by Wilson Cady and Andy Stepniewski

revised by Russ Koppendrayer


In May of 1980, the eruption of Mount Saint Helens transformed 230 square miles of forest lands into a barren moonscape now mostly contained within the 110,000-acre Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument. The devastation sent an ash cloud northeast across the continent, blew megatons of logs and avalanche debris into lakes and rivers, and in the process created a laboratory for the study of recolonization by flora and fauna. Vegetation is recovering rapidly as nature rushes to heal this massive insult. As plant communities evolve, so do the bird populations that depend on them. Inside the monument the landscape was left to regenerate unaided, and over 80 species of birds have already been found nesting. By contrast, dead timber outside the boundaries was salvaged and the area replanted, creating an even-aged stand of young trees with little avian diversity.

Within the monument you must stay on the maintained trails, which limits the number of places you can search for birds. Some of the trails are up to 30 miles in length and are designed for backcountry hiking and camping trips. A federal day or annual pass is required to park at trailheads and other designated areas in the monument and the surrounding Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Higher-elevation roads are closed to auto traffic in winter, usually from late November until sometime in June. Call monument headquarters (360-449-7800) for access information if you are contemplating an early- or late-season visit.


Most of the visitor amenities are found on the western side of the volcano. Take Exit 49 from I-5 at Castle Rock and go east five miles on SR-504 to the Mount Saint Helens Visitor Center, where you can pick up maps and other information. This state-owned visitor center is on Silver Lake, a large, shallow body of water formed by a mudflow from a previous eruption that blocked small streams. Along the 0.5-mile Silver Lake Wetlands Trail you can search for Wood Duck, American Bittern, Virginia Rail, and Sora, among many other species. Other spots around the lake have fewer people and can be birded from roadside.

Located across SR-504 from the visitor center, Seaquest State Park has old-growth forests of the type that existed before these lowlands were converted to tree farms. Spotted Owls once nested here but have been replaced by Barred Owls. Red-breasted Sapsucker, Hutton’s Vireo, Brown Creeper, and other denizens of old-growth conifers are still fairly common.

Operating as a visitor center on weekends only, the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater is located about 38 miles east of the previous stop on SR-504, within the national volcanic monument, where trees and other debris were blown down into the Toutle River. Regrowth of herbaceous plants is rapidly changing these areas. There are many trails in the recovering forests, and some of the better birding is found here due to the variety of plants and insects providing food sources. Orange-crowned, MacGillivray’s, Yellow, and Wilson’s Warblers nest here, and Common Yellowthroats are found in the riparian growth along the creeks. Different, forest-loving species can be found in patches of standing dead trees and in those sheltered areas where ridges blocked the blast and there are still living trees. Western and Mountain Bluebirds nest in stubs, which also are home to Vaux’s Swifts and several species of woodpeckers.

The 2.3-mile-long Hummocks Trail at the south end of Coldwater Lake loops through a landscape pockmarked by cattail marshes, small ponds, and tree-lined lakes. This is one of the better birding spots, with many passerines nesting in the maturing alder forest. Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruffed and Sooty Grouse, Pied-billed Grebes, Soras, American Coots, and Red-winged Blackbirds also nest in the wetlands. Bank Swallows use the cliffs formed of volcanic ash.

The open pumice plains north of the mountain were created by landslides and both pyroclastic and mudflows. Due to depth of the pumice and ash, this habitat is recovering slowly. Birds that may be found here include Common Nighthawk, Prairie Falcon, Horned Lark, Rock Wren, and Western Meadowlark. Trails starting from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, where the road ends, lead to Windy Ridge on the southeast side of Spirit Lake. Be sure to carry water when hiking in this desert-like landscape.


To reach the less frequently visited, but no less spectacular, east side of the monument (closed in winter), drive east from I-5, Exit 68 on US-12 for 48 miles to Randle. Turn south onto SR-131 (aka Cispus Road, becomes FR-25) and continue 5.8 miles to the parking area for the 1.5-mile Woods Creek Watchable Wildlife Trail, which goes through mixed hardwood and conifer forest to Woods Creek Beaver Pond. Many typical Westside lowland species can be found on this loop, including Ruffed Grouse, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers, Western Wood-Pewee, Willow, Hammond’s, and Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Warbling Vireo, Tree Swallow, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Pacific and Marsh Wrens, Swainson’s Thrush, Orange-crowned, MacGillivray’s, Yellow, and Black-throated Gray Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, Song Sparrow, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin. Just past the pond, the Old-growth Loop Trail takes off, returning to this point in one mile. This aptly named trail is excellent for woodpeckers, Varied Thrush, and Townsend’s (or Townsend’s X Hermit) Warbler. Northern Goshawk occurs, but is infrequently seen.

Another 3.9 miles south along FR-25 is Iron Creek Campground, situated in an impressive old-growth forest along the Cispus River. Two-tenths of a mile farther on FR-25, a short interpretive trail at the Iron Creek Picnic Site goes through giant Douglas-firs, Western Hemlocks, and Bigleaf Maples reminiscent of the Olympic rain forests. Another trail follows the river downstream to the campground through similar forest. Birds are not numerous or conspicuous in this habitat, but you should find Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Pacific Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Swainson’s and Varied Thrushes.

FR-25 winds south from here, alternating between old-growth and second-growth forests for 10.1 miles to FR-99, gateway to the northeast side of Mount Saint Helens. Climb this paved but twisting road 4.7 miles to Bear Meadow, at the edge of the blast zone. One can gain a clearer appreciation of the pre-eruption forest by walking up Boundary Trail 1, which begins north of the picnic site and ascends a sidehill, in a few hundred yards entering dense, old-growth Western Hemlock, Silver Fir, and Noble Fir forest where Hermit and Varied Thrushes and Townsend’s (or Townsend’s X Hermit) Warblers are common. A quite different habitat and birdlife can be found in the blast zone, below the picnic area.

Continue along FR-99 and turn right in 4.4 miles onto FR-26, reaching Ryan Lake in 5.0 miles. Walk the 0.6-mile interpretive trail with signage that explains the near-complete recovery of the lake’s waters since the eruption. Return to FR-99, turn right, and drive the 0.2 mile to Meta Lake. Birding along the short trail to this small lake should reveal many birds typical of the recovering forest, among them Sooty Grouse, Rufous Hummingbird, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Willow Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Tree Swallow, Pacific Wren, Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes, American Robin, Orange-crowned, MacGillivray’s, and Yellow Warblers, Fox, Song, Lincoln’s, and White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Junco, and Pine Siskin.

Windy Ridge lies 6.8 miles ahead. En route, watch for Dusky Flycatchers on the brushy slopes and Townsend’s Solitaires in steep, rocky areas by the roadside. At the parking lot, the long series of steps ascends steeply about 200 feet to a superb viewpoint of Mount Saint Helens and Spirit Lake. Canada Geese have found the recovering Spirit Lake and migrating waterfowl are possible here as well. Other species you may see in this area include Bald and Golden Eagles, Horned Lark, and Mountain Bluebird.


Take Exit 21 from I-5 at Woodland and travel east up the Lewis River valley on SR-503 (becomes FR-90). Obtain a map of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and drive some of the roads on the south and southeast sides of the mountain, to the intersection with SR-25 at the east end of Swift Reservoir. Lush vegetation and old-growth forest in this area were spared as the volcano blew to the northwest. Pure-looking Hermit Warblers can be found in these woods, which lie west of the hybrid zone. Ape Cave, the longest lava tube in the Lower 48, is worth a visit. Turn north from FR-90 onto FR-83 at the west end of Swift Reservoir. In about a mile and a half stay left onto FR-8303 and continue to the cave entrance in another mile and a half. Lanterns are available for rent.

You can go north on FR-25 to Randle (turning off along the way on FR-99 to visit Windy Ridge), and complete a loop around the mountain by returning to I-5 on US-12. For those who enjoy backcountry exploration, FR-90 follows the Lewis River upstream from Swift Reservoir for many miles (old-growth forest, waterfalls, forest service campgrounds), eventually reaching FR-23 at the edge of the Mount Adams Wilderness Area near Takhlakh Lake (page 256). You can take FR-23 south to Trout Lake or north to US-12 at Randle.