Coldwater Ridge Hike

I've been sharing nothing but Brookings these last few posts, so I thought I'd mix it up with something a little closer to home today. Last Thursday, my mother and I took advantage of the nice weather and drove up the highway to Mt. St. Helens. We had settled on hiking South Coldwater Ridge to Saint Helens Lake, which sits in a basin perched above Spirit Lake and below Coldwater Peak. I'll just tell you now, neither of us made it to the lake. I tried to do the last short stretch of trail to the lake, but got tired of thinking "just one more ridge." Ironically, I think by the time I gave up, I really did just have one more ridge to hike around before I got to the lake. Oh well. I'm already planning to return next spring for another go.

I only had my phone for a camera, so I didn't take as many pictures as I normally would (not entirely a bad thing). My new camera would arrive in the mail that day, but too late for this hike. Next time. I've also hiked the first part of the ridge before, so it wasn't anything I felt I had to photograph.

The first thing that did prompt me to dig out my phone for a picture was this hummingbird nest, revealed by the falling of the leaves on the thickets of Sitka alder and willow that dominate the ridge. It was big (for a hummingbird nest) and the lichen used in its construction made it shine in the sun.

We came across a designated camping area and I noticed a couple of large stumps just past it that still had bark on them. The bark caught my eye because of its texture and I realized they must be stumps of Pinus monticola, or western white pine. In fact, the more I looked around, the more pines I saw, at least in this area. Why is this significant? Well, despite the austere landscape of the present, I knew this area once was covered in forest. But I had always pictured western hemlock, firs, and western red cedars. These did form the bulk of the canopy, to be sure, but finding western white pines here changed my mental image of the forests. Pines typically grow in drier, more open forests than the other species in the area, and the understory plant communities differ, as well. It altered my mental image of the former forests into one that at least included areas that were more open and drier, supporting different plant communities from the areas of fir, hemlock, and cedar. It made me realize the forest was more diverse than I had thought previously. It's hard to reconcile with the "forests" that dominate the area today, composed almost entirely of Douglas fir for timber production. I would have loved to explore southwest Washington before it was logged.

Finding this evidence of areas dominated by pines was also interesting because of the thinning that occurred last year in Seaquest State Park, near where I live. In the Columbus Day Storm, the park lost large areas of trees and those areas were replanted (and overplanted) with only Douglas fir. Even though it was a state park, for some reason they replanted it like a timber plantation. Anyway, the park was thinned and then replanted with more diverse species. Lots of western red cedar, even in areas I personally think would be better planted with species that prefer drier conditions, and western hemlock. But I was surprised to find that pines had also been included in the replanting. I thought it was odd, but now, seeing the pine stumps up at the mountain, not so very far away, I can believe that these pines could have grown here as well.
One of the pine stumps on the ridge. I was impressed even by the 3-foot wide stumps I found, rarely having seen pines even that big, until I found this 6-foot monster. I had no idea that western white pine grew to such sizes. Apparently they can reach 8 feet in diameter.
 So the phone was out and the trigger finger had been unleashed. We had also hiked well beyond any portion of the ridge I had seen before, so I was drinking in the new sights. Here's a panoramic view of Minnie Peak. We thought we were looking at Mount Whittier, but turns out that peak is further east.

I love club moss. I just do. It's one of my favorite plants I can't grow. I've tried to transplant little snippets of it to my garden, but it's extremely difficult to establish. This species is Lycopodium clavatum, I think. There may have been another species up there, too, but I'd need a good ID book to make sure.

Fall color on Cornus canadensis, or is it Cornus unalaschkensis. A friend told me how to distinguish the two, but I forget.

Native heucheras love these rocky heights. This patch was just so huge and happy I had to take a picture.

I'm just guessing, but I think this is Coptis laciniata, or cut-leaved goldthread.

These pale blue rock outcroppings were a little visually-startling in this area where rusty reds, tans, and dark grey basalts are the norm.

The mild weather had lots of things blooming. The wild strawberries were full of flowers, as well as a few penstemons and others. I'm so bad when it comes to identifying these little members of the purslane family. I'm guessing it's Claytonia sibirica.

This garter snake let me get quite close for a picture, and didn't move even as I walked past it. It was probably too cool to do much else.

This penstemon was a bit of a puzzle to me. It's very upright, but the leaves are thick and almost fleshy like the mat-forming species. Perhaps a hybrid?

This is where my phone really falls short: zoom. It loses clarity and stability quickly if I zoom in, and I can't zoom in very far or enlarge a cropped section. You can see that the rocks here are absolutely covered with something, but you might not be able to tell that those are incredibly happy, thick mats of Sedum oreganum.

 I love moss. Moss on trees, moss on rocks. All kinds of moss.

This outcropping of basalt was incredibly colorful and interesting structurally. This outcropping marked a high point in the trail, with magnificent views all around.

Ahead, Coldwater Peak, the highest point in this photo, with a slope littered with trees blown over by the explosion below it.

Looking out along that basalt outcrop back to Minnie Peak. I need to go back with a real camera to get a better version of this shot. I thought it was fascinating, with the multicolored basalt and that odd pale blue-grey outcrop jutting out of it.

The panorama from that corner on the trail. It got a little dark on the right as I panned into the sun.

This hike was a lot of fun both for the different geology that I hadn't seen before on the north side of Mount St. Helens, and also for the plants that I hadn't seen in the blast zone before, like this Cryptogramma species, or parsley fern.

This imposing formation loomed over the trail, riddled with shelves, cracks, and small caves.

I climbed up the slope to the base of the rocks to get a picture of one of the caves. Along the way, I found this Penstemon which I'm fairly certain is P. rupicola. It's nice to see variety, since the blast zone is almost entirely dominated by Penstemon cardwellii, with what I've been calling P. serrulata on the lower parts of Coldwater Ridge.

The cave I climbed up the slope to photograph. I liked it because it had this odd pillar in the middle of it. It's hard to see, but there is open space behind the pillar.

One of those shelves in the rock formation, filled with a small perched meadow.

We hiked on until we reached a saddle that opened up to views of Mt. St. Helens. I went on to try to find the lake, but wasn't sure how much further I had to go. After a couple of false hopes being dashed, I gave up, tired and wanting to make it back to the car before dark. After meeting back up with my mother further back on the trail, we consulted the map and I'm pretty sure I literally just needed to walk around one more ridge to reach the lake. Oh well. At least I saw this massive patch of partridge foot (Luetkea pectinata) growing well over 6 feet across. It's almost like a lake, right?

On the way back along the trail, I snapped a picture of this old piece of equipment that had been on the ridge when the mountain blew in 1980, tossed down the slope like a toy and left here. Everything was kind of smooth and rounded, like the rocks you find in a river or at the beach.

As I said, I'm already planning to revisit this hike next spring, when the wildflowers will be in bloom. I'm hoping to make a loop of it, from the South Coldwater Ridge trailhead to Johnston Ridge, with someone to drop me off at the former and pick me up at the latter. Others make a loop from the Hummocks Trail all the way around, but that's about 17.5 miles and a bit more than I'd like to do in one day.


  1. The times I've taken trips up the gorge with geologist friends have been fascinating...almost as good as these virtual trips with you, the horticulturist.

  2. I have to say I'm pretty impressed by the photos you managed to take with your camera. Thanks for sharing your hike through that beautiful country.

  3. "phone was out and the trigger finger had been unleashed"...and we appreciate that, as well as the fact you guys wanted to be back before dark. No sense getting lost and costing the taxpayers to send out a search and rescue crew ;)

  4. A trip to Mt St Helens is on my bucket list.
    I love moss, as long as its not on my roof: the picture of it growing along the towering bluish/gray rock is stunning. When I see caves like the one you found, I wonder if ancient humans made a home of them.


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