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Easy Hike, Mountains, Washington

Mt St Helens & Spirit Lake from Windy Ridge Viewpoint 

Standing amongst the devastation of Mt St Helens’ 1980 eruption, it’s hard to imagine what the area used to look like. Windy Ridge, which is aptly named, offers stunning, panoramic views of the blast zone, Spirit Lake, and Mt St Helens herself. The toothpick-like trees and expansive grey plains will humble you and remind you of nature’s destructive, and restorative, power.

Visiting Windy Ridge Viewpoint

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 you can get without making a reservation to climb it (which are booked months in advance).

Windy Ridge is one of the most remote, car accessible locations at Mt St Helens and offers some of the best views of the area. Because of its remote location on the eastern side of the volcano, it isn’t a popular destination. Most people prefer to visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the opposite side of the volcano, near Highway 5. Luckily, this means there aren’t large crowds at Windy Ridge. Instead, you can focus on the breathtaking region and sweeping views!

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 see the devastation for themselves.

Driving to Windy Ridge

Windy Ridge is only accessible in the summer months because it’s the only time the roads aren’t covered in snow. The road to the Windy Ridge turnoff is windy, narrow and riddled with potholes, which makes the seemingly short drive quite long. The thick forest creates a dappled light and makes these hazards all the more difficult to see. A sign for Windy Ridge marks the turnoff onto National Forest Road 99.

Once you turn onto NF-99, the windy drive takes roughly 45 minutes and brings you through a spectacular showcase of Mt St Helens’ power. You’ll enjoy 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. Always drive with caution and be alert as the area is full of wildlife and steep drop-offs.

On your drive up, Mt St Helens will occasionally peek her head from behind the mountains. When you finally come to the parking lot for Windy Ridge, you’ll see Mt St Helens rise majestically. She towers over everything and small smoke clouds hover above her slowly growing lava dome. Her banks are bathed in green and a young glacier peeks out from her crater. This lonely viewpoint is certainly worth the drive!

Things to Do at Windy Ridge Viewpoint

There’s plenty to see and do at Windy Ridge. While it’s not nearly as built up as the Johnston Ridge Observatory, it’s also not as popular and fewer people visit. This lets you enjoy the area without huge crowds! It offers unbelievable views of the area and lets you experience firsthand the devastation Mt St Helens caused in the 1980s.

Climb the Sand Ladder: 368 Steps to a 360° View

The main attraction at Windy Ridge is its unbelievable 360° view which is only accessible by climbing the nearby 368-step sand ladder. The ladder, which is actually a staircase, 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 beats down as you make your way up but the wind will keep you cool. Make sure to wear sunscreen because the coolness of the wind and elevation is deceiving.

From the top of the ladder, you’ll have an unobstructed view in every direction. The sheer distance you can see is nothing less than astounding. The log filled waters of Spirit Lake will draw your attention to the north and you’ll spot Mt Margaret in the distance. If it’s a clear day, Mt Rainier, Mt Adams, and even Mt Hood rise from the skyline around you. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see four volcanoes from your impeccable location!

A short walk from the top of the ladder brings you to a wooden observation platform with information about Spirit Lake and the area.

Enjoy Views of Spirit Lake

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.

Experience the Blast Zone

Windy Ridge offers unbelievable views of Mt St Helens’ blast zone because 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 called 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.

Witness the Recovering Ecosystem

I’ve visited Mt St Helens multiple times over the years and the obvious biological change each time is astounding. When I first visited in 2004, there was little plant life and the dead trees stood stark against the mountainside. Twelve years later in 2016, I was amazed by the sheer greenness.

The plant life is flourishing and everything from small foliage to large saplings are overtaking the area. The startling toothpick-like trees I remembered from childhood are being engulfed by new life. Nature’s ability to restore herself is truly wonderful.

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.

While exploring the Mt St Helens area, don't miss the Ape Cave Lave Tubes and Lava Canyon hike!

DistanceDrive: 50 km (31 mi)
Sand Ladder: < 1 km (< 0.6 mi)
DurationDrive: ~1.5 hr round trip
Sand Ladder: ~30 – 45 min
DifficultySand Ladder: Easy, not wheelchair accessible
PricingFree to enjoy, but you must pay for the Northwest Forest Pass to park.
Notes• Closed in the winter due to snow
• Toilets are available at the parking lot
• This viewpoint is quite remote and the parking lot is usually less than half full

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