For years, southwest Washington’s thick blanket of pines and firs drew worshipers of the outdoors to the quiet, pristine backcountry. Many came to hike the forest trails and to fish and swim in the waters of Spirit Lake. Some camped and others stayed at the rustic St. Helens Lodge, under the watchful eye of its tell-it-like-it-is owner, Harry Truman. Towering above it all, the 9,677-foot snowcapped peak of Mount St. Helens, a dormant volcano, stood like a silent sentinel.
But on May 18, 1980, the mountain’s entire north face exploded with a devastating roar and a force that mowed down more than 96,000 acres of trees, belched out a 15-mile-high cloud of superhot ash, and unleashed the biggest landslide in recorded history. The upheaval raised the level of Spirit Lake 200 feet and sent a wall of mud, fallen trees, and assorted debris barreling through the Toutle River Valley. The once-lush forest became an ash-covered wasteland in a matter of minutes. Fifty-seven people lost their lives, including Truman who, despite warnings, refused to leave his home.
In the 22 years since its transformation, Mount St. Helens has continued to entice curious onlookers.
In 1982, Congress set aside 110,000 acres as the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. More than half a million people arrive here annually for a firsthand look at the effects of nature’s fury—and how the forest has begun to rejuvenate itself.
For an educational and entertaining crash course on the mountain and its environs, follow the 52-mile Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (Highway 504) as it snakes its way up to Johnston Ridge. Five interactive visitor centers dot the route and each illuminates a different chapter of the Mount St. Helens story—so get an early start.
Orient yourself at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center near Silver Lake. A 15-minute video presentation offers a capsulized look at the events surrounding the eruption. Other exhibits compare the St. Helens blast with the activity of other volcanoes.
The timber-framed Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center stands near the point at which the volcano’s massive landslide halted its roughly 14-mile advance through the Toutle River Valley. Sharp eyes may spot a black bear or grazing elk 1,400 feet below on the valley floor. Or catch a helicopter ride from here for a bird’s-eye view of the crater.
At the Forest Learning Center, you’ll discover how more than 45,000 acres of devastated forest were replanted by hand with 18.4 million fir, pine, and cottonwood saplings. Don’t miss the center’s eerie Eruption Chamber—the simulated blast zone gives you a sense of what it was like to be caught in the volcanic outburst.
The Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center examines the area’s natural history and offers up views of a new body of water created by the blast—Coldwater Lake. Given the extent of the damage and the amount of ash that fell over the flattened forest, naturalists expected it would be several decades before local wildlife would make a strong comeback. The prediction was a little off the mark. Today, Coldwater Lake is a favorite spot with those angling for trout.
The road reaches its end at Johnston Ridge Observatory, named in honor of geologist David Johnston, whose final words from this spot—“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it! Vancouver! Vancouver! Is the transmitter still working?”—heralded the mountain’s eruption. A collection of exhibits looks at the ongoing high-tech study of the volcano, but the true spectacle is the jaw-dropping view straight into the shattered mountain. Even at a distance of five miles, some may find the still-steaming lava dome a little too close for comfort.
Catch a more peaceful scene by hiking along the 19-mile Boundary Trail. About five miles out, you’ll come upon a commanding view of serene Spirit Lake. Or follow the 6.2-mile Truman Trail through the blast zone to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint on the mountain’s northeast side. Of course, hiking up to the volcanic dome is prohibited.
When you’re ready to call it a day, you’ll find several places to rest your head along Spirit Lake Highway. Die-hard campers can’t go wrong at Seaquest State Park, with its old-growth Douglas fir and hemlock, near the shores of Silver Lake. Or try the rustic comfort of the Silver Lake Motel & Lakeside Resort. The motel is so close to the water that you can fish for bass off the second-story balcony.
Lumberjack wanna-bes can bed down in a log cabin at Eco Park Resort. Start your day with a generous helping of hotcakes at the resort’s Backwoods Café, or marvel at the skillful ax throwers and pole climbers while chowing down on barbecued chicken at the Logger Dinner Show.
If your stomach rumbles for other dining options, head about 20 miles south along Interstate 5 to downtown Longview. Heaping salads, hearty soups, and healthy sandwiches served on freshly baked bread help make Country Folks Deli & Bistro Brew Pub an appetizing lunch stop. For dinner, the spotlight falls on such mouthwatering entrées as jambalaya and filet mignon. House microbrews like Shopkeepers Stout and Antique Amber make a good accompaniment.
At Cibo’s, the low-key lighting and curtained partitions between tables help give the restaurant a romantic aura. Owner and chef Cindy Norton plays matchmaker with regional seafood and Italian cuisine to create dishes such as wood-roasted stuffed salmon with steamed lobster and shrimp fettuccine. Remember to save room for the grasshopper pie. Now that’s amore.
The Rusty Duck, Norton’s other bistro, takes direct aim at Northwest cuisine with panfried oysters and roast duck Grand Marnier. The wine list features more than 100 vintages from Oregon and Washington as well as California, France, and Australia.
Back at Mount St. Helens, the lava dome continues to quietly restore itself. Though another major eruption may not take place here for centuries, the area still feels slightly ominous. But until the threat becomes more imminent, visitors will continue coming here to watch the mountain in its state of uncertain slumber.
Planning Your Trip
All phone numbers are in the 360 area code unless noted. Pick up AAA’s Oregon & Washington TourBook and map. For additional information, contact the Cowlitz County Department of Tourism, 577-3137, www.visitmtsthelens.com/.
Things to see and do
Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, Hwy. 504, milepost 5, 274-2100,
Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, Hwy. 504, milepost 27, 274-7750, www.mount-st-helens.com.
Forest Learning Center, Hwy. 504, milepost 33, 414-3439.
Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, Hwy. 504, milepost 43, 274-2131,
Johnston Ridge Observatory, Hwy. 504, milepost 51, 274-2140,
Cowlitz County Historical Museum, 405 Allen St., Kelso, 577-3119,
www.co.cowlitz.wa.us/museum. Exhibits range from the Cowlitz Indians to the heyday of the timber industry.
Cibo’s, 1260 Commerce Ave., Longview, 577-1746, www.cibos.com.
Country Folks Deli & Bistro Brew Pub, 1329 Commerce Ave., Longview, 425-2837.
Rusty Duck, 902 14th Ave., Longview, 423-9600, www.rustyduck.com.
Eco Park, 14000 Spirit Lake Hwy., 274-6542, www.ecoparkresort.com. Cabins from $60 to $85, yurts $58, campsites $15.
Seaquest State Park, 3030 Spirit Lake Hwy., 902-8844, (888) 226-7688,
www.parks.wa.gov. Rates $13 to $27.
Silver Lake Motel & Lakeside Resort, 3201 Spirit Lake Hwy., 274-6141, www.silverlake-resort.com. Canoe and boat rentals available. Rates from $90 to $110 (motel) and $60 to $95 (cabins).
Spring Arts Festival, Longview, May 17–18. 442-2440.
International Festival, Longview, June 1. 636-2791.
Tour de Blast, bike ride from Toutle up to Johnston Ridge, June 15. 749-2192, www.tourdeblast.com.
Photography by Greg Vaughn
This article was first published in May 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.