It was my second attempt to see Mount St Helens. First time, more than a decade ago, the weather was so bad that we only managed to reach the first visitor centre located at Silver Lake, 30 miles from the mountain itself. There we were told that there was no point of going any further as due to dense fog and heavy rain the visibility was near zero and even from the furthest viewpoint up the road you couldn’t see the mountain.
This time things just couldn’t be different. We approached Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument on a glorious warm and sunny day, driving east from the main I-5 highway linking Seattle with Portland (and Canada with Mexico). Initially the state highway 504 looked like fairly scenic but an ordinary mountain road but after a few miles the landscape changed and we could see the first signs of the 1980 eruption and then the mountain itself.
Our first stop was the Mt. St. Helens Forest Learning Center located just inside the blast zone of the 1980 eruption. It is an establishment run by a slightly questionable partnership of Washington State Department of Transportation and companies cutting the forests in Washington State, namely the Weyerhaeuser giant. But hey, this is America, here even Disney rides are sponsored by big corporations. Still, the parking lot offered a great view of Mount St Helens and the river valley filled by debris and giant landslides produced by the (in)famous explosion.
From then on the highway gets really spectacular, climbing the slopes of the valley and offering absolutely stunning views. It was built higher up after the explosion and avalanches caused by it wiped out the old road on the valley bottom. Because of that the current road is one of the most scenic I have ever driven. Especially on a beautiful crispy and sunny day and with very little traffic. There are no commercial services along the road so there is a pleasant lack of the usual clatter of advertising boards etc.
As the road nears the crater the landscape gets more and more barren with every turn and twist. Further from the blast the destroyed forests were quickly replanted and every year less and less scars in the landscape are visible. But here, as the highway climbs towards the final viewing point, the land is preserved as a part of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Scientists and the public can see how natural processes bring landscapes back to life after such huge destruction.
Here let me remind you that the 1980 explosion was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the last 100 years. On May 18, an earthquake, of magnitude 5.1, triggered a massive collapse of the north face of the mountain. It was the largest known debris avalanche in recorded history. The magma in St. Helens burst forth into a large-scale pyroclastic flow that flattened vegetation over 230 square miles (600 km2). The explosion could be heard 700 miles away (over 1000km) and the height of the mountain was reduced by by about 1,300 feet (400m). By any standards it was a big “boom”. Luckily it is a sparsely populated region so only 57 people died.
Finally, 52 miles from the I-5, we reached the end of the Hwy 504. Here, at the top of the ridge (and 4200 feet above sea level), overlooking the heart of the blast zone and the crater itself is located Johnston Ridge Observatory. It hosts exhibits focusing on the geological history of the volcano, eyewitness accounts of the explosion, and the science of monitoring volcanic activity. There is also a short movie about the explosion. But on a such great day we didn’t linger inside and headed straight back outside. There, on a little plaza with magnificent views of the volcano, one of the park rangers was giving talk about Mount St. Helens’ activity since the big explosion. Don’t forget it is still an active volcano. In fact there is a new volcanic dome growing inside the caldera. Such talks and ranger-led walks are great features of American national parks and I would recommend them to anyone interested in natural science (or in some parks, like for example Mesa Verde, history).
From the observatory we followed the paved trail full of day trippers before taking the Boundary Trail #1 east along the ridge. Here crowds quickly thinned out and we could admire nature in peace. To the south, in the distance, Mount St Helens was looming over us while below we saw the landscape of destruction of the 1980 explosion and subsequent lahars and mudflows. Even on the quite high ridge which the trail was following the trees were wiped out by the blast. In places we could see remains of large trunks broken like matches. But apart from destruction one can also see how life is coming back to this landscape. Where after the explosion was only barren rock and debris now we could see grasses, wild flowers and even shrubs and small trees (in more protected and less windswept locations). There was even a cheeky chipmunk feasting on flowers. It is definitely one of the most interesting and spectacular hikes I have ever done.
After backtracking to the observatory we drove down to Coldwater Lake. It was created when the landslides slid into the North Fork Toutle River valley and blocked the flow of Coldwater Creek. Water backed up behind the landslide deposit, gradually forming a lake. It was initially larger but there were concerns about stability of the debris dam and part of the lake was drained by the engineers. Now it is a peaceful spot but there are still remains of trees destroyed during the explosion visible, some of them standing in shallow water by the banks of the lake. It is a clear reminder of the unusual circumstances in which the lake was born. After a short walk along the shore we decided to have a late lunch consisting our usual diet of bagels, ham, cheese and canned iced tea. Here I have to mention that I find the provision of picnic facilities excellent in the national parks as well as various state parks across the United States. You are never far from a picnic table. In fact they are plentiful even on rest areas along the major interstates (motorways) and even there they are often nicely arranged between the trees and far from the road. Unfortunately after the lunch it was time to head back to civilization as Portland was awaiting us.
I’m really glad I finally managed to visit Mount St Helens. It is one of the most interesting and most spectacular parks I have visited on the North American continent so far. Up there with the Grand Canyon, canyons of Utah (Zion, Bryce, Arches), the rugged Canadian Rockies in Banff and Jasper and the unique historic dwellings of Mesa Verde in Colorado. Highly, highly recommended.