Thursday, March 31, 2016

Mount Margaret

Fall colors at Norway Pass
10.5 miles round trip, 2300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Northwest Forest Pass required; road to trailhead paved but narrow and poorly maintained

Standing directly across Spirit Lake from Mount St. Helens and falling squarely in the blast zone from the volcano's 1980 eruption, Mount Margaret provides an extraordinary viewpoint of the devestation from the news-making eruption and of the chain of Cascade stratovolcanoes in southern Washington and northern Oregon. This hike delves into the heart of the devestated area in Mount St. Helens National Monument and gets surprisingly little traffic considering its stunning location. The hike to Norway Pass and Mount Margaret is a long drive from Seattle but is ultimately worth the trouble to see the slopes of blasted trees and the process of recovery that follows an eruption. Hikers in the area looking for a shorter hike can simply hike to Norway Pass and back to the trailhead rather than going all the way to Mount Margaret; while this abridged four-mile round trip hike misses the full view of Spirit Lake and a chance to see Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, it does lead to a pretty view of Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake as well as the other southern Washington volcanoes.

I visited Norway Pass and Mount Margaret on an early October day when the berry bushes scattered throughout the devestated area were turning orange and red and a light coat of fresh snow coated the slumbering volcano. I headed out from Seattle early in the morning, heading south past Puyallup, Eatonville, and Morton, taking the bumpy and pothole-filled Forest Service Road 25 south to Forest Service Road 99, which led towards the Windy Ridge area of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. NF-99 was an unpleasant drive: at points, parts of the downhill side of the road had slumped, creating somewhat dangerous driving conditions. After entering the monument, I turned right onto NF-26 leading towards Meta Lake. I passed over a gravel stretch where the road had recently collapsed before reaching the trailhead on the left side of the road. Although trailhead parking was fairly spacious, the lot was almost empty for a nice albeit partly cloudy October day.

The first thing that struck me as I stepped out of the car was the barrenness of the landscape. St. Helens was outside my line of sight from the trailhead, but it had nonetheless been able to bowl a strike over most of the trees on the surrounding slopes. The Cascades are generally lush and green, so it was remarkable to see them brown and dull instead.

I hung my Northwest Forest Pass on my dashboard and started off on the Boundary Trail (Trail #1) towards Norway Pass. The trail headed west, crossing a small stream and then climbing onto a small ridgelet. At the end of the small ridge, the trail made a broad turn to the left and then began to gradually zigzag up a slope. As I ascended, the first views of the day began poking through the scattered clouds. Meta Lake appeared below and Mount Adams gradually became visible in the distance. From this angle, Adams looked particularly massive, dominating the landscape to the east.

Mount Adams
A few switchbacks brought me higher up on the mountain slope. At the end of one switchback, I came to the Independence Ridge Trail, which was closed at the time. I stayed right at the junction. Soon, the trail turned onto the north side of the mountain and the first view of Mount Rainier to the north appeared. From this angle, I could see all three summits of Rainier as well as a small lenticular that adorned Columbia Cap.

While vegetation was more sparse on the east slope of the mountain, I found much denser signs of life on the north side of Independence Ridge. Low bushes covered the area all around the trail, a remarkable recovery for the landscape since the 1980 eruption. The foliage on berry bushes had begun to turn red, yellow, and brown as the days had gotten colder and shorter. Although there was a large amount of vegetation along this stretch of trail, there were still many clear lines of sight to both Adams and Rainier along the way.

Devestation from the 1980 eruption at Norway Pass
Two miles into the hike, the trail came to a junction with Trail 227, which headed towards Independence Ridge. I stayed on the Boundary Trail. Just past the junction, the trail came to Norway Pass itself. As I arrived at the pass, I rounded Independence Ridge and caught my first view of Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens itself. A fresh dusting of snow coated the top two thousand or so feet of St. Helens. From the pass, I could gaze directly into the crater left by the eruption. The lava dome left by subsequent volcanic activity was clearly visible in the middle of the crater, as were crevasses and icefalls on the Crater Glacier, which flowed to the right of the lava dome within the crater. The pass also provided a remarkable view of downed trees from the eruption. Each trunk had snapped in a path that led radially outward from St. Helens, almost as if the toppled forest were a mess of metal shavings organized into a radial pattern by a magnet.

There was some nice fall color at the pass, with many of the berry bushes turning red and yellow. Three and a half decades had passed since the eruption, but the forest on these slopes had yet to recover; vegetation was still dominated by grass and shrubs.

Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake from Norway Pass
After soaking in the view of Spirit Lake, I continued along the Boundary Trail. I crossed through the pass and then made a broad right turn as I paralleled the ridge that lay west of the pass. The trail began a steady ascent along the slope, making a large switchback as it ascended towards the ridge. Half a mile after leaving Norway Pass, I came to a junction for the Lakes Trail. I stayed left and continued on the trail towards Mount Margaret.

The narrow trail continued through the open slopes blown clear by the eruption. Although forest had not returned, scattered evergreens had set roots and began the first stages of recovery and ecological succession. This stretch of trail had some of the most impressive fall color along the hike, with a mix of bright yellows and dull reds in the bushes near the trail. Looking south, I found nearly continuous views of Spirit Lake and the crater of St. Helens.

Autumn color en route to Mount Margaret
About a mile after leaving Norway Pass, the trail came to a saddle along the ridge, yielding sweeping views to both the north and south. The pyramidal form of Mount Hood emerged to the southeast, rising above a bank of fog nestled in the Columbia River Gorge. Even farther south, I could make out the shape of Mount Jefferson. To the north, Mount Rainier and Little Tahoma were now fully visible.

Mount Hood
In the next mile, the trail stayed high up on the slopes of a ridge, offering continuous sweeping views. After rounding the ridge and turning towards the north, Mount Margaret and its surrounding barren peaks came into view.

Mount Margaret and St. Helens
The trail came to another saddle. Here, the trail wandered through a rough, eroded section and made a gradual turn to the left out of the saddle; however, the deteriorated nature of the trail here made a spur that led straight through the saddle more obvious, causing me to miss the turn when I reached the junction. That was alright: the spur was short and led to a set of ridgetop campsites with a nearby toilet. From these campsites, there was a great view to the north of Boot Lake and distant Mount Rainier. I would've missed this view had I stayed on the main trail, so I found my unintended detour to be a happy accident.

Boot Lake and Rainier
I continued past the second saddle and wrapped around one more peak on the ridgeline before coming to a third saddle. Here, a trail marked with a warning sign headed towards Whittier Peak; the sign indicated that trail was towards Whittier Peak was difficult and dangerous. I headed left at this fork away from the dangerous trail to continue on my way towards Mount Margaret. The trail made its way up and down as it circumvented an unnamed peak and then circled around beneath the summit block of Mount Margaret itself. About half a mile past the junction for Whittier Peak, the trail swung onto the south aspect of Mount Margaret and returned to a direct view of Spirit Lake and the sleeping volcano. From here, an unmarked spur trail cut uphill to the right. I followed this spur, which climbed fairly aggressively and quickly reached the summit block of Mount Margaret. A couple steps of scrambling brought me to the very top of the mountain and its stunning 360-degree view.

The views were simply astounding. I could see five volcanoes: Rainier, Adams, St. Helens, Hood, and Jefferson. Spirit Lake lay at the foot of Mount Margaret, its surface partially covered by a raft of logs knocked over by the eruption. To the west, St. Helens Lake was nestled in a high basin in the barren ridges of the western portion of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Far away ridges were carpeted with moist Cascade forests, but all the nearby mountains remained devestated three and a half decades after the fateful May blast.

Adams from the summit of Mount Margaret
St. Helens Lake and devestation
Mount Margaret summit block
Although Spirit Lake's existence preceded the 1980 eruption, the current form of the lake was crucially shaped by massive landslide on the north side of St. Helens. When the north side of the mountain collapsed during the eruption, the lake's outlet to the Toutle River was completely obliterated. As a result, the level of the lake rose over 200 feet; to prevent the lake level from rising too high, eroding through the Plains of Abraham, and catastrophically draining and flooding the lowlands in the Cowlitz watershed, the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed a drainage tunnel allowing the water in the lake to flow to the North Fork Toutle River.

Spirit Lake and St. Helens from the top of Mt. Margaret
I spent a half hour at the summit enjoying the views. When the clouds began to roll in and it became late in the day, I backtracked to the trailhead. Despite the incredible scenery and reasonably good weather on this hike, I shared the trail with just three hunters and two other hikers that day.

I recommend the hike to Mount Margaret to anyone who has a day to spend in the Mount St. Helens area. The views from the summit are superb and the desolate landscape created by the volcano's 1980 eruption is both shocking and beautiful. The hike itself is not terribly difficult, though it is a bit long; it is probably tougher to endure the long and at time bumpy drive out to the trailhead from any nearby metropolitan area.

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