The Boundary West Trail offers everything the Mount St. Helens landscape is famous for: beauty, desolation, and perhaps just a bit of treachery. Like many of the other trails nearby, Boundary West showcases spectacular views of the volcano. But those views aren’t limited to one section of the trail, they're accessible through a series of climbs and ridgelines, one after the other, that will give you plenty to gawk at while you huff and puff.
Evidence of the 1980 blast remains in the form of sun-bleached tree stumps on barren hillsides, but proof of nature’s ongoing regeneration abounds. Spring and summer provide a riot of colors before the rusty hues of fall take hold. Butterflies, bumblebees, and hummingbirds dance among wildflowers, while critters of every shape and size frequent the ashy floor. You might only spot a chipmunk or a garter snake as your eyes rove the leaf litter and understory, but the ever-present scat on the trail will remind you that you’re sharing this undulating stretch of country with bigger mammals, including cougars and elk.
Most people begin their exploration of Boundary West at the Hummocks Trailhead near Coldwater Lake. Itself a geological marvel, the popular-with-kids Hummocks Trail is a 2.5-mile loop through the dispersed remains of what once was Mount St. Helens’ near-perfect cone.
When the mountain blew its top, it deposited huge chunks of debris on the valley floor below. Many of those chunks today look like perfectly manicured grassy mounds, some small, some impressive in size. Follow the loop trail clockwise, and as you weave through the mounds, let your thoughts run free. If you do, you might imagine a Hobbit-sized door decorating the front of the nearest mound.
After a half mile on the partially shaded Hummocks Trail, you’ll join the Boundary West Trail at the beginning of a grassy meadow, where elk sometimes graze. Though you’ve left the Hummocks Trail behind, you’ll still encounter your share of mounds and debris left over from avalanches caused by the eruption. You’ll also start to climb as you head toward the volcano. The first significant incline takes you through a shaded draw, and on a hot summer afternoon or windy fall morning, you’ll be thankful for the cover.
From there, the trail spills out into more open territory. Enjoy switchbacks up hillsides and winding passages through more mounds. The trail changes with every step, while the views just keep getting better. A pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens will give you an up-close-and-personal view of the ever-changing landscape at the foot of the volcano, where water, snow-melt, and erosion are daily changing the terrain.
But you won’t need any help to see Mount St. Helens itself. A series of gobsmacking viewpoints offer a front row seat to the main attraction. Of course, you’ll need to climb 1,200 feet to enjoy the first of those commanding views. From there, the trail just keeps winding upward.
Less than a mile from the turnaround point, you’ll reach Loowit Viewpoint, which can be reached on foot or via automobile. To escape the road and find more solitude, keep plunging ahead. By now, most of that 2,400 feet of elevation gain has already been conquered. Only 200 feet of gentle climbing remains over the final eight-tenths of a mile, after which you’ll reach the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
To savor this spectacular setting alone, visit in the early spring or late fall, when the observatory and the road are closed but the trails are still accessible. After enjoying a picnic with a postcard-perfect view, you can retrace your steps and return the way you came.
WTA Pro Tip: Because portions of the trail are on exposed hillsides and ridgelines that are subject to erosion, be sure to wear shoes with good traction. If you’re unsure of yourself, bring a sturdy walking stick or a pair of hiking poles. And pay attention to recent trip reports.
If you’re afraid of heights, you can always turn around at the first sign of dicey footing. Another option is to gut it out to the observatory and then take the road back to the Hummocks Trailhead parking lot, but that will add nearly two miles to an already long day-hike.