Brian Mittge: Spring beauty among the volcanic rubble


COLDWATER LAKE, Cowlitz County — When spring weather can't make up its mind, perhaps the perfect place to take a walk in both the sun and the snow is at Mount St. Helens, which offers its own incongruous mix of gray desolation and the thrilling greens of new life.

For spring break my family and I took the easy drive through Toledo up state Route 504 to visit our local volcano. We cruised up and down past the snowline, which formed a clear white line along the boisterously growing replanted timber company fir trees.

Our destination was the Hummocks Trail, but we stopped first at Coldwater Lake for lunch and a stroll along the shore among geese, ducks and a coyote that we glimpsed scampering up ahead of us.

While we couldn’t quite see the crater itself, the lesser peaks are plenty impressive, as is the lake that was formed after the 1980 eruption. 

The paved Birth of a Lake Interpretive Trail and boardwalks at Coldwater Lake are family-friendly and a snap for all ages, including babies in strollers. 

From there we drove a quarter mile to the Hummocks Trail. This is a more rigorous hike that covers several miles with lots of ups and downs. It took us about an hour to cover 2.4 miles. 

As we headed for the trailhead, the sun was shining and a light snow (!) was briefly falling. Great weather for our hike. 

The Hummocks Trails is named for the big lumps it winds through — giant pieces of the old perfectly conical volcano that were thrown through the air during the eruption on May 18, 1980. 

The winding path in early April takes you among the effervescence of pale green and pink alder leaves just a few days old and willow blossoms only beginning to emerge. The trail often drops off on both sides, leading to small lakes and ponds. 

You pass by strangely shaped hemlock and Douglas fir trees. Dr. Seuss could have drawn them. They are skinny for the first half dozen feet, only a few inches wide thanks to constant browsing by elk. After they get above ruminant height, they take on a normal shape. 

Coming around a corner we hear the roar of the Toutle River and soon glimpse it, white and turbulent, as it chops its way through cliffs of ash. 

My family is far ahead of me on the trail. I can see them walking in step beneath a pale, green hillside. The faint snow has returned through the balmy sun. 

The snow is a blindingly brilliant white on the base of the mountain that I can see. Above it are gray clouds, lightening as they rise through a dozen shades of pale until I look up and there’s blue above me. 

I walk alongside a bouncing brook and hear an insistent frog croaking. Hopping over the narrow but energetic creek, I enter a grove of mossy alders. They’re tall even though this countryside didn’t exist 44 years ago. In a few weeks this area will be well-shaded, but the leaves aren’t quite emerged so it’s bright in this forest.

Stones that were once part of the “Mount Fuji of America” now lie haphazardly across the landscape, covered with thick moss, each their own miniature mountains jutting out of this rushing creek.

There are several well-maintained bridges as well as the need to step from stone to stone across the occasional muddy spot. My son and I look ahead and there’s a line of cattails above our heads. That’s a bit unnerving. A few dozen feet further and we see a perfect beaver dam holding back a swamp and pond.

We see evidence of the beaver at work, with chips of bright orange alder bark around a half-felled tree. My wife later tells me about the big beaver lodge in the center of the lake, which escaped my eye but thankfully not hers. 

On the far side of the little mountain lake, beyond a couple of colorful ducks, I see my girls striding purposefully ahead on the trail. 

When my son and I catch up to them back at the car, we’re all ready to head home for some Sahara Pizza and the satisfaction of a good day spent in a unique and gorgeous corner of springtime in Washington. 

Brian Mittge can be reached at