Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Hiking to Loowit Falls

The other weekend, a friend of mine came down from Tacoma and we, together in loose company with my mother and some of her teacher friends, drove up to Mt. St. Helens to hike out to Loowit Falls, one of the waterfalls that comes out of the crater of the volcano. This was the closest I've ever been to the mountain, despite having grown up within an hour drive of it.

However, I have hiked the surrounding area many times and taken numerous pictures of the peak and the returning flora, so I wasn't as shutter happy as I usually am. It allowed me to relax a bit more and enjoy the sites with my own eyes instead of on a camera screen. I did snap a few photos, though.

This lupine was draped elegantly over the rock face along the trail, with it's roots sunk into a narrow cleft filled with gritty soil. So lush and beautiful for such a harsh local.

The famous and much-photographed Mt. St. Helens. See that moonscape in front of the mountain? That's where we're going.

We lucked out by hiking this area at pretty much peak bloom time for Penstemon cardwellii and indian paint brush (Castilleja spp.).

Some of the paintbrush had gorgeous dark leaves to contrast with the red flowers.

Down off the ridge and onto the plains in front of the mountain. It looks a little greener than it did up on the ridge. In fact, it's covered in lichens and lots of various little plants and tree seedlings. If you look at the highest point on the right side of the rim and look down to the dark shadow directly below that, that's our destination.

Here's a closer view. You can see Loowit Falls tumbling down out of the base of the mountain.

The most numerous plant by far on the landscape in front of the mountain was dwarf alpine lupine (Lupinus lepidus). It carpeted the ground in silvery grey, punctuated by over-sized purple flowers. The bits of red in the photo below are sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella). A terrible weed in the lowlands, it actually looks like it belongs up here and is kind of pretty. It's still an invasive weed, though.

Here's a few of those over-sized lupine flowers. They glow with the silver leaves.

As we get closer to the mountain, the plants are fewer and farther between and the landscape begins to look truly barren. One can hardly believe this is in western Washington.

But even in this desolate landscape, certain plants have colonized the rock and ash and are thriving. Here a particularly beautiful Penstemon cardwellii shows the tenacity of living organisms.

Looking back, you can see Spirit Lake. When the mountain blew, the lake bed was raised 200 feet by pyroclastic flows and the water in the lake was pushed up over the ridges behind it to form several new lakes. If we had been a little higher up, like on the ridge to the left of the lake, we would have seen Mt. Rainier. We did get glimpses of it, but not in this picture.

Turning back toward the mountain, we're so close to it we can hardly see it. Ironic, isn't it? Wispy clouds fanned out above the crater like an echo of flame. Of course, there was very little lava or fire when St. Helens blew, but it makes for nice imagery, doesn't it?

Lupinus lepidus grows onto the very base of the mountain. Pity it's one of those alpine plants that just doesn't make the conversion to garden growing.

No ridges stood between us and Mt. Adams, allowing us a great view.

Almost to the falls now.

And here it is! This is likely the youngest and fastest-changing canyon in North America. The loose rock results in frequent slides, altering the canyon with each collapse. I found a source claiming that in 2011 the falls were 186 feet tall. I'm not sure how much they've changed since then, but the photo below is quite deceptive as to scale. Those falls are much taller than they look.

 We sat near the falls and ate lunch before heading back. On the return trip I looked back and was struck by this hillside absolutely covered in Lupinus lepidus.

When we reached the parking lot we made a beeline for the visitor center to refill our waterbottles. Even on a cool, breezy day like that day, hiking across that open landscape is thirsty work. Just before we left, a hawk landed in a nearby tree, probably waiting to snag one of the chipmunks or ground squirrels that grow fat and lazy off of handouts from tourists.

The unrelenting sun, compounded by the reflective rock, left me rather lobsterish, even where I had applied sunscreen. My legs were definitely tired, and no wonder. On the map at the trail-head, the route we took looks about 16 miles long. The section of trail that goes across the flats doesn't have a distance on the map, and it's a far more winding in the walking than it looks on the map. So the total distance was probably closer to 18 miles, but it was definitely worth it. It was so good to get out hiking again. Time to plan another trip.

16 comments:

  1. Nothing like the great outdoors to freshen ones senses. Even better that it was only an hour's drive away.

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    1. It's nice having a volcano in your backyard. ;)

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  2. On the way back from Portland last weekend, Nigel and I commented that it would be interesting to see Mt. St Helens. That looks like quite a hike!

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    1. You can get a great view without hiking all that way. In fact, we were so close to the mountain we could barely see it! Definitely worth a stop, though! I could show you around a bit!

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  3. What a wonderful trek. I hope to visit Mt. St. Helens sometime, but until that happens, I enjoyed seeing it through your post. I have Penstemon cardwellii in my garden and I love it. Its' nice to see it in nature.

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    1. It's worth seeing in person. I left a lot of stuff out. There are actually a lot of green areas now, too, with Sitka alder growing along the many streams. Walking through them is wonderful because their leaves are resinous and smell heavenly as they warm up in the sun.

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  4. Wow, that was really a cool post. Hiking with you vicariously to see the changing landscape of Mt. St. Helens was fascinating enough but the flora, despite being so scarce are so elegant. They really tell the story of nature's tenacity, don't they? Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you, Grace! There are a lot of tenacious plants there, for sure. I should have taken pictures of some of the trees coming back, too. The Sitka alders were the first, and grow thickly along the streams, but there are also cottonwoods, willows, Douglas firs, western hemlocks, pines, and others coming back, too. I even saw a Douglas fir with cones on it! Though it was only about 6 feet tall.

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  5. Now, that's a hike! It's a stark landscape but pretty. I loved the photo of the lupine protruding from the rock wall.

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    1. That lupine was one of my favorites, too. The blast zone is pretty amazing, especially the contrast between it and the south side of the mountain, which was mostly untouched.

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  6. When the Mt blew, the streets of Portland looked like Saudi Arabia and people were considering moving because they feared this was the new normal. We visited soon after, when the devastation was palpable. Five years later, the return of vegetation had begun. Wonderful to see it now. Thanks for making the trek and sharing it.

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    1. You're welcome, Ricki, and thank you! The many streams and sheltered sides of hills are much greener than what I showed here, but I had seen those many times before. Hiking out onto the sparse area right in front of the mountain was new for me and captured most of my attention.

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  7. I can't stop staring at that first photo of the Lupine growing out of the rock. Beautiful.

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    1. Yes, it was. Nice of it to grow so elegantly out of that cleft in the rock. I may have to play around with cropping and frame it.

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  8. Fascinating trip to Mt. St. Helens, I haven't tried to get up there. The vegetation that is returning is quite attractive, your photos make me want to grow the Penstemon. Even the sheep sorrel is useful at least, I put it in salads. I guess the landscape is slowly turning green... thanks for sharing the trip.

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    1. I'm kicking myself for not taking more photos of all the different plants. I wasn't in a super shutter-happy mood that day. Ah well, there will be more opportunities to show all the plants coming back. That penstemon is amazing, and it does well at low elevations, too.

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