Mount St. Helens
HistoryOn 20 March 1980, Mount St. Helens awakened from over 100 years of dormancy with a magnitude 4.1 earthquake which began a series of events leading to eruption. Steam and ash eruption started on 27 March and over the next two months the north side of the mountain started bulging at the rate of about 5 to 6 feet a day.
Then on May 18, 1980, at 8:32AM, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake caused the bulging north face to collapse in one of the largest landslides in recorded history. The highly pressurized magma burst forth in an explosive eruption, sending super-heated volcanic gas and ash across a large portion of the United States, destroying hundreds of square miles of forest, and killing 57 people in what was the most destructive volcanic eruption in the United States.
By 2005, life was starting to return to the barren landscape surrounding the mountain. However, as the steam eruptions starting in October 2004 illustrated, the danger of another catastrophic eruption is ever present. Visiting Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is to simultaneously witness the result of catastrophic destruction and see the result of rebirth.
LandscapeMount St. Helens is a typical "stratovolcano," the volcanic form most familiar from photographs of their typically conical profiles. The great 1980 eruption destroyed most of the volcanic cone, leaving a huge amphitheater on the north side that is well seen from the Johnston Ridge observatory and visitor center. Volcanic activity in 2004-05 built a new lava dome within this amphitheater, visible from the "VolcanoCam" at the observatory but not yet large enough to replace the destroyed cone.
St. Helens is still glaciated to some extent, despite its reduced altitude. One unexpected and remarkable bit of landscape on the mountain is the astonishing Loowit Falls, a waterfall that emerges directly from the amphitheater bearing meltwater from a glacier within the crater. This falls can be seen (use binoculars) from the observatory, but to get the best feeling for the incongruity of the falls it seems to emerge as though from the surface of the moon -- requires a hike on a trail that is closed during volcanic activity.
Flora and fauna
Most viewpoints on the monument's north, east, and south sides can be reached from Memorial Day until snow closes the roads, usually in late October. Trails are generally open from June through October, although some lower elevation trails can be hiked all year. The Mount St. Helens Visitor Center (Highway 504 milepost 5) now operated by Washington State Parks is open during the winter, except winter holidays.
Mount St. Helens can be visited as a longish day trip from Seattle or Portland, or more conveniently as a side-trip while traveling between the two cities.
The most popular tourist route into the Mount St. Helens area is via Washington state route 504. It can be reached at Castle Rock (exit #49) off Interstate 5 in Washington, about 2 hr 15 min north of Portland and two hours south of Seattle. If going north on the return route (Seattle/Tacoma), State Route 505 can be used as a short cut back to I-5 (turn right a few miles east of Toutle). This is not recommended for the initial trip up the mountain, as it bypasses the main visitor center near Castle Rock. If you are coming from Portland or anywhere to the south, Mount St Helens can be accessed from Woodland (exit 21 from I-5) along State Route (SR) 503. SR-503 becomes Forest Road (FR) 90 past Cougar and goes along the south side of Mount St Helens to FR-25, which goes north and south along the east side of Mt. St. Helens.
From the east, there are three main routes. If using GPS or computer routing, be sure it doesn't send you on unpaved, one-lane forest service roads unless that's what you want. From Spokane, all three take roughly the same amount of time.
- US Hwy 12 West from Yakima to I-5 South for 19 miles. This is a two-lane highway beyond Yakima, with lower speed limits than the freeways. You also risk getting stuck behind slow-moving vehicles, especially when going uphill.
- I-90 West to WA Hwy 18 (exit #25) via Maple Valley and Auburn, then I-5 South for 93 miles. (Drive with caution on the older sections of WA Hwy 18, and watch for large trucks.) Though further, I-405 South (exit #10) from Bellevue is also an option.
- I-84 West to Portland, along the Columbia River, then I-205 North (exit #9) to I-5 North for 42 miles.
Fees and permits
- 16 years or older: US $8
- 15 years or below: Free.
Along Washington Hwy 504 are three visitor centers operated by Cowlitz County, the State of Washington, and the U.S. federal government. (Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake are actually in Skamania County, but all the land near the mountain is federally owned.) A fourth center at Coldwater Ridge is semi-permanently closed now, and may be sold. The centers include video presentations, exhibits, and information desks. In addition, there are numerous viewpoints and turnoffs for taking photos along the highway.
phone: +1 360 274-0962address: 3029 Spirit Lake Hwy, Castle Rock, WAThis visitor center, operated by Washington State Parks, is about 5 miles east of Castle Rock, and across the highway from Seaquest State Park. It provides visitors with an introduction to the history of the area.
Johnston Ridge ObservatoryAbout 52 miles east of Castle Rock, well within the blast zone, this observatory provides good views of the north face of the volcano. There's also a large indoor visitor center with an auditorium and gift shop. Interpretive talks available. This is as close to the mountain as you can get by car, as it's only five horizontal miles (8 km) from the summit. Do not walk onto the observation deck without first going inside the center and obtaining a wrist band, or you will be cited. (Admission includes both the visitor center and its outside deck.) Annual and senior citizen National Park and Forest Service passes are accepted.
Climb the SummitThe summit of St. Helens is re-opened for climbing on a reservation and permit basis. Everyone must have a climbing permit to be above 4,800 feet elevation on Mount St. Helens.
Mount St. Helens climbing permits are administered by Mount St. Helens Institute (MSHI) through an online vendor that accepts all major credit and debit cards. Climbers will be emailed a permit purchase confirmation receipt at the time of purchase.
From April 1 to October 31 climbing permits are available online by advance purchase only. Do not wait until the day of your climb to purchase your permit. Unsold permits may be purchased online until 24-hours before the date of the climb.
LodgingThere are no hotels located within the park, but the town of Toutle, located to the west of the park, offers numerous options.
CampingCamping near I-5 exits to Mount St. Helens along Route 504 is available at Seaquest State Park or south of Hwy 12 at Lewis & Clark State Park. There are also National Forest Service campsites south of Randle (NE of MSH access forest road 99) and along the Lewis River east of Cougar.
Other than the volcanic activity, St. Helens poses basically the usual set of hazards associated with mountainous country -- changeable weather, potential for road closures due to snow in the winter, etc. One extra thing to be aware of is that much of the area on the north side of the mountain, particularly the northeast, does not yet have many travel services, even things as basic as gas stations. When leaving the main roads to head for the observatory, or particularly the Windy Ridge viewpoint and trailhead, it's wise to have a full gas tank.