Loowit Falls hike shows blast zone's recovery

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Loowit Falls hike

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German native Sönke Hollstein stood near Loowit Falls on the north side of Mount St. Helens and savored the view of the recovering blast zone.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the volcanic landscape,’’ said Hollstein, a Portland resident. “The last time a mountain erupted in Germany the dinosaurs were around.’’

The 4.42-mile hike from Windy Ridge to Loowit Falls in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is one of Hollstein’s favorites.

“I’d rate it an 8½ (out of 10), no, make it a 9,’’ he said.

From Kiel in northern Germany, Hollstein climbed Mount St. Helens in 2009.

“This is perfect to be this close to the mountain,’’ he said. “It complements the climb. You get to see the mountain from the other side.’’

And while it’s a long drive from the metro area to Windy Ridge, the hike to Loowit Falls is pretty mellow.

“There’s not much elevation to gain,’’ Hollstein said.

From Windy Ridge, elevation 3,841, the climb to the Loowit Falls viewpoint is only 741 vertical feet to elevation 4,582.

The hike begins at the popular viewpoint at the end of road No. 99. A Northwest Forest Pass is needed, or a $5 day-use fee can be paid at the parking lot.

The walk begins on Truman trail No. 207, which is the remnant of a former road.

At 1.79 miles the road-trail junctions with Abraham trail No. 216D and with Windy trail No. 216E at 2.09 miles.

Take Windy No. 216E for 0.82 miles to the junction with Loowit trail No. 216 at 2.91 miles. Turn right on Loowit No. 216 and pass Loowit Spring at 3.25 miles, reaching side trail No. 216F to Loowit Falls at 3.88 miles.

The side trail climbs almost 300 feet in elevation in 0.64 mile to a viewpoint of the falls.

Hollstein said while the north side of the mountain still has much of the post-eruption moonscape look, the vegetation clearly is recovering.

Indeed it is.

Lupine, with its showy blue flower, is beginning to dominate the area. Paintbrush, penstemon and othe wildflowers add even more color, while alder thickets thrive in damp or shady spots.

The north side of the Mount St. Helens clearly is transitioning from gray to green. The north side of Windy Pass has an amazing hillside of dense lupine.

“The hardy subalpine ‘prairie lupine’ population is truly impressive,’’ said Peter Frenzen, monument scientist for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. “It is being joined by brilliant red paint brush flowers and is quite a sight.’’

Frenzen said lupine is a “nitrogen fixer.’’

Lupine harbors nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its roots that is gradually enriching the available carbon and nitrogen on the volcanic deposits and helping to pave the way for less hardy plants including the trees and shrubs that gradually are colonizing the pumice plain.

Springs, like Loowit Spring, are playing a key role in the recovery.

“Scientists continue to be impressed with the importance of groundwater-fed springs to ecosystem re-establishment on the pumice plain,’’ Frenzen said. “Amphibians, birds and small mammals have established in these islands of life. Hikers will notice the willow- and alder-lined channels that mark these oases of life.’’