On May 18, 1980, one of the most stunning mountains of the Pacific Northwest's rugged Cascade Range, Mount St. Helens, erupted catastrophically. In a matter of minutes, the mountain's conical 9,677-foot peak morphed into the 8,365-foot U-shaped crater that's still visible today. The massive expulsion of ash and debris took 57 lives and destroyed more than 250 homes.
The forested countryside surrounding this still-active volcano in southwestern Washington - just 55 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon - now falls under the management of the U.S. Forest Service as Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. A scenic highway provides access to the surrounding landscape, and a system of visitor centers, hiking trails, and signed viewing areas afford visitors one of the world's most up-close and chilling encounters with volcanology.
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Just 5 miles east of I-5, which is the most direct route for approaching Mount St. Helens from Seattle (115 miles north) or Portland (55 miles south), the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Seaquest State Park (Hwy. 504, 360-274-0962, $3, http://www.parks.wa.gov/interp/mountsthelens) is an excellent place to get your bearings. Twice an hour throughout the day, the center shows a short movie with actual footage of the 1980 eruption and provides a rich overview of the events leading up to it.
Beneath the soaring ceilings of this timber building, exhibits trace the development of Mount St. Helens, from its Pleistocene prehistoric geological origins to the present. Words and photos document the tense weeks leading up to the eruption, as earthquakes and volcanic disruptions alerted scientists of the impending disaster. You can also climb inside a detailed scale model of the mountain.
The Seaquest visitor center is one of several strung along 54-mile Highway 504, also known as the Spirit Lake Highway, as it winds steadily up toward the lower slopes of the mountain. Open from mid-May through late October, Johnston Ridge Observatory is closest to the mountain. Others worth a stop include the Forest Learning Center (at mile 33), and the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center (at mile 27), where a grove of evergreens and a plaque commemorate the 57 people who died in the 1980 eruption.
As you cross the 600-foot-long bridge over Hoffstadt Creek - the longest and highest bridge along the highway to Mount St. Helens - you enter the "blast zone," the area that felt the full, fiery brunt of the volcano's lateral and vertical eruptions and within which every living thing was leveled. From here Highway 504 begins to climb up along a ridge, at its highest points exceeding 4,000 feet above sea level.
Numerous turnouts afford views of the Toutle (pronounced TOO-tull) and Cowlitz river valleys down below, through which a massive lahar (mudflow) carried mud and volcanic debris at speeds of greater than 100 mph following the 1980s eruption. The original road to Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake followed the valley floor and was destroyed by the eruption. The view today is mostly of resultant expanse of ashen mud that still coats much of the valley, but in some areas - especially visible below the Forest Learning Center at mile 33, you can see broad meadows created in 1981 when the Soil Conservation Service spread some 10,000 tons of clover and grass to help prevent further erosion and flooding. Today a herd of native elk happily graze upon the meadow. Along the Spirit Lake Highway's upper elevations, huge stands of noble fir and Douglas fir trees have been planted over the past 30 years, again to stabilize the land and replace the thousands of trees leveled by the eruption.
If you're visiting the region during the off-season (before mid-May or after late October), the closest you can drive to the summit is Coldwater Lake (Hwy. 504, at mile 44), a clear, rippling expanse of water that formed following the eruption from water flow dammed by volcanic debris. Today, the lake is a prime spot for boating and trout fishing, and from its parking areas you'll also find a few of the better hiking trails in the area. One favorite is the 2.5-mile Hummocks Trail, a narrow loop that winds over an undulating landscape of hulking hummocks (chunks ) of Mount St. Helens' former peak. When the volcano erupted, the north face of the mountain collapsed in a massive avalanche, which carried these huge boulders and blocks many miles into the valley
About a half-mile into northern section of this loop trail, you'll come to an especially expansive view of the mountain's gaping crater. As you gaze upon the severely scarred partial dome, remember pre-1980 photos exhibited at the various visitor centers along Spirit Lake Highway, showing the soaring peak of Mount St. Helens before the eruption, when it rose a full 1,313 feet higher than it does today.
If you're fortunate enough to visit Mount St. Helens during the summer season (and even more fortunate to visit on a clear day), follow Spirit Lake Highway to its terminus at the Johnston Ridge Observatory Visitor Center (end of Hwy. 504, 360-274-2140, $8, http://www.fs.fed.us./gpnf/mshnvm). Just 5 miles from the summit, this is the nearest of the visitor centers to Mount St. Helens, and it offers the most amazing views of the steaming lava dome within the crater. Inside, you'll find outstanding geological exhibits, live seismographs registering present volcanic activity on the mountain, and a theater that shows a 16-minute film of the eruption.
Johnston Ridge is named for volcanologist David Johnston, who was the first to report the eruption via radio shouting "Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!”, as he sat, awestruck, at an observation post some six miles from the summit. When the north slope's lateral blast took direct aim at the 30-year-old Johnston, he was presumably killed seconds later by the pyrocrastic flow. His remains were never found, but parts of his trailer were discovered in 1993.
The world's attention may be focused on a different volcano today, but thirty years after its devastating eruption, Mount St. Helens is worth a look. By Andrew Collins