Hike a challenging loop outside of the Windy Ridge area of Mount St. Helens, including a route-finding scramble to the pass. For your efforts, you’re rewarded with expansive, ever-changing views of one of the world’s most dynamic landscapes.
From the parking lot for Windy Ridge, hike around the closed gate and up a service road. Though gated, the road may still have traffic; scientists and monument staff have access to it, so do be aware of the possibility of vehicles.
Views start immediately, with Mount Adams on the horizon to your left and St. Helens peeking around the ridge to your right. An unnamed, craggy edifice to the southeast is worth a few photos as well – the red rock and greenery growing atop it is reminiscent of Jurassic Park.
After 1.7 miles of this service road, you’ll arrive at a fork. Signed for the Abraham Trail, take the left-hand ridgetop route. With sheer drop-offs on either side and makeshift stepladders to hold the trail in place, it’s hard to believe that bikes are also allowed here.
Wheeze your way to the top of those ladders, and reward yourself with a breathtaking view of Mounts Rainier and Adams, the Dark Divide, and the Mount Margaret Backcountry. You’re 2.2 miles into your hike, just shy of your highest point on this side of the loop, but these are the best views. Continue uphill and at 4750 feet, the trail appears to fork.
Your route is to the left, away from the blast zone and through a small grove of alder and descending gradually. As the trail wraps around the flanks of the hillside, admire the flower show: lupine, penstemon, paintbrush – the usual suspects are here on gorgeous display. The trail drops to the Smith Creek drainage. Cross it, and head roughly south towards a junction with the Plains of Abraham.
At this junction, you’re four miles from Windy Ridge, and have a totally new perspective on the mountain. The rock and snow blend dramatically with the flat plains ahead of you, and a rainbow of rock colors hide in the landscape. Look also for the lupine and penstemon carpeting the ground in front of you.
From this junction, turn right onto the Loowit Trail. At first easy to follow, the way becomes more difficult, necessitating some routefinding, particularly to reach Windy Pass, which is to your left, marked by a solitary pole.
It’s worth mentioning that the climb to the pass can be difficult, since the trail here washes out frequently. Use caution and common sense when attempting it. If it is just too dicey, turn around. The views are just as good on the way back.
If you make it into the pass, take a minute to soak in the views of the pumice plain and Spirit Lake, before descending on switchbacks into your first of many lahar crossings. It’s another mile from the pass to the junction with Windy Trail (making for a total of 2.5 miles from the Plains of Abraham junction).
At the Windy Trail junction, hang a right and begin descending, following those tall poles into the open basin where the service road ends. Return to your car via the service road, stopping to enjoy the views along the way.
WTA Pro Tip: If you’re hankering for more of this incredible landscape, extend your hike from the Windy Trail junction to Loowit Falls. It’s 3.2 miles roundtrip from the Windy Trail junction to a view of a stunning waterfall fed by the Crescent Glacier.