By VALERIE MELLEMA
Those who remember the massive eruption of Mount St. Helens in May 1980 will find the side trip off Interstate 5 to Mount St. Helens an especially fascinating diversion. Even if you just read about it in the history books, the mountain and the visitor displays are well worth your time.
Mount St. Helens is still an active volcano located in the Cascade mountain range. It is located in Washington’s Skamania County and is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire Mountains, which includes some 160 active volcanoes located in the region. The mountain can be visited year-round, although if you’re traveling in winter, you’re best advised to consult the website for conditions reports.
St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
When the mountain erupted, it became one of the country’s worst natural disasters, killing 57 people and causing devastation to many nearby areas. A pristine mountain lost several thousand feet in height, while surrounding forest and lakes were turned into wasteland. Trees were uprooted like toothpicks.
On that day back in 1980, the mountain had been under careful watch for many weeks as scientists saw signs that the dormant volcano was coming back to life. News media had regular reports on the latest volcanic activity and scientists ventured close to the mountain to take measurements and determine how soon an eruption would occur. When Western Washington residents of several counties heard the blast on the morning of May 18, 1980, many people guessed correctly that Mount St. Helens had finally erupted.
The eruption was quickly followed by ash clouds that spread throughout the state, raining down tiny particles of ash almost like snowfall. A thick layer of ash appeared on vehicles as far away as Yakima, and the ash clouds darkened the skies. Closer to the volcano, mud and lava flows wreaked havoc, instantly toppling forests and pushing trees and even houses down the local rivers.
Today visitors can drive to Mount St. Helens and witness the devastation up-close. The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument now invites visitors to come and see what happened to the mountain on that momentous day back in 1980.
Visitors will find that the devastation has since been replaced by new plant and animal life that has amazingly overcome the destruction once seen here. A number of activities are available to visitors of the mountain and the surrounding area, while lodgings and restaurants are within easy driving distance of the monument.
Mt St Helens Activities
Stop at the Coldwater Ridge Visitors Center when you first arrive. Here, there are food and gift services for your needs and, when you come inside, you will find a picture view of what has happened in the region. You will be able to see how the area survived the “blast zone” and became again as vibrant as ever. You can also enjoy the quarter mile walk through the Winds of Change Interpretive Trail, where you will see how the winds of change helped to bring back the plants and animals to the region. You will also get to see panoramic views of the mountain as well as the various changes in landscape experienced here. The Coldwater Center features a gift shop, a book sales area, a video wall theater program, exhibits, a restaurant as well as guided tours available upon request.
You will also want to stop by the Johnston Ridge Visitors Center located nearby. This is a great place to stop and talk to people who know the mountain and the surrounding area better than anyone. Those who speak here are rangers and they provide an informative program, complemented by exhibits and movies.
Many would love to do nothing more than to get up there and climb near Mount St. Helens but park officials will tell you the area is still recovering from the disaster and it becomes important to consider the health and well being of the environment as well as human safety. Therefore, climbing on Mount St. Helen itself is restricted. You will need a permit to go any higher than 4800 feet in elevation.
What Else Is There To Do?
There is still plenty to do when you visit Mount St. Helens. For those who want to see the mountain in a unique way, why not take a helicopter flight over the top? You can learn more about this at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitors Center. The flight is available during the summer months and is about 30 minutes in length.
After visiting this visitor’s center, move on to the next visitor location at Milepost 33. This is the Charles W. Bingham Forest Learning Center, which is open from May through October. You will learn about the timber industry in the area by watching a short film, and the kids will enjoy the playground. Take some time to peer outside where you’re likely to spot some animals, including elk.
Also check out the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which is just that, an observatory that offers a unique view of the area. It is located on the mountainside and is one of the locations still used to monitor activity within the volcano. You can also get on the Boundary Ridge Trail here, which is a hike heading east and gives you one of the best views of the mountain and the devastation that happened here. It goes on for several miles.
For those who do want to do some hiking on Mount St. Helens, plan to do so on the east side of Mount St Helens, where there are fewer crowds and more opportunities. This area also allows you to get to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint, which is perhaps the best vantage point for the crater.
A visit to Mount St. Helens is awe-inspiring, with plenty for you to see in terms of devastation and life restarted- a reminder of the power of Nature to both destroy and revitalize.
For more information on Mount St. Helens, please visit www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm. This official government site will give you the latest information on road conditions, trail restrictions and park policies.
Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, photo courtesy of www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm