After recently moving to Portland, OR, I was excited to get out on my first backpacking trip in the Pacific Northwest. As I was doing my research on possible locations, trip reports about Mount Margaret Backcountry on the North side of Mount St. Helens continued to stand out. Backpacking through a forest of dead, blown over trees in the blast zone of the 1980 eruption appealed to me as an appropriate introduction to the Cascades. This unique landscape in combination with the abundant wildlife and rich fall colors seemed too good to pass up, so I immediately went online and made reservations for two nights at Dome Camp in mid October.
The trailhead starts at the Johnston Ridge Observatory for Mount St Helens. Justine and I made the quick two hour drive from Portland. Luckily the sky was clear and we were able to get a good view of the mountain before heading off down the trail. The first mile or so was crowded with Observatory visitors and I wasn’t sure the trip was going to be as cool as I expected. My concerns went away after hiking past the tourists and climbing a ridge which gave me my first good look at Spirit Lake and a herd of elk on the hill down below.
As we hiked into the afternoon we covered miles of beautiful, steep, rugged trails, with unbelievable views all around. In the late afternoon the clouds rolled in bringing new, dramatic views and with them a sense of urgency to get to camp and set up shelter.
We rolled into Dome Camp about a half hour before sunset and found two large mountain goats. They ignored us and kept eating as we dropped packs and set up camp.
After an extremely windy night we woke up to the sun shining through the clouds and more unbelievable 360 degree views. Right away we broke down the tent and carried it off the ridge to a location with more protection from the elements. Our plan for the day was to head out for a long hike with no particular location in mind. About an hour after we left camp, the sky darkened and it began to rain.
Hoping that the rain would pass, we donned rain jackets and kept hiking up the mountain. Eventually we were soaked and with the dropping temperatures and visibility, we decided to turn around and bunker down in the tent until the storm passed.
We made it back to the tent around lunch in the middle of a torrential downpour. I pulled out a trowel and dug a foot deep moat around the tent, hoping it would divert the standing water away from the few remaining dry things we had. This was indeed turning out to be the authentic Pacific Northwest welcome I had been looking for.
The inclement weather didn’t let up for the next 24 hours. We were forced to cook food inside the tent as the driving wind, hail, and rain beat the tent walls and flooded the ground around us. We had planned to start hiking out of the mountains before noon on the third day and I was starting to doubt that we would be able to do it in the current conditions. By some miracle, about an hour before our planned departure time, the rain stopped and the clouds began to part. We quickly broke down camp and started hiking out of the mountains, extremely happy to be out of that small tent.
Even though I became way too familiar with the inside of my small tent, this backpacking trip will undoubtedly stand out as one of my most memorable and scenic adventures. I was reminded of the importance of a good tent, rain gear, and a strong sense of adventure in the Pacific Northwest.
(Photographer tip: Carry large waterproof bags with silica packets inside to store camera gear when not in use. The small silica packets are lightweight and thrown away at almost every clothing retail store. Run in and ask if you can have a handful and it will magically pull the moisture out of your gear while you’ve got your camera packed away.)
About the author: Donovan is a photographer, adventure seeker, and an endurance athlete who can be found out exploring the wonders of the Pacific Northwest. Follow along on his adventures on Instagram @donorun!
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