Windy Ridge Viewpoint offers stunning panoramic views of Mt St Helens and the widespread devastation from her 1980 eruption. It’s hard to imagine what the area used to look like as you stand amidst the naked hills and toothpick-like trees.
The expansive grey plains are humbling and serve as a stark reminder of the devastation of natural disasters. Yet, you can clearly see life returning. It’s rare to experience first hand such a sharp contrast between nature’s destructive and restorative powers.
Things to do
Windy Ridge is located in the Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument in Washington state. It’s only four miles (6.4 km) from Mt St Helens’ crater and is the closest you can get to the volcano without climbing it. The viewpoint is on the eastern side of Mt St Helens and is one of the most remote, car accessible locations in the park.
The viewpoint isn’t a popular destination, which is quite surprising considering it has such amazing views of Mt St Helens. Most people prefer to visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the opposite side of the volcano because it’s more accessible and developed. Luckily, this means you can explore the area without huge crowds. Instead, you can focus on the breathtaking region and sweeping views! I don’t know about you, but that’s reason enough for us to go.
The main attraction at Windy Ridge is definitely its unbelievable 360° view. There are some great views from the parking lot, but the best views are only accessible by climbing the nearby 368-step sand ladder.
The ladder, which is actually a staircase, is located just off the parking lot. You can’t miss it. The staircase makes the amazing views easily accessible, although it’s a surprisingly tiring climb. The steps are mostly gravel and the large stride makes the trail awkward. There are no trees on the hill, so you’ll be exposed to the wind and sun the entire time.
When you reach the top, you’ll have an unobstructed 360° view. The sheer distance you can see is astounding. The log filled waters of Spirit Lake are to the north and Mt Margaret rises 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 the viewpoint!
A short walk from the top of the ladder brings you to a wooden observation platform with information about Mt St Helens and Spirit Lake. All in all, the entire trail is less than 1 km.
Spirit Lake viewpoint
Spirit Lake is only five miles north of Mt St Helens. It was once a popular vacationing spot and had six camps on its shores. People flocked to its crystal clear waters and serene beauty. But when Mt St Helens erupted in 1980, everything changed.
When Mt St Helens erupted, Spirit Lake received the full force of the blast. The eruption triggered a gigantic avalanche that slammed into the lake and forced most of its water 600 feet (182 m) up its northern banks. When the water finally settled, Spirit Lake was irreversibly changed. It was suddenly 200 feet (61 m) higher and filled with volcanic debris. Hundreds of thousands of trees floated in it and created a dense log mat that covered over 40% of the lake’s surface. Because of this, the 4,000-year-old lake would never be the same.
Although Spirit Lake is no longer a beautiful vacationing spot, it is a hotbed for scientific discovery. Within a year of the eruption, scientists were amazed to see that life was already returning to the lake! The only public access to the lake is via the Harmony Falls Trail which brings you to its northeastern shore. The park has limited public access so that researchers can preserve the natural laboratory and gather long-term data.
If you’re interested in learning more about Mt St Helens, be sure to attend the Ranger Talk at the amphitheatre. There isn’t a Visitor Centre at Windy Ridge Viewpoint, so this is a great way to learn more about the area. The amphitheatre is located just off the parking lot and overlooks Mt St Helens.
The talks are free and are given every hour on the half hour.
Mt St Helens’ blast zone
Windy Ridge offers unbelievable views of Mt St Helens’ blast zone. When the volcano erupted, it triggered a massive avalanche that destroyed almost everything within view. The barren land to the north of Mt St Helens’ crater is now called Pumice Plains and is made of the hardened debris from that avalanche.
When Mt St Helens erupted, it blasted the plains with pumice and gases that reached almost 1,200 °F (649 °C)! Needless to say, it killed everything that wasn’t able to escape. Today, scientists are amazed with how many plants have grown back!
After the initial shock of seeing the aftermath of Mt St Helens’ eruption, you’ll notice that life is returning. The plants are flourishing and everything from small foliage to large saplings are overtaking the area. It’s pretty cool to see the ecosystem repair itself.
I’ve visited Mt St Helens multiple times over the years; first in 2004, then in 2010, and most recently in 2016. Each time, the obvious ecological change astounds me.
When I first visited in 2004, there was very little plant life and the dead trees stood stark against the mountainside. Twelve years later, I was amazed by the sheer amount of green everywhere. The startling toothpick-like trees I remembered from childhood were engulfed by new life. Nature’s ability to restore herself is truly wonderful.
Building the viewpoint
People come to Windy Ridge for its amazing views — views that didn’t exist prior to 1980.
Before 1980 there were hikes and a few camps around Mt St Helens, all of which disappeared when the volcano erupted. In the aftermath, park planners suddenly had a clean slate to create viewpoints and trails with the sole purpose of allowing people to experience the area’s unique features. One of the viewpoints they created was Windy Ridge.
Amazingly, the viewpoint was built within just a few years. When you consider the amount of work that was needed to clear the devastated mountain, it’s impressive how quickly the park builders were able to complete the viewpoint. Only a few short years after the eruption, people were already visiting Windy Ridge to experience Mt St Helens’ destructive power.
Even though you’ll probably only spend a short time exploring Windy Ridge Viewpoint, there are a few things you should consider packing.
As the name suggests, it’s very windy here so a headband to keep your hair tied back is always a good idea. There are also no trees, so you’ll definitely need a pair of sunglasses and some great sunscreen. The trail isn’t too difficult, but it is quite gravely so it’s better to wear runners instead of sandals. And don’t forget your water bottle!
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Windy Ridge Viewpoint is a great, family-friendly destination where you can enjoy wonderful views of Mt St Helens without too much work. There’s no strenuous hiking involved, other than climbing the awkward sand ladder.
The viewpoint is located on the eastern side of Mt St Helens in Washington state. It’s one of the most remote, car accessible locations in the entire park and you’ll often find very few crowds.
Windy Ridge is free to visit, but you do need a Northwest Forest Pass to park. The Northwest Forest Pass is $5 a day or $30 annually. Remember to always display it in your front window when you leave your car!
The pass is valid for all parking at Mt St Helens, so if you’re planning on traveling around the annual pass pays for itself quite quickly.
The viewpoint is only open during the summer and is accessible 24 hours a day during that time. In the winter, the road is closed because of snow. It usually opens late June or July, depending on the snow levels.
There’s a large parking lot at the viewpoint with room for about a hundred cars and four dedicated spaces for RVs or buses. The road to the viewpoint is quite windy and narrow, though, so we don’t recommend bringing your RV or trailer up. Luckily, there’s a parking lot at the bottom where you can leave your trailers.
There’s also a washroom near the parking lot.
Windy Ridge is on the eastern slopes of Mt St Helens in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The roads in this area are windy, narrow, and riddled with potholes. The thick forest creates a dappled light and makes these hazards difficult to see. Expect your drive to take longer than what Google says.
To reach the viewpoint, travel on Forest Road 25 until you come to Forest Road 99 (with signs for Windy Ridge). Once you turn onto NF-99, drive for 16 miles (25.7 km) until the road ends. The drive takes about 45 minutes and brings you through a spectacular showcase of Mt St Helens’ power.
You’ll enjoy sweeping views of the recovering valleys and Mt St Helens will occasionally peek her head from behind the mountains. Hundreds of thousands of trees look like they’ve been blown over by angry giants. 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 because the area is full of wildlife and steep drop-offs.
When you reach the Windy Ridge parking lot at the end of the road, you’ll see Mt St Helens rise majestically in the background. She towers over everything and small smoke clouds hover above her slowly growing lava dome. Mt St Helens’ slopes are bathed in green and a young glacier peeks out from her crater. This lonely viewpoint is certainly worth the drive!
Have you been to Windy Ridge? Share your experience or comments with us!