Long before we moved to the Pacific Northwest or even visited the area, there was one mountain in the area that I knew all about. Mt St Helens exploded in 1980 killing over 50 people and devastating a wide area. The idea that the side of a mountain would just slide away and the exposed volcanic activity would blow out with the force of tens of megatons of explosive was amazing to me then and it still is. I had been thinking of taking a visit for a long time.
The lack of a reason for time off this year means I have built up a balance of PTO that the company wants me to use so I booked a random day off in the middle of the week and, with nothing else planned, I thought a road trip was worthwhile. It is a little over three hours south of us to get to the mountain so I headed off earlier with a good forecast. I was a little skeptical as I drove south in the rain and low cloud but weather changes quickly here and altitude can make things change fast.
The road to Windy Ridge Viewpoint closes in the winter but it was still mild enough and there was almost no trouble on the road. The deep shadows combined with the sun breaking through the trees made for some awkward conditions to drive up while watching out for the sudden deteriorations in the surface which appeared without warning. The majority of the road surface is perfect but every once in the road, a little chasm will appear! Also, while the air temps were in the 50s, the shade meant there was the occasional icy patch on the road which gets your attention on steep sections with big drop offs!
As I got closer to my target, I started coming around corners which provided a view to the mountain. It is a dominant shape even without the 1,600’ or so that got blown off it forty years ago. This was not an ideal time to visit for photography purposes because the sun is so far south so it is a little backlit but the good viewpoints are in the north and, even if I had been there for sunrise, it would still have been a less than ideal sun angle. That would have required an overnight there which I didn’t feel was a great plan.
When I got to Windy Ridge, I was all alone. There were two vehicle parked up near the trailhead but the occupants were obviously off up the trail. It was just me. Consequently, it felt super tranquil. I read up on the disaster and what happened to the area and the people. I spent a lot of time just staring at the mountain. The hollowed out side of the mountain gives you an idea of just what got blown out. There are new bulges in the surface as magma pushes up from underneath which serves to remind you of just what you are looking at. This thing has blown on multiple occasions and will again at some point. Right now it looks benign. The eruption from 1980 continued on and off into the mid 2000s. It is quiet for now but it will cause trouble again at some point. The desolation of the area, even after 40 years, is a stark reminder of the power of a volcano. Some trees have. Grown up but most of the landscape is still barren. Everything was scoured clear by the high speed and burning heat of the blasts. Some areas were sheltered by geography and they are were things have grown back first but they are in the minority. Quite a place. One day I shall go back and do the hike to the summit.
If you live in the Seattle to Tacoma area, you get familiar with the phrase “the mountain is out” or “in”. This refers to Mt Rainier which can be shrouded in cloud or out in the sun. As a 14,000’ mountain, it is the most obvious landmark around here. It also drives its own weather systems so the clouds on the mountain are always worth a look. Not so long ago, I was quite taken by the cloud development over the mountain which was a bit different to what I am used to seeing. The boat in the front was not helpful but I wanted to get a shot of the mountain so went for it.
Another trip and another flight out of SeaTac. I was sitting on the left side of the plane without having given any thought to what I might see en route. As it happened, we departed to the south and then, after a short time in the climb, we turned on course for our destination. It just so happened that our turn brought us around the south side of Mount Rainier. I was sitting on the side that happened to have a great view of the mountain as we turned.
I was sitting down the back of the plane so, for a while, the wing was in the shot. I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed by this or to have something to give some perspective to what I was shooting. Aerial photos of large landscapes usually lack a sense of scale and I doubt the wing altered that, but it was worth a try. The cloud banks that lay on the surrounding foothills are probably rather large, but they seem almost insignificant against the scale of the mountain. A lucky day to be heading the right way, sitting on the right side of the plane, turning where we did and then not having the whole thing shrouded in cloud!
I have been on a couple of flights recently that took my past Mt St Helens. One was coming back home from LA and the other was departing out towards Dallas. In both cases I got a good view of the mountain covered in snow and with hints of clouds lower down. When you live in Seattle, Mt Rainier is a constant reminder of the volcanoes that surround you but Mt St Helens is the one that has reminded everyone about the power that these mountains contain. Hopefully it will be calm for a while.
Taking any of the Washington State ferries provides with some interesting scenery. Puget Sound is surrounded by large mountains so you can see something in most directions. The other ferry plying our route passed us mid-way across the journey and catching it with a mountain in the background was not tricky. The ferries seem large when you are close to them but they are quickly put in context with a volcano in the background!
The biggest thing that made me want to go to Big Island was volcanoes. I have seen plenty of photos and video of volcanic activity but I have never seen it for real. I wanted to try and experience the awesome power welling up from the heart of the earth. Awesome is a word that gets pretty free use but I think when it comes to the violence that the layer of energy just below the crust of the earth can produce, awesome is a word that is entirely justified.
The south end of Big Island is the one that is most active volcanically. Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea are both sitting quietly at the moment but neither of them is considered done. Mauna Loa has erupted relatively recently. However, the one that is playing at the moment is Kilauea. It has been busy erupting for a long time now. We checked it out by helicopter – the most easygoing way to see things. We took in two locations of activity.
The first was an open route to the inside of the planet. It has been active for a long time and has a visitor center. Apparently, you used to be able to walk close to the edge of the hole as a tourist. A parking lot is still visible. However, a violent outburst a few years ago suggested that this location was no longer safe. Now the visitor’s center is as far as you can go. There is a circular hole in the larger crater in which the lava bubbles. The level rises and falls daily and often will come over the lip into the larger crater. While we were over it things were a bit below the lip but you could still see the heat just below the surface of the lava. Because the air cools the lava quickly, you rarely see the molten lava is it is usually under a crust. Still very hot, but not liquid.
We then headed off to another area of activity. Here there was a rip in the surface from which gases were billowing. As you looked through the various holes, you could see into the heart of things and the glow from the lava was impressive. The color was intense and you could sense the heat within. As the lava emerged from various fissures in the surface, it would cool to make a new crust. A metallic looking surface would appear. Occasionally, the lava would bubble forward and, oh so briefly, there would be a red glow on the surface. Then it would cool and add a bit more to the metallic surface.
Big Island was a constant stream of references to the incredible forces that had formed the island. The lava fields covered much of the island. Even on the beaches, you had to be cautious of the lava chunks on the sand. My delicate feet did not like the lava. However, nothing could match the raw power that was on display at the volcanoes. I was certainly not disappointed having focused so much on them in planning the trip. Nature is amazingly powerful.
The active volcanoes are cool to see but the landscape on the Big Island is dotted with plenty examples of where the earth has had a previous effort at disgorging its contents. The mountains of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea look exactly like you would expect a volcano to look with a nice big flat conical structure. However, the eruptions have not all come from the top of the mountain. There have been regular eruptions from weak points along the surface of the mountains and these eruptions have left their mark in more ways than just the lava flows scarring the slopes below them.
When the lava breaks out, it hardens as it reaches the surface. The deposits around the opening grow and you create a mini version of the mountain. These are called cinder cones. They are scattered all around the landscape and each was the site of a previous eruption. The center is hollow where the lava flowed out and sometimes the weakest side may have collapsed to leave the cone a little more exposed. The color of the rock can be pretty dramatic too. They look so benign now but at their most active peak, these places would have been spewing forth huge quantities of red hot molten rock. They would not have been a good place to be.
These pictures will never be anywhere other than my blog. However, as we rode the train from Tokyo to Toyohashi, we went along the coastline that takes you south around Mt Fuji. Possibly Japan’s most famous landmark, it really is a bit mountain. Even from the train, I was quite taken with how big it was. It was a hazy day so not the best for taking pictures and taking them from a moving train (a very fast moving train) didn’t help. Neither did the various poles and cables alongside the tracks but I still had to get a shot or two as mementos. This is it!
Just beyond Waikiki in Honolulu rises the remains of an extinct volcano. Diamond Head is the most obvious geological feature in the vicinity of the city and is a famous landmark. The crater (not such to be honest whether it counts as a crater or caldera but who is keeping score?) is home to a park. You can drive in to the park through a tunnel and then park up to climb to the top.
We took the advice of the guide books and went early in the day. Given how hot we got, I hate to think what those who went later in the day and had the midday sun to deal with felt like. It is quite an exertion. I don’t consider myself an athlete but I am not too out of shape either. This was quite a climb. There is a trail that is well maintained and the final stages include several flights of stairs – some quite steep.
When we reached the top, we were both pretty relieved to be there. It was worth it since the view across the city was very good. We enjoyed it a lot and anyone who suggests that our extended viewing was an excuse to take a rest can’t prove anything. The trip down was a lot better than the climb up!