The Great Volcano Road Trip part 4 – Lava Canyon & Lahars

Follow the trip from the beginning here.

Lava Canyon lies on the south side of Mount St Helens. When the volcano erupted in 1980 the heat destroyed Shoestring Glacier in a matter of minutes, triggering a massive mud flow that swept through this area at over 100 miles an hour, leaving a lifeless, mud-caked landscape in its wake. But nature finds its own way of recovering what is lost; a fact I had pondered before, looking across jungle canopies in northern Guatemala at a once-thriving city now submerged by nature. The transformation at Mount St Helens is just as startling; what once was a barren landscape of destruction is now bursting with new growth. As we drove through young forest bristling with bright green immature conifers; thick moss sparkling with outcrops of purple flowers and grey foliage, it felt unreal in the best possible way.

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Short trails wound their way through this brand new land and we couldn’t resist following several of them, marvelling at the knee-high trees that made us feel like we’d stepped straight into the pages of Gulliver’s Travels. A ground squirrel posed fleetingly for a photograph, then disappeared in the twinkling of an eye through a squirrel-sized jungle of grey-green foliage, spilling raindrops captured deep in their hearts. It was the most breathtaking of sights. If faeries exist, I bet they live here.

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mount st helens, lava canyon, washington, hiking, travel, travelogue, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney

mount st helens, lava canyon, washington, hiking, travel, travelogue, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney

By now, Jo and I had recovered from our Ape Cave expedition and were ready for something more challenging, so we decided to follow the Lava Canyon Trail. On the way, we passed Lahar Viewpoint and saw the remnants of the mud flow that thundered down Pine Creek thirty-three years ago.

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mount st helens, lava canyon, washington, hiking, travel, travelogue, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney, lahar viewpoint

Lava Canyon has an extraordinary geologic history. The Muddy River once flowed through here, carving out a deep gorge in light brown volcanic rock that had been laid down over 30 million years ago. About 2500 years ago, the volcano erupted, filling the valley with lava that solidified into a layer of grey stone. There the valley remained, cloaked by the layer of stone and thick forest until the 1980 eruption, when the lahar scoured the valley, levelling trees and tearing up the newer stone, revealing the ancient valley once more. It is a natural masterpiece adorned with dancing waterfalls and stunning rock formations.

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It is also, apparently, somewhat treacherous. There were several signs warning hikers to stay on the trail, and as we picked our way along the winding path I could see why. There were some dramatic drop offs and the pounding water swirling far below looked like it could whip a person up like a feather and drop them unceremoniously over the edge of a thundering waterfall. Mind you, it was a cakewalk compared to the perilous trek we had taken along Devil’s Elbow the day before. The trail was generously wide and we climbed high up on the spine of an ancient rocky outcrop known as The Ship, lined with fresh green trees and affording dramatic views of the surrounding wilderness.

mount st helens, lava canyon, washington, hiking, travel, travelogue, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney

mount st helens, lava canyon, washington, hiking, travel, travelogue, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney

The trail dropped back down and we reached the most exciting part of our hike; an impressive suspension bridge strung at a dizzying height over the gorge below.

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It is guaranteed to bring out your inner Indiana Jones, as you sway and gasp at the depth of the gorge and the tumultuous waters that sweep by beneath your feet.

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mount st helens, lava canyon, washington, hiking, travel, travelogue, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney

mount st helens, lava canyon, washington, hiking, travel, travelogue, photography, ailsa prideaux-mooney, gorge

The trail climbed slowly back up to a small interpretive area which tells the story of this remarkable and once-hidden valley. We took a last look over the falls before we headed back to the car and said goodbye to this most magical of places.

We skirted the south side of the volcano, catching glimpses of Swift Reservoir through the trees…

swift reservoir, mount st helens, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney, photography

…before turning north towards our next volcano, Mount Rainier. The east side of Mount St Helens is home to some stunning trails, but it was too early in the season to explore them; many of the access roads were still closed due to snow, so instead, we kept on the winding road north, stopping for a bite to eat in the little town of Randle along the way. As we climbed in elevation towards the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, patches of snow dotted the roadside and woodland creatures emerged from the forests as if to wish us well on the next part of our journey. Elk grazed lazily, raising their heads, cheeks bulging with mouthfuls of grass, to glance at us as we slowly passed by.  Just before we reached the park entrance, a deer and her baby fawn trotted along ahead of us; the fawn so young it was still trying to figure out how its legs fitted together. It was unbearably cute.

mount rainier national park, washington, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

Light was fading by the time we reached the park so we went directly to our campsite to get set up for the night. Ohanapecosh is a wonderful site right beside the Ohanapecosh River and protected by dense forest. We set up close to the river, which gurgled and bubbled and glimmered through the trees in the twilight.

Our sleeping bags had dried out but our poor tent was feeling very sorry for itself. One entire side was still soaked, and the rain, which had been so kind to us all day, started to make its way through the tree cover above. We assessed our priorities – Jo needed room to stretch out and I needed somewhere dry. We could both sleep in the car, which would be a bit of a crunch, or both sleep in the tent but one of us would get rained on. I glanced over at the car and Jo giggled knowingly. We played a game of cards at the picnic table and then went to bed, Jo on the dry side of the tent and me in the backseat of the car.

Oh, how I revelled in the comfort of an upholstered seat beneath me. I am not a natural camper; very far from it, actually, and the luxury afforded me by the backseat made me positively giddy with happiness. I didn’t care that my feet were slung over the back of the seat or that my nose was pushed up against the seat in front. I wasn’t cold or wet, and wild animals would have to work extra hard if they wanted to have me for dinner.

I snuggled up in my sleeping bag and was just ready to drop off to sleep when something struck me. The under-cooked curry from the night before decided now was the time to part ways. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead as I struggled to escape the confines of the sleeping bag and sprint through the dark to the bathroom. In my panic I bounced off tree trunks and plunged through pools of muddy water along the way. There was no time to worry about bears; if I had met one, the poor thing would have been trampled into the ground. After about twenty minutes of retching, all the while vowing I’d never eat curry again, I stumbled back to the car, a little shaken and very relieved, disappeared back into the warmth of my sleeping bag and drifted peacefully off to sleep.

(Continued here.)

Here’s some footage from today’s adventure. Be warned, there’s a teeny tiny fawn learning how to run that may just melt your heart.

xxx Ailsa

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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51 Responses to The Great Volcano Road Trip part 4 – Lava Canyon & Lahars

  1. This is a really magical place – you had me with the geology and plants returning – then that bridge and waterfall – and a baby deer.
    Certainly have added this to the must go list. Thanks for sharing – really enjoyed it (and yes, identify with the camping)

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh phil, that little fawn was the sweetest thing I’ve ever witnessed; he kept bumping into his mommy as he tried to catch up with her. 🙂

  2. John says:

    Awesome writing, enjoyed the journey!

  3. Gulliver’s travels indeed, the young trees are beautiful!

  4. Max510 says:

    Another exciting trail !
    Awesome shots and video with the lovely little deer…
    Ciao Ailsa 😉

    • ailsapm says:

      That little deer will stay with me forever, Max, such a beautiful memory to take with me on my way. Hope you’re keeping well, have a lovely weekend. xxx Ailsa

  5. suej says:

    Stunning! Your video is. Brilliant, and how you managed to take shots from that wobbly suspension bridge I shall never know…made me go weak at the knees just looking at your footage…. Thanks for taking me on an amazing journey. 🙂

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh Sue, I was having the time of my life on that bridge, giggling like a schoolgirl. It was SO much fun. So glad you got to come along for the adventure! Have a lovely weekend. xxx Ailsa

  6. Wonderful! My eyes were closed on the bridge – haha. Did I miss part 4? The blog goes from 3 to 5.

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh that’s hilarious, that’s what sleep deprivation does to me, I forgot how to count! Just changed it to part 4, hee hee. You wouldn’t want to close your eyes on the bridge if you were walking over it in person, you might end up rather closer to the ground than you wanted to be! xxx Ailsa

  7. Amy says:

    What an adventure, Ailsa! Wow, the waterfalls!

  8. DagEnDauw says:

    Amazing story and what an awesome views you share on your pictures!

    • ailsapm says:

      Hya Dauw, glad you enjoyed this part of my trip, it’s such a stunning part of the world. I’m in love with the Pacific Northwest. xxx

  9. oh so beautiful Ailsa…did you guys find any geods at St. Helens?? aka lava bombs?? I so want to head down there. and just loved the lil deer…sooo cute! 🙂 some really great photo’s too!!

  10. I love reading about your adventure, images are great and the little videos are awesome… Thanks for sharing…

  11. Lucid Gypsy says:

    Thanks Ailsa, armchair travel is at its best with you!

  12. cyardin says:

    Cool trip, and great write up story. Do you know what type of plant it is in the 3rd photo? It is quite unique, and like nothing I have ever seen.

    • ailsapm says:

      It’s a variety of lupin, called the prairie or Pacific lupin. It was one of the first plants to reseed after the eruption. They were everywhere, forming a beautiful grey-green carpet. 🙂

  13. mvschulze says:

    Thanks for the ride, interesting way of describing the distress that night (!) and looking forward to Mt. Rainier.

  14. ailsapm says:

    Wish I’d stuck with trail mix instead of the curry! Yes, off to Mt Rainier next, these Pacific Northwest volcanoes are so impressive. xxx Ailsa

  15. Randee says:

    I remember big pieces of Mount St. Helen’s ash raining down on us for several days. I was 14 and living in Wyoming!

  16. Lyle Krahn says:

    The ability of nature to rejuvenate an area is remarkable as your photos show.

  17. poppytump says:

    Loved following along on the bridge with you there Ailsa !
    The natural forces at work and regeneration is an eye opener .

  18. Praveena says:

    Beautiful write up !!Your video is simply brilliant and water carving through the stones is magical Thanks for sharing Alisa!!Happy Weekend !!

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh Praveena, I wish you could have seen that water for yourself, it was so powerful and so majestic. I could have sat there watching it for hours! xxx

  19. This was a fabulous read. And the video!!! I love the music and the view from the bridge. The fawn, like any other child skipping along. Adorable. Awww 😉

  20. The regenerative power of nature – awe-inspiring.

  21. Stunning post – love the pics!

  22. Pamela says:

    Dear little deer. A delightful end to another eventful trip, no doubt helping you forget gross, undercooked curry.

  23. pommepal says:

    I’m back home and able to start travelling with you again Ailsa. What an amazing place and that fawn is adorable. I agree the back seat would be my choice too

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