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Mt. St. Helens

Visiting Mt. St. Helens

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Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
  • Location: 50 miles north of Portland, 120 miles south of Seattle, directions below
  • How Long: 1 hour, 15 minutes drive from I-5 to the end of the road, more to stop at the visitor centers or take a hike
  • Best Time to Visit: July through September

Mt. St. Helens Review

This volcano erupted at 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, when its north face collapsed in possibly the largest avalanche ever recorded. Shortly afterward, a cloud of ash rose skyward while a pyroclastic flow sent more ash down the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers, sweeping everything in its path downstream and destroying roads and bridges. Today, visitors come to Mt. St. Helens to marvel at the destruction and at Nature's recovery.

Your best chance for a clear view of Mt. St. Helens is July through September, and afternoons are often clearer than mornings.

Mt. St. Helens from the West (from I-5)

Exit I-5 at Castle Rock (Exit 49) and drive west on Highway 504. The closest you can get to the crater is 5.5 miles away at Johnson Ridge Observatory, where the road ends. Along the way, you'll get views of the crater, lava dome, and blast zone, which extended to the current Hoffstadt Bridge.

Mt. St. Helens Visitor Centers

Along the highway, you will find several visitor centers. In order going west, they are:
  • Cinedome Theater: Just off the freeway in Castle Rock, they charge a fee to see a 30-minute, 70-mm, IMAX film about the eruption. While it's the most convenient Mt. St. Helens center and older reviews call it a must-see, the film shows its age these days, and there are no interpretive exhibits here. If you have only a short time, drive a few miles further to the Silver Lake Visitor Center.

  • Silver Lake Visitor Center: Operated by Washington State Parks, this year round center charges an admission fee. A theater shows The Fire Below Us and Fire Mountains of the West, each about 25 minutes long. Exhibits chronicle the days before, during and after the Mt. St. Helens eruption, and a walk-through volcano shows how it happened. You'll find a refreshment stand here, and restrooms outside.

  • Hoffstadt Bluffs: Operated by Cowlitz County, this free center has a snack bar and gift shop. In the summer, Mt. St. Helens Glass Company does glass-blowing demonstrations, using glass containing ash from the eruption. You can also take Mt. St. Helens helicopter tours here.

  • Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument: Created in 1982, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument offers opportunities for research, recreation, and education. Here, the environment is left to respond naturally to the disturbance. The monument's visitor centers charge a fee (and do not accept National Parks passes):
    • Coldwater Ridge: You can buy box lunches here, near a lake created by the mudflow, and see more exhibits. This is the closest visitor center to Mt. St. Helens that's open year round.

    • Johnston Ridge Observatory: The closest center to Mt. St. Helens, inside the blast zone. The film here is followed by a dramatic view of the mountain itself, and you can view the lava dome, pumice plain and landslide deposits. Closed November through April.

Where to Stay

Mt. St Helens can be a (very) long day trip from Seattle or Portland, but you'll need an early start. You'll find hotels in Kelso or Longview, and motels in Castle Rock. The Blue Heron Inn Bed and Breakfast is the closest accommodation to the mountain.

Campers can stop at Seaquest State Park, Kid Valley Campground or Eco Park Resort.

Mt. St. Helens from South and East

Allow another day for these Mt. St. Helens side trips.

South Side: Take exit 21 east from I-5 (at Woodland), then follow Highway 503 (open year round) east toward Yale. Take Forest Road 83 (usually open Memorial Day1 until snow blocks it) north to visit:

  • Ape Caves: Mile-long lava tubes formed during previous eruptions. Bring a flashlight. Rangers lead tours in summer. From here, you can hike to Lehar Viewpoint.
  • Lava Canyon: This road is open from Memorial Day until snow blocks it.
  • Pine Creek Information Center: Continue east on Highway 503 to its intersection with Highway 25.

East Side: To reach the east side from the south, follow Forest Route 25 north from Pine Creek. From I-5, take exit 68 east (near Chehalis), then follow US 12 to Randle and turn south.

Take Forest Road 99 west (usually open from Memorial Day1 until snow blocks it) past Cascade Peaks (where you'll find food services and a gift shop) to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint where you can get the best look at the blast's destruction, the blown-down forest and Spirit Lake.

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1 Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday of May.

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