Travel 96 miles south of Seattle, and in the Western half of the Cascades, you’ll encounter a wounded giant. With its name derived from a British Diplomat, Mount St. Helens is a peak which once had a summit of perfect symmetry until its catastrophic eruption in May 1980. It was once the fifth highest mountain in Washington State, but physical circumstances resulted in one of the most devastating natural and economic disasters in U.S. history. A destructive force so immense, the resulting explosion was heard almost 200 miles away on San Juan Island. It reduced the volcano’s height by more than 1,300 feet and replaced its perfect summit with a 1-mile wide horseshoe shaped crater. The eruption transformed the surroundings into a virtual lunar landscape.
But out of this total devastation a scene has evolved so inviting for any tourist, that a trip to Washington State seems incomplete without a journey to see Mother Nature coping and healing after such comprehensive destruction. Starting out from Olympia, heading south on Interstate 5, State Route 504 brings you to the Silver Lake Visitor Centre. Built in 1993 among numerous tall firs, the centre provides a complete overview of the eruption and resulting devastation with regular video screenings. Its small, but well stocked gift shop is ideal for those last minute souvenirs, while the staff at the information desk will answer your many questions.
Close by is a large relief model of the peak and on the walls, display maps give detailed information about the region’s geological structure and its changes since the eruption. If you join one of the Park Rangers, you can take part in outdoor pro-active talks on the area’s volcanic history – a superb prelude to your onward journey. A prelude which is never more apparent than when weather conditions allow a glimpse of Mount St. Helens, even from this low altitude. Open during the Summer from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., seven days a week, the centre is great value for the $3 entry.
With growing anticipation, you’re soon back on State Route 504 following the north fork of the Toutle River. The journey ascends slowly and smoothly and clearly shows everywhere how man has leant nature a helping hand in its recovery. Conifer planting on land privately owned by timber companies has restored some much needed greenery to the region. Road-side signage indicates planting and harvesting dates. Off-road viewing areas en-route are well spaced apart to whet your appetite for your ultimate destination. One such, the Forest Learning Centre, has telescopes and binoculars available to give some amazing views of the valley below Mount St. Helens. Herds of elk are sometimes seen here, though they can prove very elusive. The centre gives detailed information on the natural restoration in progress and is a great chance to stretch your legs and simply marvel at the incredible scenery.
State Route 504 – the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway – is a smooth and meandering ascent, which eventually terminates at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. At an elevation of over 4300 feet the view of Mount St. Helens and the surrounding devastation is beyond words. Situated on a bluff nearly five miles from the North face, the Observatory gives front row seats for plenty of photographs. The centre opens 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, from May to October, though it’s closed in winter. A spacious car park – big enough for large RVs and motor-homes – is close by, and Johnston Ridge is a short walk along a slightly inclined path bordered by alpine plants. With an $8 entry fee, its comprehensive visitor centre includes gift shop and pro-active displays, Park Ranger talks on the region as well as wide-screen film shows.
Throughout the Mount St. Helens area, hotels and motels warmly welcome their long and short term visitors. Among the most popular is The Guest House Inn & Suites in Kelso, close to the Castle Rock exit and State Route 504. “A convenient, quiet location and very kind staff” is typical of its reviews. Another favourable choice, the Super 8 Spa Motel in Kelso, differs slightly in that family pets are welcomed. However, if camping in the great outdoors is more to your taste, try either the Seaquest State Park close to the Silver Lake Visitor Centre or the Eco Park Resort on Spirit Lake Highway, where a choice of camping or cabins is offered. For more information on accommodation in the Mount St. Helens district, please go to www.mtsthelens.com.
Hiking in the region is certainly not overlooked. Trails of various grades are plentiful. Accessible from the Coldwater Visitor Centre and amongst the easier, are the “Winds of Change trail 232” and “Birth of a Lake trail 246.” In both, the facilities include drinking water, food, telephones, restrooms and picnic areas. The trails have no elevation charges and are a quarter mile in length.
Trail 232 is paved while trail 246 is boardwalk but both give tourists a superb close up of how nature has adapted and healed since the eruption, as well as tantalising glimpses of Mount St. Helens itself. The “Eruption Trail 201” starts at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Classified as moderate, its facilities include restrooms, drinking water, telephones and a picnic area. Stretching for a half-mile and with an elevation charge at 300 feet, it allows a memorable close encounter with one of Washington State’s major natural wonders. Nick-named “Fuji-san of America” – Mount Fuji of America – before its eruption, several hundreds of years will elapse before this crown jewel’s summit regenerates its perfect symmetry and surroundings fully heal. But even to the untrained eye it’s plain to see the long healing process has already started. More information on Johnston Ridge can also be found at www.mtsthelens.com.