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Mount St. Helens

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Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument [1] is a United States National Monument in southwest Washington State that was the site of a massive volcanic eruption on May 18, 1980. It can be visited as a longish day trip from Seattle or Portland, or more conveniently as a side-trip while traveling between the two cities. Unlike more popular Mount Rainier National Park to the north, Mt. St. Helens is not part of the National Parks system, and is administered by the U.S. Forest Service.



The volcano is a very sacred site for indigenous Native American tribes, and is featured in stories told by the Cowlitz, Yakama, and Chehalis. Myths told of gods including Wy'east (Mt. Hood), Pahto (Mt. Adams) and Loowit (Mt. St Helens), the latter reflected in the names of present-day locations on the volcano.

On March 20, 1980, Mount St. Helens awakened from over 100 years of dormancy with a magnitude 4.1 earthquake which began a series of events leading to eruption. Steam and ash eruption started on March 27, and over the next two months the north side of the mountain started bulging at the rate of about 5 to 6 feet a day.

Then on May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m., a magnitude 5.1 earthquake caused the bulging north face to collapse in one of the largest landslides in recorded history. The highly pressurized magma burst forth in an explosive eruption, sending super-heated volcanic gas and ash across a large portion of the United States, destroying hundreds of square miles of forest, and killing 57 people in what was the most destructive volcanic eruption in the United States.

Today, over a quarter century later, life is starting to return to the barren landscape surrounding the mountain. However, recent steam eruptions and ash plumes from 2004 to 2008 have illustrated the danger of a catastrophic eruption is ever present. Visiting Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is to simultaneously witness the result of catastrophic destruction and see the result of rebirth.


Mount St. Helens is a typical "stratovolcano," the volcanic form most familiar from photographs of their typically conical profiles. The great 1980 eruption destroyed most of the volcanic cone, leaving a huge amphitheater on the north side that is well seen from the Johnston Ridge observatory/visitor center. Current (2004-5) volcanic activity is building a new lava dome within this amphitheater, visible from the "VolcanoCam" at the observatory but not yet large enough to replace the destroyed cone.

St. Helens is still glaciated to some extent, despite its reduced altitude. One unexpected and remarkable bit of landscape on the mountain is the astonishing Loowit Falls, a waterfall that emerges directly from the amphitheater bearing meltwater from a glacier within the crater. This falls can be seen (use binoculars) from the observatory, but to get the best feeling for the incongruity of the falls -- it seems to emerge as though from the surface of the moon -- requires a hike on a trail.

Flora and fauna[edit]

Roosevelt elk and Columbia black-tailed deer graze the grasslands in the recovering debris field. Large herds of bull elk can be seen running together, while mountain goats ply high, rocky ridges. Black bears forage for berries in the summer, and occasionally follow scents from campsites and garbage bins. Signs are posted throughout the region reminding visitors to keep food and garbage secured. Spirit Lake, decimated after the 1980 eruption, saw stocks of rainbow trout less than 10 years later to the shock of scientists. Recreational fishing is permitted in other lakes, such as Coldwater Lake.


Most viewpoints on the Monument's north, east, and south sides can be reached from Memorial Day until snow closes the roads, usually in late October. Trails are generally open from June through October, although some lower elevation trails can be hiked all year. The Mount St. Helens Visitor Center (Highway 504 milepost 5) now operated by Washington State Parks is open during the winter, except winter holidays.

Get in[edit]

Warning: As of August 2017, there are no gas/petrol stations past Toutle, about 10 miles from I-5 on Hwy 504. A Shell station in the Kid Valley (8 mi. east of Toutle) is closed as of August 2017, and a sign in Toutle warns that no further gas stations are available. The round trip distance to the end of the highway (Johnston Ridge) from Toutle is 84 mi (135 km). Cheaper gas is available at Castle Rock as you exit the I-5 freeway.

The most popular tourist route into the Mount St. Helens area is via Washington state route 504. It can be reached at Castle Rock (exit #49) off Interstate 5 in Washington, about one hour and 15 minutes north of Portland and two hours south of Seattle. If going north on the return route (Seattle/Tacoma), State Route 505 can be used as a short cut back to I-5 (turn right a few miles east of Toutle). This is not recommended for the initial trip up the mountain, as it bypasses the main visitor center near Castle Rock.

From the east, there are three main routes. If using GPS or computer routing, be sure it doesn't send you on unpaved, one-lane forest service roads unless that's what you want. From Spokane, all three take roughly the same amount of time.

  • I-5 (Between Olympia & Vancouver, WA). Mt St Helens can be accessed from Exit #49 (Hwy 504 @ Castle Rock) (See Above for description) and Exit #21 (Hwy 503 @ Woodland). Hwy 503 goes east from Woodland to Cougar. From Cougar the road continues NE as FR (Forest Rd) 90, skirting along the south side of Mt St Helens. Continue north on FR-25 towards Randle (see below).
  • US Hwy 12 West from Yakima to I-5 south of Chehalis for 138mi. (Be sure White Pass on US-12 is open.) This is a two-lane highway beyond Yakima, with lower speed limits than the freeways. Turn-off from US-12 to Mt St Helens is WA-131 in Randle (89mi east of Yakima) which becomes FR (Forest Rd) 25. Turn-off to Windy Ridge & Spirit Lake is at FR-99 which is 20mi up from Randle. FR-25 is closed during the winter till May or June. Depending on how much standing snow there is for that year the road may remain closed till July!
  • I-90 West to WA Hwy 18 (exit #25) via Maple Valley and Auburn, then I-5 South for 93 miles. (Drive with caution on the older sections of WA Hwy 18, and watch for large trucks.) Though further, I-405 South (exit #10) from Bellevue is also an option. Likewise one can also go south on I-82 to Yakima from Ellenseburg and then west on US-12 (see above).
  • I-84/WA-14 West towards Portland, along the Columbia River, then I-205 North (exit #9) to I-5 North for 42 miles. Likewise one can also go north from Hwy 14 in Carson on Wind River Rd, which becomes FR-30 to Curly Creek Rd (FR-90). Take a left (west) on FR-90 to the FR-25 junction (29mi from the beginning). Go north on FR-25 towards Randle to the FR-99 turn-off to Windy Ridge.

There are NO public bus services to Mt St Helens. Closest is the Lewis Highway Mountain Transit (Tel: 360-496-5405) [2] which goes along US-12 between Centralia/Chehalis and Packwood (Senior Center), thrice daily.


Forest Passes[edit]

Entry to the National Monument is similar to all USFS-administered areas in Washington and Oregon. Passes can be purchased at forest ranger stations, outdoor sporting stores, or online with the pass either mailed or printed out (ePass).

  • Day passes: US $5 per vehicle.
  • Annual Northwest Forest Pass: US $30 per vehicle.

Northwest Forest Passes are valid at all National Forest (USFS) lands in Washington and Oregon, Mt. St. Helens National Mounument, and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It covers entry, parking, and dispersed camping fees.

Interagency Passes[edit]

Interagency (or America the Beautiful) Passes are honored at Mount St. Helens, and are recognized nationwide at any federal land that charges admission fees, including National Forests (USFS), National Parks (NPS), National Monuments, National Wilderness Areas (NWA), National Recreation Areas (NRA), National Historic Sites, National Wildlife Refuges (NWRS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They can be purchased online, at any national forest office, or staffed national parks entrance.

  • Interagency Annual Pass (US$80 annually) for anyone to purchase. Does not need to be a US citizen or resident.
  • Interagency Senior Lifetime Pass (US$80 lifetime) for individuals over 62 years of age.
  • Interagency Annual Senior Pass (US$20 annually) also for individuals over 62 years of age.
  • Interagency Access Pass (Free, lifetime) for individuals with a documented permanent disability.
  • Interagency Annual Military Pass (Free, annually) for active US military personnel and their dependents.
  • Interagency 4th Grade Pass (Free) for 4th graders in the US until August 31 of their school year.
  • Interagency Volunteer Pass (Free, annually) for forest volunteers with 500+ hours.

Excluding the Annual Pass, all others are offered only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Neither Forest Passes nor Interagency Passes may be used for access to state-operated lands, including State Parks, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) lands, and Natural Resource Conservation Area (NRCA) lands. A Discovery Pass is required for these areas when a day-pass cannot be purchased.

Washington State Parks operates the Mt. St Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake. Admission is $5 for adults 18+, $2.50 for ages 7-17, and free for ages 6 or younger. Families (two adults and children) is $15.

Climbing Permits[edit]

Climbing Permits are required to ascend Mt. St. Helens on the Monitor Ridge Trail. Permits during the quota season are $15 per person per day, with a $6 reservation fee. Camping is prohibited in the climbing area. Permits for the quota season go on sale on March 18.

Groups cannot exceed 12 people. Climbing quotas are:

  • April 1 to May 14 - Daily limit 500 climbers
  • May 15 to October 31 - Daily limit 100 climbers
  • November 1 to March 31 - No quota. Permits are free and self-issued from a box at the trailhead.

Get around[edit]

See[edit][add listing]

Along Hwy 504 are three visitor centers operated by Cowlitz County, the State of Washington, and the U.S. federal government. (Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake are actually in Skamania County, but all the land near the mountain is federally owned.) A fourth center at Coldwater Ridge is semi-permanently closed now, and may be sold. The centers include video presentations, exhibits, and information desks:

  • Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake: This visitor center, operated by Washington State Parks, is located about five miles east of Castle Rock, and across the highway from Seaquest State Park. It provides visitors with an introduction to the history of the area. Open daily, 9:00 AM - 4:00 PM, closed New Years, Thanksgiving, and Christmas days.
  • Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center: This Cowlitz County visitor center is free, though more commercialized. Has a large restaurant, and helicopter tours are available, weather permitting. Located past the Kid Valley, 26.5 miles from the freeway. Except for an outdoor hot dog cart at Johnson Ridge, it's the last chance for a meal. Please note that menu selection may be limited at off-peak times.
  • Forest Learning Center: The Forest Learning Center is located inside the blast zone at milepost 33. It is a partnership between Weyerhaeuser Company, Washington State Department of Transportation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The facility is free of charge with exhibits open May 15 – September 20, seven days a week, 10am – 4pm. The gift shop, restrooms, and outdoor facilities are open May - October, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily.
  • Johnston Ridge Observatory: Located about 52 miles east of Castle Rock, well within the blast zone, this observatory provides good views of the north face of the volcano. There's also a large indoor visitor center with an auditorium and gift shop. Interpretive talks available. This is as close to the mountain as you can get by car, as it's only five horizontal miles (8 km) from the summit. Do not walk onto the observation deck without first going inside the center and obtaining a wrist band, or you will be cited. (Admission includes both the visitor center and its outside deck.) Annual and senior citizen National Park/Forest Service passes are accepted. Open summer months only.

In addition, there are also numerous viewpoints and turnoffs for taking photos along the highway.

Do[edit][add listing]

The summit of Mt. St. Helens re-opened for climbing on a reservation/permit basis in 2006 after being closed for two years due to volcanic activity. Monitor Ridge is the only established trail, with most hikers starting at Climbers Bivouac.

  • From the southwest, NF 83 passes Ape Cave, the junction to Climbers Bivouac, and ends at Lava Canyon near the lahar and hardened lava flows.
  • From the northeast, NF 99 passes Bear Meadow, Meta Lake, Independence Pass, Spirit Lake, Donnybrook Viewpoint, and ends at Windy Ridge.
  • From the northwest, Hwy 504 passes Coldwater Lake, Loowit Viewpoint, and ends at the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Buy[edit][add listing]

Eat[edit][add listing]

There is a food truck offering drinks, hot dogs and hamburgers at Johnson's Ridge Observatory. There are also options available outside of the park in the town of Toutle.

Drink[edit][add listing]

Water is available within the park. If getting water out of the rivers, streams or wells, be sure to filter & boil. Better to be safe than sorry!

Sleep[edit][add listing]


There are no hotels located within the park, but the town of Toutle, located to the west of the park, offers numerous options.


There are no established campgrounds in the National Monument area. The closest State Parks are along I-5, including Seaquest State Park (along Hwy 504) or Lewis & Clark State Park (along Hwy 12).

National Forest campgrounds include:

  • From NF 99 and NF 26 (towards the northeast; Iron Creek, Woods Creek, Tower Rock)
  • From NF 83 and NF 90 (towards the southeast; Swift [owned by PacificCorp], Lower Falls, Lewis River, Paradise Creek)
  • From Hwy 503 and NF 81 (towards the southwest; Merrill Lake, and Beaver Bay, Cougar Park, Yale Park, Cresap Bay -- all owned by PacificCorp)


Backcountry camping is permitted without a permit, except in the 10-mile blast zone where it is prohibited. Dispersed camping from a car can also be done in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Stay safe[edit]

Volcano safety is, to put it mildly, a controversial subject; see the article on Volcanoes (and, particularly, its discussion page) for some of the issues. Compared to many other active volcanoes, Mount St. Helens has been studied extensively, and therefore has a relatively well-defined "safety envelope" that allows informed decision making as regards trail closures, etc. Even St. Helens, however, is prone to bouts of unexpectedly violent behavior, as for example on 8 March 2005 when an explosive event sent ash and steam to elevations above 35,000 feet (10 km) essentially without warning. The monument, therefore, has established a policy regarding road and trail closures that at first glance appears unnecessarily conservative -- but it is not. Believe it. The closures aren't there simply to inconvenience and irritate you. If a trail is closed due to eruptive hazard, stay off the trail.

Other than the volcanic activity, St. Helens poses basically the usual set of hazards associated with mountainous country -- changeable weather, potential for road closures due to snow in the winter, etc. One extra thing to be aware of is that much of the area on the north side of the mountain, particularly the northeast, does not yet have many travel services, even things as basic as gas stations. When leaving the main roads to head for the observatory, or particularly the Windy Ridge viewpoint and trailhead, it's wise to have a full gas tank.

Get out[edit]

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