Washington Nature Weekends Book
Chapter 20 
The Big Bang,
Mount St. Helens Volcano Eruption Anniversary
© 2001 Sunny Walter and Janet O'Mara
Treat yourself to a weekend at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument 
on the anniversary of its most recent eruption, May 18, 1980. 
Site: Mount St. Helens is located northeast of the Kelso/Longview area, on the west slope of the Southern Cascade Range
Recommended time: 
The west side visitor centers are open by May 1; information stations and the Windy Ridge Viewpoint open in mid-May; and most viewpoints can be reached by Memorial Day.  The mountain is at its prettiest when covered with snow, and you will have more solitude if you go before Memorial Day  (note: check with the ranger stations on open status; snow sometimes causes delay).
Minimum time commitment:
A half day, plus driving time, for the west side; a long weekend if you tour the whole mountain.
What to bring: Binoculars, warm clothing, hiking shoes, (entrance fee, Golden Eagle Passport or Northwest Forest Pass). 
Directions: You can approach the monument from three directions.  From the west, take Interstate 5 exit 49, Castle Rock, and drive 5 miles east to the Silver Lake Visitor Center. 
The background: Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980 after 123 years of inactivity.  For two of the previous months, scientists watched the steam clouds with intense interest and installed various kinds of monitoring equipment.  On May 18, 8:32 A.M., when the entire north side of the mountain exploded, two geologists were watching from overhead in a small plane.  They actually managed to escape.  The enormous explosions resulted in clouds of ash, ash flows, mudflows, acres of blown-down timber, and other general devastation.  Thousands of animals and 57 people perished. 
     Seeing the timber down, lying all in one direction, as if a giant child had arranged toothpicks, is a sight you will not forget.  Just as interesting as the eruption, however, is the subsequent recovery of the ecosystem, the amazing resilience of nature.  Today, flowers are blooming, trees are growing, and wildlife is thriving.
The fun: Stop at the visitor center (normally open from May through November, but recently threatened by closure due to lack of funds) to see exhibits, magnificent views of Mount St. Helens, and the Silver Lake wetlands.  A year-round nature trail also begins here.  The 48-mile drive to the end of the road has many viewpoints where you can enjoy Mount St. Helens, the Toutle River mudflow, the forests, and the wildlife. 
  • The Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, open all winter (except holidays), is located at milepost 43 and features a video-wall program and interactive exhibits.  From the deck, see splendid views of the volcano, newly formed Coldwater Lake, and the debris-filled Toutle River Valley.
  • Johnston Ridge Observatory, 53 miles from I-5, at the end of State Route 504 and within 5 miles of Mount St. Helens, opens May 1.  State-of-the-art interpretive displays show the sequence of geologic events leading to the eruption—you can actually monitor the active volcano.  The wide-screen theater presentation is impressive and, at the end, the curtains open up to a magnificent vista of Mount St Helens!   From the patio or the overlook, you have spectacular views of the lava dome, crater, pumice plain, and the landslide deposit.  Mount St. Helens is radiant in the evening just before sunset. 
Two non-monument visitor centers deserve mentioning.
  • The Cowlitz County-operated Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center (milepost 27) also opens May 1.  From here, you can take a helicopter ride over the Toutle River Mud Flow and up higher to see “spectacular views of the lava dome, crater walls thousands of feet high, steam vents, waterfalls, blown-down timber and remarkable signs of resurgent life...including herds of elk.” 
  • The Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, just past milepost 33, opens May 17.  It’s an excellent place to see both the mountain and elk on the Toutle River mudflow. 

New life among the dead trees,
both blown-down and standing 
Go to Mount St Helens Map
Insert elk or deer photo 
when scanner is up.
Next best: Many people enjoy the elk and deer almost as much as the volcano.  You may see black-tailed deer anywhere, especially early in the morning, but the Roosevelt elk herds tend to stay near certain locations.  Look down in the North Fork Toutle River valley from the Forest Learning Center or Elk Rock Viewpoint (milepost 37); look up Maratta Creek (milepost 41); or hike Hummocks Trail #229 (milepost 45), walking clockwise one mile past ponds to an overlook of the badlands.  In summer, elk are often above the east end of Coldwater Lake (look down from the Johnson Ridge Observatory or up from mileposts 48 and 50).  Elk give birth to their calves in late May or early June.
Food and lodging: The visitor centers all have food. Castle Rock offers all services.  Camp at Seaquest State Park, directly across from the Silver Lake Visitor Center on SR 504. 
For more information:
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
    Mount St. Helens  or  360-247-3900
Individual Visitor Centers
     See U.S. Government Nature Resources - St. Helens
USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory (Washington State volcanoes)
The Other Side of the Mountain
If you visit over the extended Memorial Day weekend instead of on the eruption anniversary, you will have time to enter the monument from other directions. 
East Slope: For Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens’ east slope, drive to Randle on U.S. Highway 12, then 6 miles south on Forest Road #25 to the Woods Creek Information Station.  Stop at Meta Lake at the junction of FRs #26 and #99; a forest interpreter leads walks to this emerald lake.  Harmony Falls Viewpoint and Trail is the next stop.  “Discover the story of the eruption, its effect on Spirit Lake, and the remarkable return of life.  Take a mile long, downhill hike to the shores of the lake.”  The lake, literally covered with bare logs, bark peeled off by the blast, is awesome.
     Windy Ridge, at the end of the road, affords a spectacular view of Mount St. Helens.  At dawn, Mount St. Helens turns a delicate pink; at sunset the lake below turns crimson in the sun’s afterglow.  Ranger talks are held once an hour. At the Windy Ridge outdoor amphitheater, you can relive the unbelievable power unleashed by the volcanic eruption.
Food and lodging: Randle offers all services. USFS campgrounds are located on FR #25 & #23.

Looking into Mount St. Helens crater 
from the road up to Windy Ridge
South Side: To see the lava flows and Mount St. Helens’ south side, take Interstate 5 exit 22 at Woodland and drive 23 miles east on State Route 503.  Detour to Mount St. Helens NVM Headquarters (6.5 miles south of this intersection) or continue straight on the SR 503 spur to Cougar, then another 6.7 miles (the spur becomes FR #90 along this stretch) to FR #83.  Turn left and follow this 11.2-mile road north into the monument.
     At 3 miles is the road to Ape Cave, the longest known lava tube in the continental U.S. (12,810 feet).  A forest interpreter accompanies you through the 1,900-year-old lava tube to explain the life and features of this fascinating cave.  Wear warm clothes and sturdy shoes.  Less than a mile away is the Trail of Two Forests picnic area and quarter-mile, barrier-free boardwalk through a lava tree cast area.
     Continue another 7.5 miles to Lahar Viewpoint to see how life is returning to this mudflow-scoured landscape.  Lava Canyon Recreation Area is at road end; explore a canyon (accessible trail), see a waterfall plunging over an older lava flow, or hike the Lava Canyon trail. 
     Back on FR #90, drive 12 miles east to the Pine Creek Information Station.  If you have time, continue east on FR #90; the next 15 miles has a splendid variety of 4*, 3* and smaller waterfalls along the Lewis River (Northwest Forest Pass required).

Food and lodging: Cougar has limited food, lodging, gas, and helicopter rides.  Woodland offers all services. Camp at Pacific Power or USFS campgrounds along Yale Lake and Lewis River. 

If you want to visit more volcanic cones, lava beds, palisades, lava tubes, caves, and craters shaped by this area’s violent past, read Washington’s South Cascades Volcanic Landscapes, by Marge and Ted Mueller.  It describes over 90 places you can see these remarkable geological features. 

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Links checked and updated on: March 9, 2002
Photos are copyright © 2000, 2001 Sunny Walter (unless otherwise noted)
Text is copyright © 2001 Sunny Walter and Janet O'Mara
For more information, contact sunny@sunnywalter.com