by Lee Foster
Prior to May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens was celebrated for its symmetry. Many visitors came to Spirit Lake and environs to fish, camp, hike, and enjoy the mountain scenery. For two months prior to May 18 the mountain gave ominous signs of activity.
On that day the north face of the mountain blew off in a lateral blast, reducing the peak’s size substantially from 9,677 feet to 8,400 feet. Mt. St. Helens became suddenly the most celebrated and active of the 850 volcanoes that form a “ring of fire” around the Pacific. Now visitors flock to the area to see the recovering landscape. Some 57 people died in the blasts
The main interpretive center is near Lewis and Clark State Park, south on a side road just after Highway 12 leaves Interstate 5 going east. This visitor center puts you northwest of the volcano. Other interpretive centers on the east and south sides of the mountain are closed by winter snows, so make the mentioned visitor center your point of embarkation. Displays at the center orient you to the area.
The mountain and portion of the nearby terrain have been set aside as the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, with research, education, and recreation intended as the uses of the land.
Getting to Mt. St Helens
Mt. St. Helens is in the southwest corner of Washington state. The nearest major airport town if you are flying in is Portland. Drive north along Interstate 5 (about an hour) from Portland or South along Interstate 5 from Seattle (about 2 hours). Turn east along Highway 12 to the interpretive center, the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Visitor Center, just south of Lewis and Clark State Park.
Mt. St Helens’ History
The history of Mt. St. Helens is an unfinished story. Minor eruptions occurred the 1980 devastation. The main eruption carried ash and debris to 28,000 feet, where the jet stream dispersed them eastward. The silt carried into the Toutle River by the eruption and the continuing erosion turned the water the color of coffee laced with dollops of cream.
Within the long time frames of the geologists, Mt. St. Helens is a young volcano, and can be expected to erupt every 200 years or so. One irony of the area, generally omitted by reporters, is the parallel between Mt. St. Helens’ volcanic devastation and clear-cut logging. The region around the mountain has been methodically harvested of trees with clear-cut techniques. Much silting and erosion has resulted. Even within part of the blast area, the downed trees have been salvaged as logs. The area is not a National Park, but a National Forest, where lumbering is a major management goal.
Mt. St. Helens’ Main Attractions
It is always sobering to realize that the solid outer surface of the earth conceals a molten, liquid mass, and that the outer shell is relatively thinner than the shell of an egg.
Be sure to orient yourself first with a visit to the information center mentioned earlier. Get information on the volcano, confirmation on what local roads are open, and a report on anticipated weather conditions. Then spend a couple of days driving around the mountain. The spectacles of devastation and later recovery engage the imagination, with earlier images softened by the regeneration of vegetation.
First drive up the Toutle River to see the Toutle River mudflow, 28 miles east of Castle Rock. The cubic yardage of material that came down the mountain will begin to register on your senses. You’ll see the protruding top of a green steel bridge, for example, that was formerly some 30 feet above the waterway. In 1980, mud flow and erosion from the mountain blocked shipping in the Columbia River, which lies downstream from the Toutle.
Then drive around the south and east side of the mountain. Good viewing sites are clearly marked with a camera sign. East of Cougar, turn north to see lava caves from lava flows of about 1900 years ago.
At the southeast corner of the mountain, observe the mudflow at Muddy Creek. This is another spot at which to stop and pause to consider the immense forces that turned rock into rubble, melted glaciers in a flash, and set forth the surging forces of mud and water, washing out whole forests.
Follow the narrow road, Highway 25, along the east flank of the mountain to see the most awesome sights of all. At the Clearwater Overlook you can survey an entire valley whose trees were blown over, burned, and devastated by the lateral blast spreading northward at hurricane speeds on May 18, 1980. The trees, in historic photos, looked like blades of grass whipped ground-ward by wind. Many trees have since been salvaged, but the surreal landscape remains.
In summer you can drive into Windy Ridge, on the edge of the restricted volcanic area, and peer at the dome forming in the crater of the volcano, poised for further eruption.
North of the mountain, west of Morton, there is another vantage point at a clearly-marked turnoff.
Nearby Trips from Mt. St. Helens
During summer, the only time that the passes on the east side are open, it is possible to take a trip all around the mountain. At other times of the year check with the information center for the best views available and for roads that are passable. The drive into the mountain areas, such as the Toutle River drive, are half-day trips in themselves, so allow plenty of visiting time, especially if you enjoy lingering meditatively over the landscape. For example, one of the most interesting turnouts, clearly marked, is at Seacrest along the Toutle. You look down at Silver Lake and realize that this now fecund watery environment, full of lily pads and black bass, was the creation of an ancient mudflow that dammed a creek.
Mt. Rainier, the five-star attraction of the Cascades, is only an hour north from Mt. St. Helens.
Mt. St. Helens: If You Go
See the website for Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument at http://www.fs.usda.gov/mountsthelens.
The overall state tourism information source is Washington State Tourism at http://www.experiencewa.com.