Tesla Model S vs. Mount St. Helens, a peak experience road trip

Guest Blog Post: Dave Tosti-Lane, is a freelance consultant, photographer, writer and sound designer. He recently retired after 33 years as faculty and 22 as Chair of the Performance Production Department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. He lives with his wife Linda and cats Celeborn and Lady Galadriel in the small community of Brier, about 13 miles north of Seattle, Washington. 

Since taking delivery of our 2014 Tesla Model S P85 in April of 2014, it has served as Linda’s daily driver. Her commute racked up just over 100 miles per day, and the Model S has been the ideal companion for her on that daily grind. Her work takes her over large parts of Western Washington, so she’s familiar with the Supercharger network in the state, and she’s always been able to make any of the longer stretches she needed to make, sometimes stopping for a short 15 minute charge to extend range to get back home.

Her identical twin sister Joanne, also a Model S owner, lives in Pennsylvania, and when she came out for an extended visit in July 2015, we decided one day that it would be fun to take a run down to the Mount St. Helen’s park. Linda and I had visited the park back in 1985, and we were interested to see how things have changed since that time. In 1985, large parts of the landscape were still more or less barren, with miles of driving on dirt roads through blown down timber and ash deposits.

There is a visitors center and modern facilities located within pretty easy driving distance from Interstate 5 on the Western side of the park, but we were particularly interested in retracing our drive from 1985, coming at the mountain from the North and East over forest service roads and winding up at the Windy Ridge Observation Center, located above Spirit Lake. This is the closest you can get by vehicle to the mountain itself, and it is a fabulously beautiful drive through pristine forest and then through areas that were directly in the path of the explosion in 1980. The only catch – it mapped out at just over 98.8 miles one-way from the Centralia Washington Supercharger to the Windy Ridge Observatory (which is really a parking lot and trails, not a visitor center).

Well, 197.6 miles, on paper that ought to be easy on a full charge of 260 miles, but with a year under our belts in the Tesla, we knew things weren’t necessarily that simple. For one thing, the Windy Ridge parking area is at 4,070 ft. above sea level, and we’re starting from sea level in Centralia. Compounding that, much of that elevation change happens in relatively steep forest roads – they’re paved, but because of the extreme temperature changes throughout the year, they are not smooth highways. So, while there’s going to be a good bit of regen coming back down, you’re going to tap the batteries pretty heavily going up. As well, I have to confess that I’m not a “feather-foot” when it comes to taking advantage of the Model S acceleration!

We debated taking my BMW instead, which would also have been fun for me, if not so much fun for the back-seat passenger, but in the end we figured we could always watch the range, and if it looked like we’d need to, we could turn back early if we thought we’d need to do so to make it back.

So, we set out from our home in Brier, about 13 miles north of Seattle with a full charge, and made our way down I-5 to the Centralia Supercharger. We were the first and only folks there for a bit, but while we were topping off, two other Tesla owners pulled in, both in P85D models, both relatively new. One was on their way back to Canada after a visit to Los Angeles (and a tour of the Fremont plant), the other was from Seattle. We enjoyed swapping Tesla stories with them as the cars charged up. We decided to hang in and get a maximum range charge since we didn’t know just what we’d encounter on the mountain.

Topped off, we set out from Centralia on our adventure to Windy Ridge. The day was overcast, and we weren’t sure what we’d find on the mountain, or whether it might wind up being a rainy day. Continuing along I-5 South from Centralia for about 13 miles, we split off at Exit 68, on US 12 East heading in the direction of Yakima. We’ll be going about 48 miles along US 12 through small towns with interesting names like Ethel, Silver Creek, Mossyrock and Morton, and past Mayfield Lake and Riffe Lake. It’s a pretty drive.

At Randle, we turned right onto WA 131-South, which turns into NFD 25 in a bit less than 3 miles. This portion of the route is closed in winter, and here’s where the roads get narrow, twisty, and a bit rough. We’re happy to have the pneumatic suspension over parts of it. About 17 miles further on, we turn right onto NF-99 (also closed in winter, of course), and continue up the twisty steep road for another 16 miles to reach the Windy Ridge Observatory. There are numerous places along the way to stop, and lots to see, very shortly after turning onto NF-99 you begin to see the effects of the 1980 eruption, trees that are abruptly cut off at the tops inline with the contours of the nearby hills, trees still laid down on the ground parallel to the blast direction, as if a giant broom had swept them all down (which, I suppose it more or less did).

We stopped at the first available viewpoint, but the clouds were low and we were still some distance from the mountain – lots of trees, plants, and critters to take photos of, but no glimpse of the main attraction. We were still the only EV in sight (which would remain true throughout our time on the mountain), and so far, things were looking great in terms of range.

About halfway between the turn and your arrival at the ridge, you start to catch glimpses of Spirit Lake, which still is partially covered by the raft of timber blown down into the lake by the eruption more than 30 years ago. It’s an awesome sight, and I don’t use that word in the conventional off-hand way. I remember seeing this back in 1985 and essentially seeing what appeared to be a solid raft of trees across the entire lake. More open water now, but still an impressive display.

There is a relatively easy trail from the Harmony Falls turnout leading down to the shore of the lake, but we didn’t take the time to make the trek today. Pressing on, the road winds around the mountain and alternately presents us with views of the lake and the recovering forest. The cloudbank is still too low to reveal the skirts of the mountain, but it’s hard to complain about the beauty of the scenery – in many ways, the mist and clouds simply add to the picture.

The road definitely suffers from frequent temperature swings and the shifting soils on the mountainside. Sometimes, we’re a little reluctant to stop along the side.

Arriving at the destination, we found a large parking area, a tiny Amphitheatre with a very patient park service guide giving periodic talks about the mountain, the eruption and the subsequent regrowth of the area. For the hardy, there is a rough trail/stair that takes you up another 230 feet or so to the top of the ridge, where you can get a stunning view of the lake, the surrounding area and, if you are fortunate, Mount St Helens herself. Today, we were not so fortunate – well, we got the view of the lake and the surrounding area, and that was glorious indeed, but the mountain continued to hide behind the low cloudbank.

We couldn’t resist the climb up those stairs, and by the time we got back down we were feeling it! At this point we were sitting at about 99 miles range on the main display, and we entered the destination for the Centralia Supercharger to see what the estimator would say for what we’d have left. It indicated something like 8% remaining by the time we got to the supercharger – but of course, it didn’t really know how much of that was going to be downhill on regen! We started back down, and stopped at an overlook near the ridge for a photo opportunity for the car.

While we were shooting, the clouds lifted just enough so that we could get one shot of the Model S with the base of Mount St. Helens in the background!

Continuing on our way back down the mountain, we’re rewarded with vistas we missed on the way up, both because of the clouds lifting, and because we were so focused on looking for the lake and the mountain on the way up.

Any nervousness about making it back to the supercharger evaporates as we make our way down the mountain. It’s a definite regen-fest and it’s kind of a hoot to watch the energy display, especially on the 5-Mile Average setting. MINUS 258 W-hr/mi and a projected range of 999 Miles!

Looking at the 30-mile average shows a bit more honest picture – you can see the cost of going up the mountain as well as the gain of going back down. These two shots were taken about ¾ of the way down the mountain. By the time we’d gotten back to US-12 on the return, the estimated remaining range by the time we reached the supercharger was on the order of 18% to 20%. When we actually got there for the charge, we were still showing 21% range remaining. This was a great demonstration to us of how practical the Tesla really is even for out of the way spots like Windy Ridge. I’m not saying I wouldn’t welcome more range – but a P85 is hardly a slouch when it comes to stretching the charge out.

Interestingly, we encountered a range of levels of knowledge about the Tesla on this trip. A group of motorcyclists were fascinated with the car, and knew enough about it to ask very intelligent questions. Living in the Seattle area, we’re probably more accustomed to people knowing something about BEVs and technology. I was surprised by one reaction though – a family tumbled out of a huge ICE SUV and wandered past the Tesla. The dad looked at the car and said, “Wow, that’s cool – what kind of car is that?” We said it’s a Tesla, and he asked “Wow, who makes that? Is it Italian or something?” When we explained that it was made in the USA, and was a totally electric car, he didn’t really seem to get what we were saying. I don’t think we’d encountered anyone in a long time that hadn’t even heard of the Tesla! Perhaps encouragingly, the kids were clearly embarrassed that dad didn’t know anything about electric vehicles though. We’re at about 35,000 miles now on our Model S, and so far, we’re still completely in love with it.