After backpacking out of the Olympic Mountains, we made our way south to our final stop in the Pacific Northwest, Mount Saint Helens. My favorite shot of the trip almost got us stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Seaquest State Park
After we backpacked out of Olympic National Park, we headed several hours south to Chehalis, Washington to do some laundry, then made our way a handful of miles to Seaquest State Park, which is the state park with camping facilities closest to Mount Saint Helens. We decided to leave the Olympics a day early to give us two nights here so that we’d get a whole day to explore the Toutle Valley and Johnston Ridge Visitor Observatory. Seaquest is heavily forested by 100’+ tall trees. Here’s a quick shot I took of the stars through them from just outside our tent during our first night there.
Figure 1: The stars from under the trees at Seaquest State Park, Washington.
The day after we arrived, we decided to make the 46-mile (one way) trip up to the volcano. Keep in mind that the last gas station between the mountain and our camp site was only a mile or so up the road from Seaquest. This would play an interesting role later that evening. We planned to make a couple of stops on the way to Johnston Ridge Observatory. First, we went to the Seaquest State Part visitor’s center, which has a nature trail and some great views of Mount Saint Helens up the Toutle River Valley.
Figure 2: The view of Mount Saint Helens from the Seaquest State Park visitor’s center.
Figure 3: The Toutle River Valley as seen from the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center. The gray material in the valley was left behind by the lahar that immediately followed the May 18th, 1980 eruption. Elk herds have since re-colonized the area and can be seen through some permanent spotting scopes mounted here.
After having lunch at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, we made our way up the winding road to Johnston Ridge Observatory. Unfortunately, I don’t have any daytime pictures of the place, but it offers unimpeded views of the interior of the volcano crater from only a few miles away. It’s a breathtaking place to be on a sunny day. I guess I was just too preoccupied with taking it all in to take any pictures. After listening to an engaging ranger talk, we returned to our campsite for some dinner. Again, I don’t have any further daytime pictures, but I do have one last night shot to share, and a wild story to go with it.
Middle of the Night in the Middle of Nowhere
Realizing this would be the last opportunity for a scenic shot of Mount Saint Helens until the next time we’re in the PNW (who knows how long that will be?), I decided to make the trip back up to Johnston Ridge after my wife and kids were in bed. My mom, who was along with us and my dad for the trip, decided to come along. As the truck idled out of the campground, I looked down at my gas gauge and saw that we had a quarter of a tank left, which should be just enough to make the 92-highway-mile round trip. As we passed the final gas station on the way to the observatory, I immediately had second thoughts about not stopping. But, knowing we’d only have a short window of time to make the shot, I decided to keep driving.
The 46 miles between the campground and the observatory were mostly uphill. You end up climbing about 3000 vertical feet in that span, with a short downhill stretch immediately before the steepest climb up to the view point at the end of the highway. By the time we got up to the parking lot, my gas gauge read less than an 1/8th of a tank remaining. At this point, it was too late to change our minds. As we pulled in at around 10:30PM, we noticed that the parking lot had quite a few cars left in it. Turns out, a lot of people had the same idea we did, which ended up being pretty cool.
As we set up to shoot the Milky Way passing over Mount Saint Helens, we met a couple of different guys. One was a local high-schooler who left shortly after we showed up. The second was a 20-something from Portland who had decided that day to make the 2-hour trip up by himself. It was great to talk shop with him up on the ridge while we set up and started shooting. He finished before we did, so we wished him safe travels back home.
At this point, we realized the throng of people around us had thinned out, save for a few others shooting about 100 yards away, and three clearly-inebriated ladies who must have been a quarter mile off, having a great time. They were far enough away that we could hear everything they were saying at a reasonable volume, and it was HILARIOUS. Every time a meteor would streak by, one of them would cry out in profanity-laced awe, then the conversation would quickly shift to existentialism and philosophy you might only hear in a dive bar. We were thoroughly entertained!
The weather up there was perfect; not very warm, but not too cold to be comfortable either. Only a slight breeze was blowing on the ridge, and the sky was crystal clear. It made for an unbelievable view of the mountain. As we wrapped up the shoot at about 11:15PM, everyone else had left. I don’t know if those ladies had a designated driver, but was glad to have left after them on the one-way road back to camp if they didn’t.
At this point, the fuel situation got real. The gas light had come on long before we made it to the parking lot. Either we were gonna make it, or we’d be spending a long, cold night out there, waiting for the first logging truck of the morning to come back up that road. The range meter read about half as many miles as we had left to drive, but most would be downhill, if we could make it past the first few miles. We took it super slow and laid off the throttle as much as possible, coasting most of the way. It was probably the longest hour I’ve ever driven, but as my fuel range meter read zero miles, we rolled into to the gas station a few miles up the road from camp!
But, there was a problem. Turns out, even though this gas station claims 24-hour service, the shop was closed and the pump wouldn’t read my credit card! At least if we got stuck here, we’d be close to help, but we had to keep our fingers crossed five more miles as we passed camp and finally made it to the next gas station a couple miles away from I-5. Thankfully, the card reader at this one worked, and we made it back to camp at about 12:45AM. That was probably the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had while camping.
In the end, it was a great adventure where everything worked out and we got away with some great memories. We had so much fun on this trip, I think we’ll try to plan another epic road trip next summer. I can’t recommend it enough.
So, how did that photo at Mount Saint Helens turn out? Was it worth the anxiety? You decide 🙂