Mount St. Helens
Earth : North America : United States of America : Pacific Northwest : Washington (state) : Southwest Washington : Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument  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
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.
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.
There are NO public bus services to Mt St Helens. Closest is the Lewis Highway Mountain Transit (Tel: 360-496-5405)  which goes along US-12 between Centralia/Chehalis and Packwood (Senior Center), thrice daily.
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).
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 (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.
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 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:
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:
In addition, there are also numerous viewpoints and turnoffs for taking photos along the highway.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.