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The top of Oneonta Falls as it crashes down into the narrow gorge and pool below.

The top of Oneonta Falls as it crashes down into the narrow gorge and pool below.

My friend G had the idea to go for a hike, and I remembered the Oneonta Gorge “trail” that I have been wanting to see since I moved here. It’s the way to the beautiful Oneonta Falls. No trail is possible, since it’s through a narrow creek canyon, so people access the falls by walking in the creek. I was warned ahead of time that the water is cold and the canyon is shaded and can be chilly, so save the trip for a hot day.

Well, we have certainly had some hot days!

We planned the trip on Wednesday, assuming that the weekday would decrease the number of people joining us. The weather overruled that idea: the place was packed. But just imagine how much worse it could be on the weekend.

The recently opened Oneonta Tunnel is a great photo op for adventurous people who want to climb to the top. This old tunnel was built for the original Columbia River Highway around 1920.

The recently opened Oneonta Tunnel is a great photo op for adventurous people who want to climb to the top. This old tunnel was built for the original Columbia River Highway around 1920.

The trailhead is just off the I-84 east of Portland, only 40 minutes from G’s house (and the Blue House where Tara and I used to live). We found parking along the Historic Columbia River Highway, in the shade! It was a short walk past multiple trailheads that leave from the Oneonta Gorge area. There are no signs alerting us to the beginning of the Oneonta Falls trail, but we are clever people and realized that since the trail is the creek, we would just walk into the creek and head upstream.

Also, we could just follow the people.

Dozens of people make their careful way across a log jam and rock in the middle of the creek.

Dozens of people make their careful way across a log jam and rock in the middle of the creek.

The first challenge was to clamber over a large log jam of trees that pile up every spring against an enormous rock in the middle of the creek. In some places there was only one good route, so all the people had to wait behind whomever was in front. When someone had unsteady legs, or was carrying a toddler, it brought movement to a halt. We also had to stop our forward progress for the people who were making their way out and had to use the same route.

Most of the walk was in water ankle deep or calf deep, and the deepest part of all was up to the bottom of our ribcages. Now that was cold! We were walking on the wobbly rocks underwater, while balanced on our tippie toes, trying to keep our tops out of the water. It’s amazing no one fell.

Tara and G wait for me while I gasp at the views and take photos.

Tara and G wait for me while I gasp at the views and take photos.

Creative people built about 15 towering cairns in one section of the creek.

Creative people built about 15 towering cairns in one section of the creek.

We stopped periodically to gaze in awe and admiration at the sheer cliff walls covered in moss and ferns, and topped with trees. The light was incredibly bright at the top of the gorge, and rather dark at the bottom, so I struggled to get decent photos that showed it all. I don’t have the camera skills to pull that off.

At the end, there is an inviting pool at the base of the falls. While Tara and G swam and climbed and jumped into the water, I stood waist-deep in the pool and took photos. The spray was blasting throughout the hollowed out spot, so I did not get very many photos in focus.

When we were all cold and thoroughly delighted, we turned around and headed back out.

Visiting on a weekday did not give us any privacy. Oh well.

Visiting on a weekday did not give us any privacy. Oh well.

Tara and G bravely head deeper into the cold pool.

Tara and G bravely head deeper into the cold pool.

Playing in the water.

Playing in the water.

They decided to try and swim beneath the falls.

They decided to try and swim beneath the falls.

Posing under the falls

Posing under the falls

The views on the way out. We literally had a light at the end of the tunnel.

The views on the way out. We literally had a light at the end of the tunnel.

Tara walks toward the deeper water, beneath trees soaring from the tops of the cliffs.

Tara walks toward the deeper water, beneath trees soaring from the tops of the cliffs.

Entrance into the underground lava tube.

Entrance into the underground lava tube.

Highway 503 is a secondary approach to Mt. St. Helens, leaving the Interstate and heading south of the mountain and around the other side, so that one can view it from the East, rather than the north, as shown in my earlier posts. The stops along the way reveal some fascinating aspects of the volcano one can’t learn from the other, more popular highway.

I first explored Ape Cave, an apt name in this pocket of Bigfoot country. The name of the cave is related to the Sasquatch legend in a surprising way. There are multiple stories, so forgive me that I only include one version: In 1924 some Boy Scouts were goofing around in the area, screeching and acting like primates, picking up lightweight pumice rocks and hurling them into a canyon. They did not know that there was a cabin below. From out of that cabin burst astonished miners, squinting up at the ridge and believing they were under attack by apes, which is the story they reported when they got to town. This led people to speculate that the tall tales of ape men had finally been proven legitimate. Years later, a local youth group named themselves the St. Helens Apes after that legend. In 1951, when the youth group were among the first humans to explore a newly discovered cave, they dubbed it the Ape Cape, and the name stuck.

At the entrance to the Ape Cave, you can see the arched roof formed 1900 years ago. The rubble formed when parts of the roof caved in.

At the entrance to the Ape Cave, you can see the arched roof formed 2000 years ago. The rubble piled up when parts of the roof caved in.

Lava tubes are a special kind of cave, formed in a volcanic eruption. I explored one in Bend, Oregon in 2011. Only once in Mt. St. Helens’ history did she erupt with molten lava. This kind of eruption is rare in the Cascade Range because of our geology. Magma rising to the surface here has a high silica content, which results in the magma taking on a more solid form, trapping gases and resulting in an explosive eruption. Less silica allows a fluid eruption of molten lava, called basalt.

2000 years ago, Mt. St. Helens erupted with fluid lava. As it flowed in enormous, thick rivers, the outside of the river cooled and hardened while the inside remained hot and continued to flow. The lava melted the rock it was flowing across, carrying it away and deepening the channel. When the eruption finally stopped, the remaining liquid river flowed out the end of the tube, emptying it, and leaving a lava shell that eventually was covered by dirt and forest.

Ape Cave is 13,042 feet (2 1/2 miles) long, and I did not have time to explore much of it. I’ll come back another day.

Evidence of the changing season.

Evidence of the changing season.

Next I visited A Trail of Two Forests. On a Thursday morning in gorgeous weather there was not another soul and I had the trail entirely to myself. Sometimes that’s one of the best things about living in the West: hardly any people.

The trail is entirely on boardwalk, and makes a short loop through the forests. The two forests mentioned here are the one that exists today, and the one that disappeared in the lava flow that created Ape Cave. Hollow shells where trees used to be are well-preserved here. It takes hardly any imagination to visualize what was there when the lava struck, since the lava shells tell the story.

One hole from a tree that had been standing, and stretched from the top left toward the bottom right is the partial shell left from a tree that had been lying down when the lava hit.

One large hole from a tree that had been standing, a small standing tree on the right, and stretched from the top left toward the bottom center is the partial shell left from a tree that had been lying down when the lava hit.

What's left when lava hits a forest.

What’s left when lava hits a forest.

Looking into a shell created when lava cooled around a tree, and then the tree burned away.

Looking into a shell created when lava cooled around a tree, and then the tree burned away.

Molten lava oozed into the forest, surrounding huge logs and eventually cooling and hardening. In the meantime, the wood caught on fire and burned up. What’s left is big circular gaps in the forest floor marking the diameter of the trees that once were, and long tree-sized tunnels along the ground. There is a place where a couple of downed trees were beside standing trees, so the hollow tubes all connect. From the boardwalk you can climb down a ladder into one tree hole, and then climb into a horizontal tunnel, following the path where a tree once lay. Halfway through, you turn a corner into a hole left by a second tree lying down, and at the end, climb back out through the hole from another standing tree. (It also makes one a bit in awe of the size of trees…)

Humongous tree hole beside the trail

Large tree hole beside the trail. It’s more impressive in real life.

This is where one can climb down into the tunnels left by trees.

This is where one can climb down into the tunnels left by trees.

I found this video that has some great shots of the places I saw.

I continued on to St. Helens herself. As the Jeep climbed out of the river valleys and up into the ridgelines, the wind rose around me. My destination was Windy Ridge, but I had assumed the name referenced the natural buffeting one gets in exposed places. The wind during my drive seemed unusually high, particularly since I was still far from Windy Ridge.

Wind lifts volcanic ash from the crater.

Wind lifts volcanic ash from the crater.

It’s a beautiful drive and not as geared for tourists as Highway 504. No visitor centers and fewer informational signs at viewpoints. In fact, when I arrived at Windy Ridge, there was not even a visitor center there, though there was a park Ranger giving talks. He stood in a small outdoor amphitheater with a plexiglass wall that provided some protection from the wind while allowing us to see the crater of Mt. St. Helens while he talked. He confirmed that it was an unusually windy day.

We could see clouds of ash lifting from the crater and drifting off to the West. One woman asked the Ranger if it was steam, fearing the volcano was active on that very day. We were in no danger, but it was a fascinating sight to see. The valley I had photographed the day before was murky with airborne particles and I was grateful to be on the East side in all that wind.

The wind! It was tremendous! I didn’t feel safe near the edge of the bluff, and could hardly remain upright as I walked across the parking lot. I decided not to climb Windy Ridge for a better view of the mountain, and risk getting blown into the next county.

Our view behind the Ranger as he talked.

Our view behind the Ranger as he talked.

Spirit Lake in the foreground, and the ashy skies behind it.

Spirit Lake in the foreground, and the ashy skies behind it.

The Ranger’s talk that day was about the wildlife making a foothold in the valley before us. He didn’t bother using his posterboard media and rather we in the audience took turns chasing them down when the wind carried them away. In 34 years, much of the area’s natural wildlife has returned to the land and also to the lakes. He talked about how it began with small critters at first, who flourished and made an appealing smorgasbord for larger critters, who hunted them. Mice came, and other larger mammals, followed by coyotes. I had heard them the previous evening while I sat and waited for the clouds to clear from the mountain peak. Barks and cries of a dozen voices rose from the valley, their haunting songs thrilling me.

A chipmunk nibbles something tasty.

A chipmunk nibbles something tasty.

He also talked about the fish in Spirit Lake, planted without permission by anonymous citizens. Somebody had hiked down the steep, ashy, gravelly slope carrying buckets of fish, one assumes. The lake was packed full of tasty things for fish to eat, so when the trout arrived they did what fish tend to do, and they ate to nearly bursting. The trout grew too much and were sickly, but gigantic. But the species survived. Today the ecosystem of Spirit Lake is balancing out, and the fish are healthier and smaller, but the Ranger says they are still much larger than typical trout ever get. He said no one has ever been spotted trying to fish the lake inside the National Monument, so the purpose of going to so much trouble to stock it remains unknown.

Spirit Lake today

Spirit Lake today

I was so interested in how the air was clear over me, but thick with dust over the ash-filled valley.

I was so interested in how the air was clear over me, but thick with dust over the ash-filled valley.

You've been wondering, "What's that silver stuff in the lake?" Here's a good look. That is a mat of decomposing trees that were blown into the lake 34 years ago.

You’ve been wondering, “What’s that silver stuff in the lake?” Here’s a good look. That is a mat of decomposing trees that were blown into the lake 34 years ago.

I made the return journey slowly, taking time to gaze out at Mt. Adams (the closest volcano), Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier from different spots along the highway. I walked a trail to tiny Meta Lake, recovering from the eruption beautifully. Beside the trail were huckleberry bushes loaded with fat, ripe berries, and I ate a bunch of them. To someone who grew up eating huckleberries, nothing can compare. There must be no bears here, or perhaps the berry bushes are loaded everywhere and the bears don’t need to come too close to humans to get food.

Another great thing about this trip was how close it is to home, and that’s where I headed next. I chose the trip for that reason, since my Great Aunt had passed away and I needed to be with family for the remainder of my vacation time. Nice to know that if I ever have a yearning to see some of America’s incredible sights, Mt. St. Helens is less than two hours away.

Mt. Adams

Mt. Adams

Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood

Meta Lake. Remnants of the destroyed forest are still visible while the new one regenerates, purely on Mother Nature's timeline.

Meta Lake. Remnants of the destroyed forest are still visible while the new one regenerates, purely on Mother Nature’s timeline.

Huckleberry deliciousness.

Huckleberry deliciousness.

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