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Mount St. Helens

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Revision as of 21:40, 14 April 2011 by (talk) (added listing The Backwoods Cafe)

Earth : North America : United States of America : Pacific Northwest : Washington (state) : Southwest Washington : Mount St. Helens
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Mount St. Helens

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Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument [5] 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.



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, as the recent steam eruptions starting in October 2004 have illustrated, the danger of another 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 that is closed as of 2005 owing to the volcanic activity.

Flora and fauna


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

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.

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.

  • US Hwy 12 West from Yakima to I-5 South for 19 miles (be sure White Pass on US-12 is open)
  • I-90 West (Seattle) 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.
  • I-84 West to Portland, along the Columbia River, then I-205 North (exit #9) to I-5 North for 42 miles


Monument passes are sold for single-day admission to the visitor centers along Washington 504.

  • 16 years or older: US$3 single visit to one site, US$6 multiple visits.
  • 15 years or below: Free.

Golden Passports are honored at Mount St. Helens.

  • The Golden Eagle Passport (US$65 annually) is good for admission to any U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service site that charges admission fees.
  • The Golden Age Passport (US$10 lifetime) provides individuals over 62 years of age all Golden Eagle benefits plus a 50% discount at campgrounds, boat launches, and specialized interpretive services.
  • The Golden Access Passport (free) provides all Golden Age benefits to individuals with documented disabilities.

Golden Passports are available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents online at, or at any U.S. Forest Service or National Park Service office.

Get around


Along Washington 504 are three visitor centers. All except the first are closed from November to April. All three 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 5 miles east of Castle Rock. 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.
  • Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center: Located about 43 miles east of Castle Rock within the Monument boundaries. Interpretive talks available. Open Thurs-Mon, 10:00AM - 4:00PM, closed December 25-28 and January 1-4.
  • Johnston Ridge Observatory: Located about 52 miles east of Castle Rock, within the blast zone, this observatory provides good views of the north face of the volcano. Interpretive talks available. Open summer months only.

Monument passes can be purchased at any of the three visitor centers.

  • Mount St. Helens Forest Learning Center, 17000 Spirit Lake Hwy (Milepost 33.5 Hwy 504), 360-274-7750. 10-5. The Forest Learning Center is located inside the blast zone of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens on Highway 504 and open mid-May through late October. It is a partnership between Weyerhaeuser Company, Washington State Department of Transportation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The center features exhibits including a lifelike forest, eruption chamber, movie theater, and virtual helicopter tour and a large gift store. Free Admission.


  • As of 13 July 2006, the summit of St. Helens has been re-opened for climbing on a reservation/permit basis. See the monument web site (above) for details.
  • Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, 15000 Spirit Lake Highway, 360-274-5200, [1]. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.. Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center and gift shop at milepost 27 is a beautiful post and beam structure that houses "Memories of a Lost Landscape" pre-1980 at Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake. Fire Mountain Grill is inside and offers lunch and dinner. Free Admission.
  • Helicopter Tours, 15000 Spirit Lake Highway, 360-274-5200. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.. See Mt. St. Helens by Air! Tickets available at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center gift shop.


Once of the most popular souvenir gift stores in the area is located at the Mount St. Helens Forest Learning Center at milepost 33.5. They carry ash products, souvenirs, jewelry and artglass made from the ash along with a selection of apparel, toys, lodge decor and other gifts relating to Mount St. Helens and the local region.

  • Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, 15000 Spirit Lake Hwy (Milepost 27), 360-274-5200, [2]. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.. Visit our expansive gift shop for a great selection of souvenirs, apparel, toys, ashware, Mount St. Helens glassware, collectibles and more. Free Admission.


Dining options are very limited in the Mount St. Helens area once you leave I-5 at exit 49. Options on the upper highway 504 include the 19 Mile Cafe at milepost 19, the Backwoods Cafe at milepost 25, and the snackbar at the Forest Learning Center at milepost 33.5.

  • Fire Mountain Grill, 15000 Spirit Lake Hwy. (Milepost 27), 360-274-5217. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.. Fire Mountain Grill at Hoffstadt Bluffs offers family friendly dining, great service, and fantastic food.


You can get drinks at the cafes listed above.

  • Pattys Place at 19 Mile House, 9440 Spirit Lake Highway Kid Valley, WA (MILE MARKER 19), 360-274-8779, [3]. Rustic riverview dining in a family style setting. Featuring gourmet burgers, sandwhiches, salads, and homemade fruit cobblers.
  • The Backwoods Cafe, 14000 Spirit Lake Hwy. (Mile Marker 24 on SR 504 on your way to Mt St Helens), 360-274-7007, [4]. The Backwoods Cafe is located at Eco Park Resort at mile marker 24 on SR 504 on your way to Mt St Helens. They feature delicious homemade meals and pies. For breakfast try their biscuits and gravy, for lunch their steak sandwich, for dinner try a 22 oz. steak dinner and for desert try one of their homemade pies that are made daily. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seasonally. Please check their website for hours.



Exit 49 off I-5 features several privately-operated motels, including:

  • Mount St Helens Motel (recommended: $79) which has a good restaurant next door
  • 10 miles south in Longview/Kelso you will find a number of the larger chain motel units.
  • If coming from the north on I-5, but arriving late in the day, there are chain motels at a good price in Centralia/Chehalis. This is further from Mt St Helens than Longview/Kelso, but a good option if you want to go early the next day.


Camping near I-5 exits to Mount St. Helens along Route 504 is available at Seaquest State Park or south of Hwy 12 at Lewis & Clark State Park. There are also National Forest Service campsites south of Randle (NE of MSH access forest road 99) and along the Lewis River east of Cougar.


Stay safe

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

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