destruction across the adjacent forested hillsides. Johnston Ridge took the full force of the blast and an entire woodland was keeled over and stripped of foliage in seconds. The beginning and end of this hike take you through the hummocks, piles of pyroclastic debris that cover what was once an old growth forest. Then you'll hike up the ridge through the recovering blast zone to get spectacular views into the crater of Mount Saint Helens. The hike ends at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, where you can learn about the eruption and its aftermath both inside the building and on the short Eruption Trail. Pay attention to the fact that there's a $100 fine for leaving trails in this area of the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument - this to protect the fragile regenerating environments in the blast zone; also, note that no dogs are allowed on these trails.

Johnston Ridge is named after David A. Johnston, a young USGS volcanologist who was monitoring the activity on Mount Saint Helens and was one of the 57 people who perished in the May 1980 eruption. His transmission "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!" was the first report of the cataclysm.

To begin the hike, take the trail at the far end of the lot (the left one, as you enter the parking area). This part of the Hummocks Trail #129 is also the Boundary Trail. The trail weaves slowly downhill through meadows, past ponds and around hummocks. Several interpretive signs explain the formation and evolution of these debris piles. From an alder thicket, enter a more open area above a pond formed from either rain water or a seep. Reach the Boundary-Hummocks Trail Junction and go left here on the Boundary Trail #1. The sign says the Loowit Viewpoint is 3 ¾ miles and Johnston Ridge Observatory is 4 ½ miles.

The trail gives a great view of Mount Saint Helens and the maw as it wends through hummocks. The tread levels across grassy terrain and then heads up a grassy hillock through a white alder copse. Find yourself below a formerly clear-cut hillside. The rubbly track heads up the slope under a rocky prominence in an alder gully with an open view of the mountain. Veer left through an outcropping of hummocks below a clearcut ridge that flares bright red patches of vine maple in the fall. The trail traverses upward, switchbacking at a great view of Castle Lake, the North Fork Toutle River and Spud Mountain. Head up the ridge crest and get commanding views. There is much elk sign here among the stumps and the bracken. At a switchback, get a view north to Coldwater Lake and the decommissioned Visitor Center. Switchback again, and keep climbing the ridge to cross a willow-choked draw. In this area, noble firs and some Douglas-firs have reestablished themselves. Huckleberry bushes clothe the slopes. Traverse up and enter an area of blast-induced blowdown with views of the mountain's crater. The trail passes below a rock face and you get your first view of Mount Adams and the top of the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The trail traverses a steep hillside on the level and then crosses the paved, fenced Loowit Viewpoint area, where you might meet a few visitors taking in the sweeping vista.

Head up past the viewpoint: it’s ¾ mile from here to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The path leads up at a rather gentle grade amongst huckleberries and blowdown with great views of the crater all the way. Reach the entrance to the parking lot and head right along a sidewalk to the observatory building. The observatory tells the story of the 1980 eruption, beginning with Mount Saint Helens' young and explosive history and ending with the process of regeneration.

From the viewing area, the Boundary Trail, here doing double-duty with the signposted Eruption Trail, goes left on a paved and fenced tread with lots of interpretive signs. This trail switchbacks up four times to the top of a knoll that blooms with penstemon in late summer. There’s a metal marker denoting various peaks in the area. The trail drops and switchbacks twice, traversing down past a memorial to those killed in the blast. There’s a great front-on view of the crater of Mount Saint Helens from here. Where the Boundary Trail peels off to the right at the Boundary-Eruption Trail Junction, the trail switchbacks left and heads on the level to the parking area and a large map sign. Walk around the perimeter of the parking area and pick up the Boundary Trail to head back down to the Hummocks area.

Back down at the Boundary-Hummocks Trail Junction, go left. The trail weaves through some of the hummocks. Get views to the right of the Coldwater Visitor Center, now closed, perched up high. Drop to the edge of a white alder-lined pond and cross a footbridge. There are also ponds to the right. The trail passes above a spring, where you get views down to the North Fork Toutle River valley. Descend along a stream in an alder glade. In an open area, a spur leads left to a viewpoint over the wide, eroded valley of the North Fork Toutle. Back in the alders, hike up a lush gully with a running stream and cross a footbridge. Then, cross a creek on another bridge and pass two tiers of beaver dams backing up a large, bulrush-filled pond with dead alders. The trail passes right by the beaver lodge. Out of this alder bottom, cross an open area and head into a willow/alder thicket, passing a grassy depression on the right. The trail winds up with views of Spud Mountain and Castle Rock. Then, the path drops to the northwest corner of the Hummocks Trailhead.

Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Spirit Lake, WA #332 (partial)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument & Administrative Area
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Gifford Pinchot National Forest
  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map: Mount St. Helens - Mt. Adams

Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • Monument Pass required (Northwest Forest Pass O.K. for one person)
  • Stay on trail: minimum $100 fine for leaving trail
  • No dogs allowed

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • 95 Virtual Hikes of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument by Northwest Hiker
  • Day Hiking: Mount St. Helens by Craig Romano & Aaron Theisen
  • Day Hiking: South Cascades by Dan A. Nelson & Alan L. Bauer
  • 100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon & Southwest Washington by William L. Sullivan

More Links


Contributors

Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.