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Bleak Mount St. Helens provides movie backdrop

With a few cosmetic tweaks, Mount St. Helens provided the right devastation to serve as a backdrop for scenes in John Hillcoat’s film “The Road.”

Production crews spent a day in July 2008 filming scenes from the post-apocalypse movie on the east side of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

While the devastation from the 1980 eruption provided the stark landscape sought for scenes, crews also took advantage of a washout on the road to Windy Ridge.

The process began in 2007, when location scouts first visited the monument, said Rod Ludvigsen, recreation special use specialist for the monument.

“The (Washington) Film Bureau took them on their first show-me trip in the fall 2007, on a really cloudy, rainy day,” Ludvigsen said. “They liked what they saw.”

In June 2008, location staff returned to look at more sites.

“They wanted locations that represented devastation,” Ludvigsen said. “The areas they liked were where trees were uprooted and root wads were showing, trees where the tops were snapped off from the eruption.”

It also helped that portions of Forest Road 99 had been washed out during recent flooding.

The crew spent a good portion of the day in that location, filming stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. In this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Mortensen plays a father leading his young son through a landscape torn apart by some unnamed cataclysm that destroyed civilization and most life on Earth.

Film crews dragged logs on the road, spread rocks and gravel to make the area look more devastated. Artificial snow was used to create snowdrifts blocking the actors’ path for one scene.

“They were a little disappointed because it was a little greener than they expected,” Ludvigsen said. “But they said they could take care of that back at the studio.”

Once you’ve seen the movie, Ludvigsen said, it will be easy to walk in the actors’ footsteps.

There are plenty of pullouts along Road 99, trails and the Windy Ridge viewpoint to explore the devastated areas.

The road is generally open June to October and closed by snow the rest of the year. It leads along the east edge of the blast zone, an area that draws far fewer visitors than the area around the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Here are some options when visiting the area.

Windy Ridge Viewpoint: While there is no visitor center, staff members give talks during the summer at a small amphitheater. The talks deal mostly with the eruption blast, and how the blast changed the landscape. They also talk about Spirit Lake, a third of which is still covered with a mat of logs.

Visitors also can climb the Sand Stairs, about 142 steps that lead you up to a ridge that has a great view of the volcano and Mount Adams, Ludvigsen said. The hillside is loaded with sand-like pumice, thus the name, he said.

To reach the area, take U.S. 12 from Randle to Forest Road 25. Then head south until you get to the junction with Road 99.

Harmony Falls Viewpoint: From here, you can take a one-mile trail down to Spirit Lake. There is a 700-foot elevation gain returning to the viewpoint. When the debris avalanche slammed into the lake, it created a wave that surged 800 feet up the opposite shore, said a monument trail guide. As the wave receded, it swept trees that were already blown down into the lake. This is a day-use area only. There is no fishing or swimming allowed in the lake.

Norway Pass Trail: The trail follows the Boundary Trail No. 1 from the Norway Pass trailhead on Forest Road 26 to Norway Pass. It is a little more than 2 miles one way.

It offers views of the crater and lava dome reflected in the blue waters of Spirit Lake.

You also get views of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier, as well as Meta Lake.

Independence Pass Trail: This is a relatively flat 3.4-mile loop trail that is a good option for families. It follows a ridge with good views of Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens, Ludvigsen said. “It gets you off the beaten path, a bit of a backcountry experience.” The trailhead is on Road 99.

Trail of Two Forests: Ludvigsen said a number of people continue to go south to Ape Cave. From there, they go on to the Trail of Two Forests. “You go through the typical forest with standing trees and then you go out in the lava field where an ancient lava flow went through the area. You can see the round holes where the trees once stood. You can see the impressions of the tree bark in the lava.”

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