The wind pulled at our clothes and pulled it like waves over our skin. The gray-green expanse of Mt St Helens loomed behind us and as we stopped to catch our breath, we turned to take in the breathtaking view from Windy Ridge. The devastation from the 1980 eruption spread for miles before us and we thought of how different the landscape once looked. Places like Windy Ridge truly humble us and remind us of nature’s power.
Why visit Windy Ridge?
Windy Ridge Viewpoint is located in the Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument in Washington state. The Viewpoint is only four miles from Mt St Helens’ crater and is the closest public point to the volcano without making a reservation to climb it (which are booked months in advance).
Despite its up-close-and-personal location, Windy Ridge isn’t a popular destination due to its remote position on the eastern side of the volcano. Luckily this means there aren’t large crowds; you can focus on the breathtaking region and sweeping views instead!
Windy Ridge’s creation
Windy Ridge Viewpoint was created after Mt St Helens’ devastating eruption in 1980. All earlier trails around Mt St Helens were decimated by the eruption. This gave park planners the rare freedom to create viewpoints and trails for the sole purpose of allowing visitors to enjoy the unique features of the area. Only a few short years after the eruption visitors were able to drive to the newly completed Windy Ridge Viewpoint to take in the devastation for themselves.
Experience the blast zone
Windy Ridge offers unbelievable views of Mt St Helens’ blast zone as almost everything within view was wiped out by the eruption. When the volcano erupted, a massive avalanche that accounted for roughly 90% of the missing volcano spread for miles around it. The hardened debris from the avalanche is known as Pumice Plain and is directly north of Mt St Helens’ crater. The area was blasted with pumice and gases that reached almost 1,200 °F! Today, scientists are amazed at the number of plants that call the barren plains home.
Accessing Windy Ridge
Windy Ridge is one of the most remote, car accessible locations at Mt St Helens but offers some of the best views. Because of its location, most people don’t visit, preferring instead to stop at the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the opposite side of the volcano. Despite this — or because of it? — Windy Ridge is the only main viewpoint I’ve ever visited at Mt St Helens and it never ceases to amaze me.
Driving to Windy Ridge
Windy Ridge is only accessible in the summer months because the roads are covered in snow during the winter. We drove south from Randle, an easy 27km drive, to the turnoff for Windy Ridge. It was a painfully slow drive and we were deceived by the seemingly short distance. The narrow road was extremely windy, full of potholes, and wavy pavement. The dappled light of the thick forest made seeing these hazards very difficult. When we finally reached the turnoff for Windy Ridge it was only marked by a small sign for Mt St Helens.
From the turnoff, the windy drive took roughly 45 minutes and led us through a spectacular showcase of Mt St Helens’ power. We enjoyed sweeping views of the recovering valleys and hundreds of thousands of flattened trees, blown over as if by an angry giant. There are many pull-offs along the way that offer great views and hikes — it would be easy to spend your entire day exploring!
On our drive up, Mt St Helens occasionally poked her head from behind the mountains and teased us with her beauty. When we rounded the final corner and came upon the parking lot for Windy Ridge, Mt St Helens rose majestically in the foreground. She towered over everything and small smoke clouds hovered above her slowly growing lava dome. Her banks were bathed in green and a young glacier peeked out from her crater. This lonely viewpoint was certainly worth the drive! Remember, always drive with caution and be alert as the area is full of wildlife and steep drop-offs.
Witness the recovering ecosystem
Having visited Mt St Helens multiple times over the years, the obvious biological change each time is astounding. When I first visited in 2004 the area was an overwhelming gray with little plant life, but when we visited in the summer of 2016 I was amazed by the sheer greenness.
The plant life was flourishing with everything from small foliage to large saplings overtaking the area. The startling toothpick-like trees I remembered from childhood was being engulfed by new life. We were truly in awe of nature’s restorative ability.
368 steps to a 360° view
The main attraction at Windy Ridge is by far its unbelievable 360° view which is only accessible by climbing the nearby 368-step sand ladder. The ladder is located just off the parking lot which makes it an accessible, albeit tiring, climb. The steps are large and awkward and the wind blows in strong waves off the side of the sandy hill. The sun beat down as we made our way up but the wind kept us cool. Make sure to wear sunscreen as the coolness of the wind and elevation is truly deceiving!
The Sand Ladder
From the top of the ladder, we had an unobstructed view in every direction. The sheer distance we could see was nothing less than astounding! The log filled waters of Spirit Lake drew our attention to the north and we spotted Mt Margaret in the distance. The day was crystal clear and Mt Rainier, Mt Adams, and even Mt Hood rose from the skyline around us. We could see four volcanoes from our impeccable location!
A short walk from the top of the ladder brought us to a wooden observation platform with information about Spirit Lake and the area.
Spirit Lake is located only five miles north of Mt St Helens and was once a popular vacationing spot with six camps along its shores. People flocked there to enjoy its crystal clear waters and enjoy the serene beauty. It was all destroyed on May 18, 1980.
When Mt St Helens erupted, Spirit Lake received the full impact of the blast. The gigantic avalanche triggered by the eruption slammed into Spirit Lake and, like a tidal wave, most of the lake’s water was forced upwards of 600 feet on its northern banks. When the water finally settled, Spirit Lake was irreversibly changed. It was suddenly 200 feet higher, filled with volcanic debris, and covered in hundreds of thousands of trees. The 4,000-year-old lake was never to be the same again.
Instead of a beautiful vacation spot, Spirit Lake is now a hotbed for scientific discovery. Within a year of the eruption, life was already returning to the lake which shocked scientists. The log mat, which originally covered over 40% of the lake’s surface, is now much smaller, but no less impressive along Spirit Lake’s northern shore. The only public access to Spirit Lake is via the Harmony Falls Trail which leads to its northeastern shore. By limiting public access, researchers are able to preserve the natural laboratory and gather long-term data.
Enjoy an informative Ranger Talk
Since there is no visitor centre at Windy Ridge it can be difficult to learn more about the beautiful area. If you’re interested in learning more about Mt St Helens, be sure to attend the Ranger Talk in the amphitheatre. The talks are offered every hour on the half hour during the summer and are certainly worth attending! The amphitheatre overlooks the startling landscape and is located just off the parking lot.
Directions & trailhead location
From Randle, head south on WA-131 until it becomes NFD-25. Stay on NFD-25 for roughly 27km. Turn right on FR-99 and continue for 25km until the road ends at the Windy Ridge parking lot.
From Cougar, head east on NF-90/Highway 90/NFD-25 for 70 km. Turn left on FR-99 and continue for 25 km until the road ends at the Windy Ridge parking lot.
|Distance||Drive: 50 km (31 mi)
Sand Ladder: < 1 km (< 0.6 mi)
|Duration||Drive: ~1.5 hr round trip
Sand Ladder: ~30 – 45 min
|Difficulty||Sand Ladder: Easy, not wheelchair accessible|
|Pricing||Free to enjoy, but you must pay for the Northwest Forest Pass to park.|
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