Visiting the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Anyone planning a visit to the great Pacific Northwest and Washington State in particular might want to consider adding Mount St. Helens to their list of must see sites. While it’s been over thirty years since the mountains infamous eruption, the landscape today continues to recover while still showing the scars of what was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic eruption in the history of the United States. A visit to Mount St. Helens can be both a learning experience and an opportunity to visit one of America’s most beautiful National Monuments.
On three trips to Mount St. Helens over that the past 15 years it has been amazing to see the rebirth of the area surrounding the mountain. On each subsequent visit it was readily apparent that change was taking place to the landscape. Nature has a way of healing itself and while the scars from the eruption will remain for years to come the transformation is very noticeable.
On March 20th, 1980, Mount St. Helens awakened from over one hundred years of lying dormant when a magnitude 4.2 earthquake began a series of events that would eventually lead to the main eruption. A few days later on March 27th, steam and ash began venting out of the mountain and over the next two months the north side of Mount St. Helens began bulging at the rate of about five to six feet a day.
On May 18th, 1980, at 8:32am, with very little warning, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake caused the bulging north face of the mountain to collapse in one of the largest landslides in recorded history. The magna that had been building inside of St. Helens burst out in a single large-scale pyroclastic flow that flattened virtually everything over 230 square miles. The eruption killed 57 people in what was the most destructive volcanic eruption in the United States.
The violent ash plume eruption continued for over nine hours with the plume reaching to sixteen miles above sea level and moved east over parts of Canada and the United States. The statistics from the eruption were staggering: 57 dead, over 7,000 large animals killed, over twelve million fish killed, over 250 homes destroyed, over 185 miles of roads and 47 bridges destroyed. The eruption and subsequent landslide carved over 1300 feet off of the top of the mountain and replaced it with mile wide crater.
Getting to Mount St. Helens from either Seattle or Portland is fairly easy, but it can make for a long day trip, especially from the Seattle area. Castle rock is the starting point for the fifty mile journey on Hwy 504 into the heart of the Mount St. Helens National Monument area. Castle Rock is located right off of I5, which is the main north/south highway connecting Seattle and Portland.
The trip from Seattle to Castle Rock is 117 miles and should take about two hours. The ride from Portland is shorter, about 58 miles, and will take about an hour. There are a few other ways to get into the heart of the park, but as the main visitor center is located at mile five on Hwy 504 this is the preferred route going in. How long it takes you to make the trip from Castle Rock all the way to the Johnston Ridge Observatory (the end of the road) will depend on how many stops you make along the way. There are a total of three visitor centers and one Learning Center currently open to the public and they are all worthy of a stop.
When leaving the Mount St. Helens National Monument there is a short cut you can take that will save you a few minutes but only if you are heading back toward the Seattle area on I5. While heading out on Hwy 504 look for Hwy 505 which should be at about milepost 15.
Silver Lake Visitor Center Hours:
May 1 to Sept 15:
Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sept. 16 to April 30:
Open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
6 & Under Free
(2 ADULTS + CHILDREN)
Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center Hours
Open Daily, no charge for admission.
9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Fire Mountain Grill
11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Johnston Ridge Observatory Hours:
Open Daily May through October.
Hours are 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
What to do and see
As you begin the drive into the park from Castle Rock is it worth the time to stop at the Silver Lake Visitor Center located at milepost five on Hwy 504. The center contains presentations on the historical and cultural significance of the area along with a chronology of events leading up to the eruption plus several interactive exhibits.
The next visitor center along Hwy504 is the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center which is located at mile marker 27. Unlike the other two centers, this visitor center is free, though much more commercialized. The Hoffstadt Visitor Center has a large restaurant, and helicopter tours of the mountain are available from this site weather permitting.
The last of the visitor centers and clearly the most impressive is the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which is only five miles from the summit of the mountain and is as close as you can get in a car. The Johnston Ridge Observatory is located on Johnston Ridge which was named in honor of U.S.Geological Survey volcanologist David A. Johnston who was on duty at the USGS, Coldwater observation post during the May 18, 1980, eruption. David Johnston was the first person to announce that the eruption had begun and certainly had to have known that he was about to lose his life as he witnessed the north face of the mountain begin to collapse.
This visitor center has trials for exploring the area and has rangers available for interpretive talks and hikes. There is also a large theater at this center and the film shown on the eruption is a must see and a fitting climax to your visit to Mount St. Helens. The view from here into the crater of Mount St. Helens is very impressive and certainly worth the ride.
The Mount. St. Helens Forest Learning Center is located on Highway 504 at milepost 33. The Learning Center is a partnership between Weyerhaeuser Company, Washington State Department of Transportation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The Center is open to the public from May to October and is free of charge. While there take a walk through a life-like forest and experience the Eruption Chamber which is pretty cool. If you have young children the Learning Center makes for a great stop and they even have a playground area for the kids to explore. In the spring it’s possible to see hundreds of elk grazing on the mudflow plain below so bring your binoculars.
Those of you old enough to remember the news coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption back in 1980 may remember the colorful character Harry Truman. Truman was the crusty 83 year old owner of the Spirit Lake Lodge which was situated at the base of Mount St. Helens. In the weeks leading up to the eruption Truman defiantely refused to leave his lodge and scoffed at the suggestion that he was in danger.
Truman become somewhat of a folk hero in the weeks leading up to the eruption as he gave several interviews to reporters declaring that "if the mountain goes, I'm going with it" . The Spirit Lake Lodge, with Harry Truman and his 16 cats presumably still inside, was buried under 150 feet of volcanic debris. Harry Trumans name and presence will always be a part of the spirit of Mount St. Helens.
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© 2012 Bill De Giulio