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)

Best Summer Road Trips from Major American Cities

Escape to mountains, lakes, beach, and desert. You can also escape to small towns.

Looking to get away this summer? Travel is a popular pastime every summer, but with months of lockdowns and stay-home orders confining Americans to their homes due to the pandemic, many people are more ready than ever for a change of scenery.

Here are six great summer road trip destinations just a few hours outside the urban hustle and bustle.

Macon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Atlanta has so much to do, but sometimes you just want to get out of the city and explore what the surrounding areas have to offer! Or possibly, like us you’re an RVer and can’t locate a decent campground within 50 miles.

Ocmulgee National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Distance from Atlanta: 83 miles

Oh, Macon! Home to a downtown area that’s got so much to do! Visit Amerson River Park and walk the paths while watching the kayakers paddle by on the Ocmulgee River. A visit to the Ocmulgee National Monument is a must-do, take a hike or bike the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, or spend the day on Lake Tobesofkee.

Ashton Villa, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


America’s fourth-largest city is a cosmopolitan destination filled with world-class dining, arts, entertainment, shopping, and outdoor recreation. Take a stroll through the historic Heights, spend the day exploring the Museum District, or head down to Space Center Houston.

Galveston State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston Island

Distance from Houston: 50 miles

Come to the island to stroll the beach or splash in the waves. Or come to the island to go fishing or look for coastal birds. No matter what brings you here, you’ll find a refuge at Galveston Island State Park. Just an hour from Houston, but an island apart!

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Begin your adventure in the capital city of the 48th state known for year-round sunny skies and reliably warm temperatures. Phoenix is the epicenter of a sprawling metro area (the country’s 5th most populated) known as the Valley of the Sun. You’ll find dozens of top-notch golf courses, scores of hiking and biking trails, and the well-regarded, family-friendly Papago Park and adjacent Desert Botanical Gardens.

Courthouse Plaza, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Distance from Phoenix: 100 miles

A Western history lover’s sweet spot, mile-high Prescott is home to more than 700 homes and businesses listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as museums that tell their stories. Stroll along Whiskey Row where saloons thrive alongside shops, galleries, eateries, and antique venues.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Los Angeles

Los Angeles is home to renowned museums, diverse experiences, 75 miles of sunny coastline, and hundreds of miles of bike and hiking trails. LA’s cultural attractions include the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Getty Center, and art galleries. No trip to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to Hollywood, the home of movie studios, many of L.A.’s most popular and historic tourist destinations, and its world-famous namesake boulevard.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park 

Distance from Los Angeles: 130 miles

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. 

Amish Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Chicago is a city unlike any other. There are a few things you need to do like eat a Chicago style hot dog, see “The Bean,” and take a river boat cruise. Located on the south bank of the Chicago River, the Riverwalk stretches 1.25 miles from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street. Chicago’s nearly 600 parks and 26 miles of lakefront make it easy to enjoy the great outdoors in the middle of the city. Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ll find there’s no other place like Chicago.

Shipshewanna Outdoor Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amish Country

Distance from Chicago: 110 miles

Northern Indiana is home to nearly 20,000 Amish, a culture that remains true to centuries-old traditions. A few days in Amish country will introduce you to delicious made-from-scratch meals, amazing craftsmanship, delightful theater works, tons of shopping, and horse-drawn carriage rides. You can take in the amazing works as you drive the Quilt Gardens along the Heritage Trail. Shipshewanna is home to the Midwest’s largest outdoor seasonal flea market where 700 vendors cover 40 acres of land selling everything from home decor and clothing to plants and tools. Take care when driving—buggies travel well under the speed limit.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Washington, DC

Beyond the traditional D.C. attractions—the Smithsonian museums, the U.S. Capitol, the monuments—you’ll find fresh food and cultural events. You can peruse a farmers market and take in the scenery from the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Plan to spend some time along the Tidal Basin, a 2-mile-long pond that was once attached to the Potomac River and serves as the backdrop to some of D.C.’s best-loved sites.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Distance from Washington, DC: 75 miles

Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is a land bursting with cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, fields of wildflowers, and quiet wooded hollows. With over 200,000 acres of protected lands that are haven to deer, songbirds, and black bear, there’s so much to explore. The Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the US at any time of the year but especially during autumn. The picturesque 105-mile road travels through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.

Worth Pondering…

I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.

—Steve McQueen, actor

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)

La Conner: Charming, Picturesque & Quaint

Charming. Picturesque. Quaint.

These words get thrown around a lot when talking about La Conner.

La Conner is a quaint waterfront village in northwestern Washington, nestled beside the Swinomish Channel near the mouth of the Skagit River. The channel gives La Conner much of its color and atmosphere, a distinct seaside ambiance that comes from watching the fishing boats and pleasure craft navigate the channel out to the San Juan Islands. Crowning the channel is the Rainbow Bridge—the Golden Gate of La Conner.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Located 70 miles north of Seattle and 90 miles south of Vancouver, British Columbia, La Conner is a 15-minute drive from nearby Mount Vernon and Anacortes.

Picturesque little La Conner is a unique combination of fishing village, artists’ colony, eclectic shops, historic buildings, and tourist destination. Relax by the water, enjoy fine restaurants, browse through unique shops and art galleries, visit the beautiful tulip fields of Skagit Valley, and experience the peace and quiet of a charming old fashioned town.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

La Conner was settled in 1867 as a trading post. In 1869, John Conner purchased the trading post built by John Hayes, another early settler, on the west side of the Swinomish Slough and established a post office. In 1869, all the town plus 70 acres was deeded to John Conner for $500. To honor his wife, Louisa A. (LA) Conner, the town’s original name of Swinomish was changed to La Conner in 1870. La Conner was briefly the county seat before Mount Vernon.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

La Conner was a bustling commercial center by the turn of the century. Much of the boom’s era architecture has survived, earning La Conner’s historic district a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The design of new, in-fill buildings is carefully controlled. The village is authentic.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The rich floodplain of the Skagit Delta has been farmed since European settlement. The area’s bulb industry got a boost when blight attacked European bulbs in the 1920s and ’40s, and many of the farmers who plowed into this opportunity were Dutch.

La Conner is home to a diverse mix of cultures and backgrounds, including the Swinomish Tribal Community, Shelter Bay residents from across the Channel, fishermen, farmers, and artists.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

La Conner dates from a time when Puget Sound towns were connected by water and not by road, and consequently the town clings to the shore of Swinomish Channel. La Conner reached a commercial peak around 1900 (when steamers made the run to Seattle) and continued as an important grain- and log-shipping port until the Great Depression. It never recovered from the hard times of the ’30s, and when the highways bypassed the town, it became a neglected backwater.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The wooden false-fronted buildings built during the town’s heyday were spared the wrecking balls of the 1960s, and today these old buildings give the town its inimitable charm.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Beginning in the 1940s, La Conner’s picturesque setting attracted several artists and writers, and by the 1970s it had become known as an artists’ community. Tourism began to revive the economy, and the town’s artistic legacy led to the building of the Museum of Northwest Art, dedicated to the region’s many contemporary artists.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Adding still more color to this vibrant little town are the commercial flower farms of the surrounding Skagit Valley. In the spring, tulips carpet the surrounding farmlands with great swaths of red, yellow, and white. The acres of color are a must-see. 

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

La Conner is one of those places in Washington State that people love to visit—time and time again. The reasons are many, but one that stands out is that there are so many things to do in—and around—La Conner. La Conner offers four seasons of activities with interesting and fun activities nearly every weekend, all year long, including Arts Alive! in November, Christmas boat parade, and the Classic Boat and Car Show in August.

For nearly 150 years, La Conner has had a special place in the hearts of its residents and visitors; we expect that it will continue to be one of Washington State’s most-loved historic communities for generations to come.

La Conner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

I must go down to the seas again,

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star

To steer her by.

—John Masefield