Tourists Flock to Mount St. Helens

Pam Morret and her husband, Lynn, missed the big eruption of Mount St. Helens (search) in 1980. They sure were not going to miss this one.

So they donned their leather jackets, chaps and bandanas, hopped on their motorcycles, and began cruising up Highway 504 — past a theater that that airs the 1980 footage every 45 minutes, past trinket shops hawking statues made of volcano bits, past a lodge that happily warned travelers: "Watch your ash up there!"

When the Vancouver couple got to within five miles of the Johnston Ridge Observatory (search) on Friday, they pulled to the side of the road and saw what they had been coming for: an ashen-white cloud billowing from the volcano's crater.

Volcano Cam

"It was like a big burp," said Pam Morret, 49.

Thanks to the predictive abilities of the U.S. Geological Survey (search), the Morrets were not alone when they finally did make it to Johnston Ridge, a barren shoulder of land which looks into the crater from about five miles away. Hundreds of tourists clogged the parking lot and visitor center, drawn by the rumblings from the nation's most cantankerous mountain, but reassured that any eruption would be far smaller than the one that killed 57 people more than two decades ago.

Some tourists — like the Morrets — smiled in giddy, guilt-free wonder at the mountain's power.

"This one didn't involve anybody dying or any of that bad destruction, so we could feel good about enjoying it," Lynn Morret said.

Others were disappointed: They didn't head for the hills until they saw Friday's eruption on television, and by the time they made it up there, the cloud had cleared.

"I missed it by about 40 minutes. I am so disappointed," said Elva Ahearn, 68, of Auburn. "But I am still excited to be here. I'm still hoping I'll see something."

The eruption capped an exciting week at the mountain. Hundreds of people visited every day, watching seismic needles chart bouncing lines at the observatory and quietly urging the volcano to put on a show — just not too big a show.

"It's just a dynamic area," said Scott Hinderman, a ranger. "That's alluring to a lot of folks. They can see the story of the 1980 eruption. It still looks like something happened here and this is rekindling that whole wonder, that whole amazement at nature."