Tuesday, September 8, 2015
The Dalles, Mount St. Helens, Packwood



The Dalles is situated on the south shore of the Columbia River and is known as the end of the overland Oregon Trail. On their way west, here the pioneers loaded onto barges and floated down the Columbia to the mouth of the Willamette River and beyond. The Dalles at that time was the location of a series of rapids the French fur traders called “les dalles,” or the trough. The rapids have since been submerged by the backwaters of The Dalles Dam.

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Gateway to the Columbia River Gorge

It was a beautiful morning, so while Tom slept in, I took a walk to Lewis & Clark Park on the riverfront and returned through the historic downtown district. There are a number of murals painted throughout downtown, every mural depicting a historic event occurring in or around The Dalles.

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The wisdom and mystery of the Native American medicine man

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Westward ho!

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End of the Oregon Trail

We had driven most of the Columbia River Gorge our first day in Oregon, but when we'd turned at Hood River, we had missed one especially scenic overlook, so this morning we drove to the Rowena Crest Viewpoint, where we met a couple of local old-timers who told us their fish stories while we watched dozens of salmon fishermen on the river below.

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Columbia River from Rowena Crest Viewpoint

Finally it was time for the Washington portion of our trip. We crossed the Columbia River via the Hood River-White Salmon toll bridge ($1.00). I hope they're saving up those dollars for a new bridge, because this one, built in 1924, is narrow, loud, and a little bit scary. But we successfully crossed, stopped in Bingen for a little shopping, and then as we passed through White Salmon, we got the best view of Mt. Hood yet!

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Mt. Hood, Oregon

Today we visit Mount St. Helens. Over 35 years ago, a tremendous eruption blew off the top of the mountain, causing a plume of ash to rise more than 15 miles into the atmosphere and dump volcanic dust all over the northwest. A 100-mph landslide of the destroyed mountaintop left debris and ash as much as 600 feet deep. Many of the volcanoes of the Cascade Range could erupt at any time, but only Mount St. Helens has done it in our lifetimes... so far.

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Along the road in Washington

We decided to visit Mount St. Helens' less-frequented east side, heading ultimately for Windy Ridge Viewpoint. From the Columbia River, we turned north at Carson on the Wind River Highway, then veered onto Meadow Creek Road / Curly Creek Road, where we stopped at McClellan Viewpoint for a distant view of Mount St. Helens. Even from afar, you could plainly see that the mountain was missing its top. In fact, it's missing 1,313 feet compared to before the eruption.

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Mount St. Helens from McClellan Viewpoint

From Curly Creek Road, we got on Highway 90 west, then Forest Road 25 north, and then finally Forest Road 99 heading southwest toward Windy Ridge. FR-25 is winding, narrow, and in terrible condition. Beyond mere potholes, big portions of the road were actually sinking. I guess that's what happens when you build a road on the flank of an active volcano!

It's only 16 miles along FR-99 from the turnoff to its terminus at Windy Ridge, but with all the scenic stops and a little hiking, it took us half the day. There's ten or so distinct viewpoints along FR-25, and we stopped at each one. Even though tourist season is coming to an end, I was surprised how few people were here on such a fine day.

On May 18, 1980, everything within eight miles of Mount St. Helens was decimated by a 300-mile-per-hour burst of gas, ash, and rock. At Blast Edge Viewpoint, you can see old-growth forest contrasted with still-standing dead trees contrasted with dead trees lying on the ground, blown down in the blast. The landscape has recovered a lot in 35 years, but it's still far from normal.

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Blast Edge Viewpoint

Further along the road lay the remains of a 1972 Pontiac Grand Prix belonging to the Parker family. Donald and Natalie Parker, along with their nephew Rick, were eight and a half miles from the crater at the time of the eruption, in the so-called “Blue Zone,” closed to the general public but open to those conducting business with a permit if they signed a liability waiver with the state. The Parkers, who had a mining permit, signed the waiver and lost their lives. The vehicle remains as a reminder of the 57 people who died in the eruption.

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Miners' car

Some clouds were moving in, so we went on to the end of the road at Windy Ridge, deciding to catch the rest of the viewpoints on our way back out. At the Windy Ridge Viewpoint you get one of the best close-up views of the crater, only five miles away. A 361-step staircase leads up a hill above the parking area for even better views. I climbed the stairs and was the only one at the top! Not only did I have great views of Mount St. Helens' blasted-out crater and Spirit Lake, but I could see Mt. Hood (62 mi SE), Mt. Adams (34 mi E), and Mt. Rainier (closer, N) as well.

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To the top of Windy Ridge

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Mount St. Helens' caldera

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Johnston Ridge Observatory from Windy Ridge

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Mt. Rainier from Windy Ridge

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Dizzying view

Spirit Lake, in its idyllic location, was once one of the most popular summer vacation spots in the Cascades. Today the lake is lifeless. The eruption of Mount St. Helens released a mile-wide avalanche, causing water to surge like a tsunami 800 feet up the surrounding hills, dragging the forest, already toppled by the blast, down into the lake, where a floating log mat of thousands of trees remains today. We took the two-mile round trip Harmony Trail down to the lake shore. This trail is the only legal access to the shoreline. We had the lake to ourselves. People really don't like to stray far from their vehicles, do they? You get a completely different perspective of the logjam from lake level. Those are some BIG trees!

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Spirit Lake

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Beware of logs!

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Tom at Spirit Lake

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View from lake level

We left Mount St. Helens National Monument and turned north, again onto FR-99. Almost immediately past the 25/99 junction, we stopped at Iron Creek Falls, just off the side of the road. There wasn't much water going over it at the time, but it was lovely nonetheless.

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Iron Creek Falls

Shockingly, FR-99 north of 25 was even worse and more collapsed than the portion we'd traveled on this morning. I was glad when we got to Randle and turned onto U.S. 12. We got gas in Randle, and it was nice to be in the modern state of Washington, where you can pay at the pump and get the gas yourself. Amazingly, we managed to do so without blowing ourselves up. Take note, Oregon!

Shortly before dark, we arrived at the Cowlitz River Lodge, in the quaint little town of Packwood, Washington. There were elk roaming around town, including on the grounds of our hotel. We liked the area and the lodgings enough that we decided to extend our stay here to two nights.

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Packwood yard elk

We went for dinner about a block from the lodge at the Blue Spruce Saloon & Grill, a rough-and-tumble kind of place like you might expect in a logging town. Tom had a steak and baked potato, and I had the chef salad. Plus we had a couple of beers, naturally, this being a saloon and all, the Hoppy Bitch IPA and Quilters Irish Death. I wouldn't order either again. We were the next to last customers to leave, at 10:00 p.m., though they're supposedly open till midnight. What's with these fake closing hours everywhere???

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Well, we did ask for a pint of beer


Continue to September 9, 2015

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