Experience the rugged beauty of Washington’s famed volcano
Feared for volcanic violence and revered for regrowth, this wonder of the Northwest is more astonishing than ever. Our visitors guide takes you from the volcano crater to nearby caves.
On that clear spring morning in 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted, U.S. Forest Service employee Francisco Valenzuela was starting the first day of a new job meant to help visitors understand the restless mountain and see it up close. “I thought we were going to die,” he said. He was on the west side of the volcano at 8:32 a.m. on May 18, the precise moment of the largest landslide ever recorded.
The collapsing mountainside and a series of blasts killed 57 people, dumped hundreds of millions of tons of ash across the Northwest from a 15-mile-high volcanic cloud, and flattened tens of thousands of acres of Cascade forest. “I didn’t plan to be there when it erupted. I just happened to be there,” Valenzuela said. “At that close range, it was pretty much incomprehensible … the magnitude, the speeds, the phenomenon itself was unimaginable.”
Forty Years Later
The jewel of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest has healed with incredible speed. Rivers run cool and clear. Tiny saplings that miraculously survived under snow protected by a ridge are now maturing Pacific silver firs. More than 200 miles of trails wend around newly formed lakes, seared plains and frozen ancient lava flows. In a region rich with mountains, Mount St. Helens is unlike any other. It’s a scene of cataclysmic violence and regrowth, the birthplace of the world’s newest glacier, and offers high-altitude adventure and underground exploration.
“I hope people feel moved,” said Abi Groskopf, programs director for the Mount St. Helens Institute. “There’s a tremendous sense of awe.”
Thanks to some $500 million of roads, trails and recreational infrastructure — overseen by Valenzuela and the Forest Service, it was the largest investment of its kind by the federal agency — this wonder is uniquely accessible to visitors who want to peer into the crater, scale the summit or feel the scorched trees that float in Spirit Lake by the thousands.
Now retired in New Mexico, Valenzuela returns every few years to continue documenting the recovery as part of a four-decades-long photography project. He’ll drive up the Lewis River Valley to see some waterfalls and maybe grab a cinnamon roll for the ride through the trees. “Up and down the Cascades, all these forests are all basically there because of their relationship with volcanoes,” he says. “It’s a phenomenal thing.”
Visiting Mount St. Helens
While lava often sputters out the top of volcanoes, the lateral blast at Mount St. Helens was different.
About 50 miles underground, intense heat and pressure formed magma, a mixture of partially molten rock and gases that moved into the mountain in March 1980. These gases exploded with the force of hundreds of atomic bombs when the landslide exposed the core, blowing out the volcano’s north flank and sending pyroclastic flows of hot gas and rock roaring over the landscape at nearly supersonic speeds.
Mount St. Helens’ crater might best showcase its elemental appeal. The classic viewpoint into the crater is from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, named after U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist David Johnston, who was killed as he radioed the first report of the eruption.
The observatory is usually open mid-May through October. Highlights include spectacular views of the crater, Crater Glacier — one of the few expanding glaciers in the Cascades — and the lava dome, plus a geology-focused film.
“Stay to the end,” said USGS hydrologist Carolyn Driedger. “When the screen comes up you may be in for a great surprise.”
From the Top Down
The volcano stands 8,330 feet tall, down from 9,677 feet before the blast. Summer climbers can summit Mount St. Helens without technical experience. You’ll need a permit to go above 4,800 feet, and the best route to the rim from Climbers Bivouac on the southern flanks climbs nearly 5,000 vertical feet over 5 miles. The American Alpine Institute and the Mount St. Helens Institute offer guided trips. In May, snow can still cover much of the upper reaches of the mountain, making it an unforgettable experience for backcountry skiers and hardbitten snowshoers.
Nature trails range from the short, accessible boardwalk at Coldwater Lake to more involved outings like the 5.3-mile Plains of Abraham Loop through Martian sweeps of pumice, and demanding excursions like the 32-mile Loowit Trail around the volcano.
“The landscape is so stark but dynamic and colorful,” said Anna Roth, hiking content manager at the Washington Trails Association, which provides trail guides and recent reports. “Every time I visit I learn something new.”
If everything’s snowed in, the short Trail of Two Forests sits much lower at 1,885 feet and offers a great chance for kids (and flexible adults) to explore small lava casts formed by trees that fell into a 1,900-year-old molten flow and then burned and rotted away, leaving a 50-foot-long tunnel to shimmy through. It’s a less-crowded alternative to the ever-popular Ape Cave, where the Forest Service has considered limiting access to fight vandalism and littering. Before you visit any caves, remember to bring three light sources as well as a change of clothes and shoes to help keep bats safe from the spreading white-nose syndrome.
The Far Side of the Blast Zone
Windy Ridge is only 4 miles east of the more popular Johnston Ridge Observatory, but it’s about a three-hour drive around the blast zone. The extra distance is worth the time. Forest Road 99 closes each winter until the snow melts (usually in late June), but this is the only way to get to Spirit Lake. Along the way, pause at Miners Car, a 1972 Grand Prix crumpled by the blast; the car’s owners died nearby in a cabin.
Farther on is the paved, barrier-free interpretive trail to Meta Lake. Sheltered from the worst of the eruption, this clear, blue lake is inhabited by tadpoles, trout and salamanders. Much of the monument is off-limits except for researchers, with hikers asked to stay on trails and overnight camping restricted. Harmony Trail is the only authorized hike down to the scoured shore of Spirit Lake, where you can get closer than most people ever will to the massive raft of blown-down trees.
Take in Spirit Lake and the crater from the Windy Ridge Interpretive Site, where a steep stair climb offers a panoramic perspective from the edge of the research boundary. Sharp eyes may spot the Mount St. Helens elk herd grazing on the Pumice Plain below.
Mount St. Helens Safety
The earth still shakes beneath Mount St. Helens, which remains active and is the most likely volcano in the Cascades to erupt again in our lifetimes (check alert levels before you go). However, the risk of an eruption is less than the dangers of inattentive driving on Forest Service roads or straying from marked trails while adventuring.
One of the most popular — and dangerous — attractions is Lava Canyon. It starts as a paved interpretive trail with a waterfall view and increases in difficulty, taking hikers along high cliffs, across a swinging suspension bridge, through a water crossing and down a 30-foot ladder into the canyon. Heed the warning signs and stay on the trail even at the start; at least eight visitors have died from falls since the trail opened in 1994.
Before you take the less traveled route on the east side of the monument, know that there are no gas stations or lodging options between Cougar and Randle. Stay off the floating logs at Spirit Lake, which are unstable and could trap you underwater.
Watch out for logging trucks and wildlife on the road such as deer and elk, and check with the Forest Service for seasonal road closures, alerts and helpful tips for a safe and enjoyable visit. Read our Q&A with Bill Nye for more about Mount St. Helens, including his first hike into the crater, what he thinks we’ll see over the next 40 years, and the strange wind that brings an insect rain.
–Written by Tim Neville and Jim Hammerand, last updated in September 2022.
–This story originally appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.