On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens blew its top and destroyed 230 square miles of forest. The eruption left at least 57 dead and created a mudslide that reached 50 miles. Two years later, President Ronald Reagan established Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in order for the environment affected by the eruption to regenerate naturally.
The monument is the first of its kind and is managed by the US Forest Service. It’s included within the boundaries of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, and there are many opportunities for education, hiking, and more. It also makes a good day trip from Seattle.
Johnston Ridge Observatory
We only visited some attractions on the west side of the monument, starting at the Johnston Ridge Observatory (open mid-May through October). There, we attended a lecture by a ranger and watched a short film about Mount St. Helens before going through the exhibits. The observatory is named for David A. Johnston, a volcanologist who set up camp on the ridge and was killed by the blast. Admission is US$8 per person but is free with an Interagency Pass.
The exhibits feature eyewitness accounts, photographs, the history of the volcano, and tell visitors about current monitoring technology. A scale model of the volcano shows the scale of the eruption with lights.
Outside of the building, there’s the Eruption Trail, a short interpretive trail that runs about ½ mile one-way. You can see firsthand the scale of the damage, with charred tree stumps along the trail and a look at the barren landscape.
The views of Mount St. Helens, only six miles away, are incredible. There were some clouds covering the mountain but they cleared up at times, allowing us to see the crater and the dome that continues to build inside.
Along the trail is a memorial to all the victims who perished in the eruption, in plain view of the volcano.
We decided not to do any trails on this visit because the weather was freezing and it was very windy, but we plan to visit the southern and eastern sections of the monument on our next visit. There are a few trails that seem interesting.
We did stop at a few viewpoints along the way out. The first was the Loowit Viewpoint, which has almost the same view as Johnston Ridge.
Castle Lake Overlook
Next was the Castle Lake Overlook, from where you can see Castle Lake. The lake was formed by the eruption after Castle Creek was blocked by debris. An interpretive panel tells how the US Army Corp of Engineers constructed a spillway to keep the lake from overflowing and causing a terrible flood.
Elk Rock Overlook
Finally, we stopped at Elk Rock Overlook, which didn’t seem like much of a view with all the cloud cover.
Fire Mountain Grill
Before leaving the area, we had a delicious lunch at the Fire Mountain Grill. This friendly restaurant is located on the Toutle River and is a great place to stop before or after visiting Johnston Ridge. It closes for the winter season.
I had a buffalo burger while Marisol had coconut shrimp. We finished it off with an amazing mountain berry cobbler.