Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is a United States National Monument in southwest Washington State that was the site of a massive volcanic eruption on 18 May 1980. In 1982, the President and Congress created the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument, within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, for research, recreation, and education.
On 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.
Today, over a quarter century later, life is starting to return to the barren landscape surrounding the mountain. However, as the recent steam eruptions starting in October 2004 have 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.
Mount 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/visitor center. Current (2004-5) volcanic activity is building 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 as of 2005 owing to the volcanic activity.
Flora and fauna
As you explore the Monument it's easy to see the results of 30 years of ecosystem recovery. Plants that sprouted from buried soil and late lying snow banks have gradually spread, transforming a gray-brown landscape to green. Over time, these initial survivors have been joined by legions of colonizers as wind blown seeds of weedy plants like fireweed and pearly everlasting have taken root on shattered hillsides. In spring the Monument glows with the purple blossoms of penstemon and lupine. By late summer, magenta fireweed and patches of cream-colored pearly everlasting frame the blown down forest. In fall, Monument breezes will dance with cotton-covered seeds as life continues its march across the blast zone. Watch for animals that have taken up residence in the developing forest. The once silent blast zone is punctuated by the calls of killdeer and red-winged blackbirds that have made their homes in lush shoreline vegetation. Red-tailed hawks can be spotted hunting for abundant mouse populations while osprey dive for trout in blast zone lakes. The open valleys and hillsides are a favorite feeding ground for North American elk. If you listen you can sometimes catch the echo of a whistling elk or maybe the howl of a lonely coyote.
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.
Warning: There are no gas/petrol stations past the 18 mile point (from I-5) on Hwy 504. The Shell station in the Kid Valley (8 mi. east of Toutle) is the last chance to buy fuel (incl. diesel). The round trip distance to the end of the highway (Johnston Ridge) from this point is 66.5 mi (107.5 km). Cheaper gas is available at Castle Rock as you exit the I-5 freeway.
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 one hour and 15 minutes 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.
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.
Monument passes are sold for single-day admission to the visitor centers along Washington 504.
- 16 years or older: US $8
- 15 years or below: Free.
There are several passes that allow free entry for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot or on bike. These passes are valid at all national parks including Mount St. Helens:
- The $80 interagency pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) provides free entry at national parks and national wildlife refuges. This pass also covers standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. Military personnel can obtain a free annual pass in person at a federal recreation site by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
- U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over can obtain a senior pass (valid for the life of the holder) in person at a federal recreation site for $10, or through the mail for $20; applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
- U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities can obtain an access pass (valid for the life of the holder) in person at a federal recreation site at no charge, or through the mail for $10; applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
In 2016 the National Park Service will offer several days on which entry is free for all national parks: January 18 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), April 16-24 (National Park Week), August 25-28 (National Park Service's 100th birthday weekend), September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day).
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.
- Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake. Open daily, 9AM 4PM, closed New Years, Thanksgiving, and Christmas days. This visitor center, operated by Washington State Parks, is located about five 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.
- Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center. A public-private partnership between Cowlitz County and Weyerhaeuser Corp. Unlike the other two, this visitor center is free, though more commercialized. Has a large restaurant, and helicopter tours are available, weather permitting. Located past the Kid Valley, 26.5 miles from the freeway. Except for an outdoor hot dog cart at Johnson Ridge, it's the last chance for a meal. Please note that menu selection may be limited at off-peak times.
- Johnston Ridge Observatory. Open summer months only. Located about 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/Forest Service passes are accepted.
In July 2006, the summit of St. Helens was re-opened for climbing on a reservation/permit basis.
There are no restaurants available within the park, but options are available outside of the park in the town of Toutle.
Water is available within the park. If scooping water from the lakes, rivers or streams be sure to boil or treat the water before drinking. Water is typically cleaner when taken from moving water in rivers and streams than from standing water such as ponds or puddles.
There are no hotels located within the park, but the town of Toutle, located to the west of the park, offers numerous options.
Camping 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.
Volcano safety is, to put it mildly, a controversial subject; see the article on Volcanoes (and, particularly, its discussion page) for some of the issues. Compared to many other active volcanoes, Mount St. Helens has been studied extensively, and therefore has a relatively well-defined "safety envelope" that allows informed decision making as regards trail closures, etc. Even St. Helens, however, is prone to bouts of unexpectedly violent behavior, as for example on 8 March 2005 when an explosive event sent ash and steam to elevations above 35,000 feet (10 km) essentially without warning. The monument, therefore, has established a policy regarding road and trail closures that at first glance appears unnecessarily conservative -- but it is not. Believe it. The closures aren't there simply to inconvenience and irritate you. If a trail is closed due to eruptive hazard, stay off the trail.
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.
- Toutle is the closest town to the park along the Spirit Lake Highway, offering amenities such as hotels and restaurants.
- Mount Rainier National Park
- Portland (Oregon)