While traveling the Pacific Coast last summer we went inland to Portland, Oregon and then up I-5 towards Seattle. On our journey we stopped in the Mount St. Helens area.
Mount St. Helens, 8364 feet high, is in the Cascade Mountain Range in southern Washington. There are several volcanoes in this range with four alone in Washington State.
Up by the Canadian border, north of Seattle, is Mount Baker, Next comes Mt. Rainier, a majestic mountain over 14,400 feet high. Mt. Rainier is full of glaciers and if it blows, the catastrophe, because of the ice particles and amount of people living in the area, will be much worse than the Mt. St. Helens’ eruption. Behind Rainier is Mt Adams.
When you fly into Seattle you can see all these volcanoes from the air. And even if there is cloud cover the cones are always sticking out which is a rather surreal sight.
It is hard to believe that it has been over thirty-five years since the eruption. It was May, 1980 when the mountain blew its top 1,313 feet off and much of the bulging north face. In March, 2 months earlier, the mountain showed signs of waking up after a 123 year old sleep. However many people did not believe something that catastrophic would develop.
But when it did, the mountain shot a plume of smoke and ash 80,000 feet into the air and caused a mile wide avalanche that raised Spirit Lake over 200 feet. Although there was devastating destruction, scientists learned a lot, and that event even caused them to rethink how the Grand Canyon might have been formed.
In 1982 President Ronald Reagan named the region a National Monument. The area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service with the roads only opened from the end of May until the end of September.
Five miles after you exit the interstate, you will come upon the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake. It opened in 1987, and is maintained by the Washington State Park System unlike the rest of the area.
The exhibits there include the area’s culture and history, as well as the natural history and geology of the volcano, and its eruption. The Center had a gift shop, naturally. But there is also a theater with an excellent overview film of the eruption and the way the region looked afterwards.
In the three years after the centered opened over one and a half million people stopped there on their way up the mountain. Obviously it is a very popular place.
After stopping at the Visitor Center you begin the over fifty mile drive to The Johnston Ridge Observatory which is at the end of the road up the mountain. The exhibits there focus on the geologic history of the volcano, eyewitness accounts of the explosion, and the science of monitoring volcanic activity.
As you continue up the mountain you can stop at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, the Forest Learning Center, and various pull-offs where you get different views of the volcano. There is another road that goes south and east around the volcano that you can take from Portland but there is no way to get to the Johnson Ridge Observatory since Spirit Lake is in the way.
But it is definitely worth the drive to Johnson Ridge. There are ranger-led programs available every hour, as well as, a half-mile trail with views of the lava dome, crater, pumice plain, and landslide deposit.
There is also a totally awesome movie. It tells the story of the eruption on a big screen with curtains on each side. When the movie is over the screen is raised up and the curtains opened to big picture windows. And right in your line of sight is the volcano. You won’t soon forget the surprised reaction you feel, nor the gasps you can hear around the room as the volcano is revealed in front of everyone.
So if you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest in the summertime a trip to this volcano should definitely be on your bucket list.