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Plains of Abraham Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Abraham Trail junction with the Loowit Trail on the Plains of Abraham, Mt. St. Helens (bobcat)
Looking to Alpine Butte and the Dogs Head from the Abraham Trail (bobcat)
Mountain spiraea (Spiraea splendens), Abraham Trail (bobcat)
Spirit Lake, Harrys Ridge, Coldwater Peak and The Dome from Windy Pass (bobcat)
The hike to the Plains of Abraham from Windy Pass; the section on the gated road is shown in orange (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo/USFS
  • Start point: Windy Ridge TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Plains of Abraham
  • Hike Type: Lollipop loop
  • Distance: 8.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1390 feet
  • High point: 4,860 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Summer into fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No

Contents

Hike Description

This hike extends from the blast zone on Windy Ridge, where you can get views to the crater of Mount Saint Helens, to the desolate Plains of Abraham, a landform outside the direct path of the May 18th, 1980, eruption but nevertheless impacted by it. Pyroclastic flows and the rapid meltdown of the Nelson and Ape glaciers deposited material across the already desolate landscape, once known as Abraham Flat. The hike begins and ends on 1 ¾ miles of closed road and then a trail shared with mountain bikes, but it eventually takes you up a colorful gulch to Windy Pass, where mountain goats graze on high pastures and Spirit Lake gleams before you.

A gravel road, the beginning of the Truman Trail, begins behind a gate. This road was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after the eruption so that crews could erect a pumping station at Spirit Lake. Since the lake’s level rose considerably after the eruption, scientists were concerned that it would burst it banks and flood destructively down the Toutle valley. In 1985, a 1.6 mile overflow tunnel through Harrys Ridge was constructed as a more permanent fix, but a project is now (2021) underway to evaluate and perhaps enhance prevention of a catastrophic flood.

The road passes above a large bowl created by western tributaries of Smith Creek. On your right, you’ll see a Plate Boundary Observation Station, which uses a strainmeter to measure minute shifts in tectonic plates. From here, there’s a view to Spirit Lake, Harrys Ridge, and Coldwater Peak. Alder and thimbleberry cloak the hillside. As you round a corner, the east horn of the Mount Saint Helens crater rim appears, while to the east, the spine of Indian Heaven forms a jagged crest before Mount Adams. You’ll walk above a very steep-sided bowl, and the road descends below more open slopes. A parking area appears below: if you see any vehicles here, they’ll be government trucks or those belonging to contractors or scientists. (At one point, the public was permitted to drive here, but no more.) Before the end of the road, the Abraham Trail #216D peels off up the ridge to your left.

The Abraham Trail heads up the crest of the ridge where penstemon, lupine, and paintbrush bloom well into the summer. From a saddle above the parking area, cable steps 15 inches apart lead up the steep crest of loose gravel. You’ll traverse to the right and then step up another flight of cable steps. From the crest, you’ll get good views of the Dogs Head on the east rim of Mount Saint Helens. Looking east and north, Mount Adams is in view as well as Mount Rainier. The deep valley carved by Smith Creek is visible below. Big Pumice Butte, a cornerstone of the Plains of Abraham, can be seen ahead. There’s plenty of goat sign from now on, so keep your eyes open for woolly white ungulates.

The Abraham Trail undulates along the crest and then veers left through alder thickets and in and out of a gully. Views extend north to the ridge of Coldwater Peak, The Dome, Mount Margaret, and Mount Teragram, with Mount Rainier behind. The trail proceeds in and out of gullies on the east slope of Alpine Butte, descending gradually and then winding down towards the Plains of Abraham with Big Pumice Butte on the eastern margin. A tight turn takes you down to a bouldery wash, and then you’ll switchback up above a deeply incised gully, passing large cairns alongside the trail. The sere landscape is littered with lava projectiles. Only a few shrubs and stunted conifers have found purchase here and there. On a gravel plain at the foot of Big Pumice Butte, join the Loowit Trail and turn right.

The Loowit heads northwest along the Plains of Abraham, crossing dry washes and passing a few pioneering whitebark pines and Scouler’s willows. Clumps of partridge-foot, penstemon, lupine, aster, and fireweed provide some color. Looking up at the east face of Mount Saint Helens, you can see where a huge lahar swept down from the Nelson and Ape glaciers to leave a massive pyroclastic cone on the edge of the Plains of Abraham. Soon the hike becomes a sandy trudge through a field of pink, black, and gray rock as you head towards a defile. The Loowit Trail leaves the defile only a few yards in (this is marked by a cairn), and you’ll switchback up three times on a slope of loose gravel to face a striking gully of banded layers of rock. A post marks Windy Pass (look for goats on the high meadows above here), and a sign denotes you’re entering the restricted blast zone (no overnight camping).

From the Windy Pass, which actually does channel vicious breezes at times, you’ll make a rocky traverse down above a gully to switchback three times through huckleberry and mountain ash. The trail reaches a wash and then traverses across Mount Saint Helens’ massive debris fan, dropping in and out of gullies. The Dogs Head rears above and Spirit Lake, still cluttered with half a forest, spreads below. At the junction with the Windy Trail #216E, bear right.

The Windy Trail descends past several posts. This eastern edge of the Pumice Plain now supports sedges, grasses, willow, lupine, and penstemon. Young noble firs and even some Douglas-firs have taken hold. You’ll hike alongside a gully that feeds Spirit Lake with snow melt all summer and fall. A volcano monitoring station up on Windy Ridge is also visible. The trail swings around the base of a ridge and crosses a wide wash to reach the junction with the Truman Trail at a parking area. Follow the Army Corps of Engineers road up the slope above a thicket of alder and willow and then all the way back to the Windy Ridge Trailhead.


Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Mt St Helens, WA #364
  • Green Trails Maps: Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument, WA #332S
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Gifford Pinchot National Forest
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument & Administrative Area
  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map: Mount St. Helens - Mt. Adams

Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • Northwest Forest Pass (or America the Beautiful Pass) required
  • Restrooms, picnic tables, interpretive signs
  • No pets permitted on this loop
  • Share road section of Truman Trail, Abraham Trail, and Loowit Trail leading south with mountain bikers

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks

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

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.