On the Road to Mount St. Helens

Before Mount St. Helens blew its top it was a beautifully symmetric rounded snow-capped mountain that stood between two jagged peaks, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams

The tranquility of the Mount St. Helens region was shattered in the spring of 1980 when the volcano stirred from its long repose, shook, and exploded back to life. The local people rediscovered that they had an active volcano in their midst and millions of people in North America were reminded that the active—and potentially dangerous—volcanoes of the U.S. are not restricted to Alaska and Hawaii.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The eruption of Mount St. Helens caused the largest landslide in recorded history, sweeping through the Toutle River Valley and removing 1,306 feet from the top of the volcano. The powerful lava flow, savage winds, and deadly heat destroyed much of the previous landscape. What the mountain left behind is the history of a violent eruption that shook the surrounding region and left many with stories of that tumultuous day on May 18, 1980.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens, located in southwestern Washington, is one of several lofty volcanic peaks that dominate the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest; the range extends from Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in northern California. Geologists call Mount St. Helens a composite volcano (or stratovolcano), a term for steep-sided, often symmetrical cones constructed of alternating layers of lava flows, ash, and other volcanic debris.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most people visit the area around Mount St Helens by leaving Interstate 5 in Washington state at exit 49 and traveling East along a road called Spirit Lake Highway. The road is so-called, because, before 1980, it used to terminate at Spirit Lake. The lake is no longer accessible by road from the West, and even from the East, a substantial hike is required. So, I like to refer to Spirit Lake Highway as the Road to Mount St Helens.

Four visitor centers tell the story of the mountain and the people living in the region surrounding it. The awesome views from each of the centers bring you face to face with a monumental natural event. These centers are located along the 52-mile-long Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, the only scenic byway in the United States that penetrates a fresh volcanic blast zone.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like a book with four chapters, each visitor center tells a different part of the story: the mountain as it was before the blast at Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center; first-hand accounts from survivors who experienced the explosion at Johnston Ridge Observatory; the recovery of the mountain and the region at the Forest Learning Center; and its present state at the Silver Lake Visitor Center. Each center offers a unique experience that brings visitors face-to-face with one of the most memorable natural phenomena of our era. 

Mount St. Helens Visit Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center

Located 5 miles from I-5, Silver Lake Visitor Center is a world-class facility located on the western shore of Silver Lake. With its high ceilings and massive windows, the outdoors becomes a part of the architecture. Your senses will come alive as you enjoy the interactive exhibits, a step-in model of the volcano, and theater programs. Outside, a mile-long trail takes you into marshy plains surrounding Silver Lake where you can see waterfowl and picture-perfect views of the mountain. 

Hoffstadt Bluffs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center

Located 27 miles from I-5, Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center offers an up-close view of the mountain and the flood plain where mud rushed down into the valley, raising it a mile higher than it was prior to May 18, 1980. Take a short walk to another viewing point where a grove was dedicated in 2000 in memory of the 57 people who perished during the eruption. 

Hoffstadt Bluff Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A large post-and-beam structure, Hoffstadt Bluff houses the “Memories of a Lost Landscape” exhibit, which provides an excellent depiction of the mountain prior to the blast, when the area was full of youth camps and visitors enjoying the outdoors.

Forest Learning Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forest Learning Center

The Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, at milepost 33, describes the work of foresters before, during, and after the eruption, with an emphasis on the rebirth of the forest.

Walkthrough the forest, hearing the sounds of the birds and animals on the mountain prior to May 18, 1980. Enter the “eruption chamber” to view a video of what the forest looked like immediately after the eruption. Breathtaking photographs and life-size models of loggers working in the blast zone bring the experience to life.

Johnston Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Johnston Ridge Observatory

At the end of the scenic byway, 52 miles from I-5, Johnston Ridge Observatory is tucked into the side of Johnston’s Ridge, a mere 5 miles from the north side of the mountain. Providing visitors the opportunity to come within a stone’s throw of the crater, the observatory is unparalleled. Walkout on the viewing deck or take a stroll along one of the trails and feel the energy of the mountain as it continues to puff steam into the sky.

Johnston Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 16,000 square-foot structure offers a fully-equipped theater where visitors can watch a video about the eruption. Just as the mountain surprised the world with its blast, the movie does likewise as the show concludes and the screen rises to deliver a picture-perfect view of the mountain.

View the many exhibits and read through personal survival stories from that fateful day in 1980. For more detailed information, catch a formal talk or join a guided walk led by one of the observatory’s volunteers.

Worth Pondering…

Looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.

—Sir Archibald Geikie, Scottish geologist (1835-1924)

Spirit Lake Memorial Highway: Scenic Byway to Mount St. Helens

Spirit Lake Memorial Highway takes travelers through land shattered by Mount St. Helens’ eruption in 1980

The Spirit Lake Memorial Highway is the only scenic byway in the U.S. that penetrates a fresh volcanic blast zone. This scenic and historic route is a 52-mile journey into the scene of epic destruction that Mount St. Helens caused when it erupted on May 18, 1980.

Along the way, experience the enormous geologic, economic, and personal impact the eruption had on this area, and witness the region’s recovery.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Rebuilt and reopened in 1992, the byway continues to carry its original name but no longer leads to Spirit Lake. Rather, it ends at Johnston Ridge and affords a striking view of the post-eruption lake and the volcano’s crater.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Along the byway are four distinct interpretive and tour centers: Silver Lake, Hoffstadt Bluffs, the Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, and Johnston Ridge. Each one tells a different part of the story from the natural history prior to the May 1980 eruption, the aftermath, reforestation efforts, and natural recovery of plants and animals. Above all, the devastated landscape is an extraordinary lesson about our planet’s ferocious power and miraculous powers of regeneration.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Five miles east of I-5 is the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake. The center describes each chapter of the mountain’s history from pre-eruption years to today. It also features exhibits about the region’s history and culture as well as offering geological background on the volcano and the surrounding area’s slow but steady recovery.

Nature trail at Mount St. Helens Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Look down the valley where the bleached remains of a blown-down forest are in view. See the evidence of an unimaginable force that flattened 150 miles of old-growth timber as if the trees were toothpicks.

Nature trail at Mount St. Helens Nature Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A nature trail at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center leads to beautiful Silver Lake and its wetlands.

Five miles past the visitor center is the Toutle River, which the byway parallels for the remainder of the route. The river became a nightmarish mudflow during the eruption as massive amounts of sediment poured into the water.

Toutle River Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

You can find some of that mud today on the walls of the North Fork of the Toutle River, and you can get a closer look from a viewpoint on Stewart Dam Road (turn right just before the Toutle River Bridge).

Spirit River Memorial Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A small, spirited community that survived the blast, Kid Valley was once a town of logging camps and mining claims. When Mount St. Helens blew up, many families in Kid Valley’s outlying areas lost their homes. Mudflows buried logging camps and the Green River Fish Hatchery.

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Today, Kid Valley has reestablished its character and charm. A local family turned one of the original homesteads into the Kid Valley Campground, a convenient base for sightseeing, hiking and biking the Mount St. Helens area.

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

About 27 miles along the byway, Mount St. Helens becomes spectacularly visible. The Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, the second of four visitor centers, offers an opportunity to take a good look at the volcano and surrounding valley. Large elk herds can often be seen in the mudflats below the parking lot.

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A memorial trail through a nearby grove pays tribute to 57 people who lost their lives in the eruption.

Forest Learning Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Continue east over the half-mile-long bridge over Hoffstadt Creek, and enter the blast zone. The Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, at milepost 33, describes the work of foresters before, during, and after the eruption, with an emphasis on reforestation and conservation projects. One of the interesting goals of the learning center is to not interfere with the destruction caused by the eruption and let nature take its course as much as possible.

Forest Learning Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

At the end of the Spirit Lake Scenic Byway is Johnston Ridge Observatory, where visitors are only five miles from the crater and lava dome of Mount St. Helens. Stands of dead trees, stripped of their bark, and the remains of Spirit Lake, its surface still covered by a mat of logs, leave a lasting impression. The entire lake was tossed 800 feet up the opposing mountainside during the blast and now rests where it returned, half as deep and with twice the surface.

Mount St. Helens from Lowitt Viewpoint © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Experience the power of this place by taking a short hike. The Coldwater Lake Trail is an easily navigated boardwalk leading to a lake that was formed after the eruption. The Hummocks Trail—hummocks are mounds of volcanic debris—takes an hour to walk and is moderately strenuous, winding through lupine fields and beaver ponds on what was once the site of the largest landslide in recorded human history.

Johnstone Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Each volcano is an independent machine—nay, each vent and monticule is for the time being engaged in its own peculiar business, cooking as it were its special dish, which in due time is to be separately served.

—Clarence Edward Dutton, American geologist (1841-1912)