When Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980 a massive landslide caused the north face of the mountain to collapse, ice and snow mixed with debris to form a mudflow which rushed down the rivers, a plume of ash rose more than 10 miles above the crater, and hundreds of acres of trees caught fire or were blasted out of the ground. The peaceful lakeside resort community that so many people knew and loved was gone. Approximately fifty-seven people were killed directly from the blast and 200 houses, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways and 185 miles of highway were destroyed.
Seven years after the eruption a new road was completed from I-5 to a viewpoint of the volcano at Johnston Ridge. This road gains 4,000’ in elevation and passes through small communities with views of replanted mountainside; the Toutle River, filled in by the mudflow; and the eruption scar on the side of Mount St Helens. Overlooks and few short trails provide good viewing opportunities. Each of the four visitor centers focuses on a different aspect of the eruption so stop at all of them if you have the time.
Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake has displays about the history of the area, a volcano model with a tunnel through it, a timeline of events leading up to the eruption and a short film. A mile long trail explores the wetlands of Silver Lake. The visitor center, with the exception of the volcano tunnel, is accessible. The trail is accessible but the boardwalk section is not flush with the gravel so there’s a slight lip where they meet.
Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center is primarily a restaurant and gift shop but it’s free and has a good overlook of the Toutle River. Displays focus on the summer resorts and local residents. A display rack holds framed news stories about the eruption. Everything except a viewing deck on the lawn is accessible.
The Forest Learning Center is jointly managed by Weyerhaeuser Company, Washington State Department of Transportation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. It focuses on forest recovery, reforestation and conservation but with a slightly slanted perspective from the timber harvesting industry view. A short film gives the viewer a chilling look at the eruption. The center is accessible but the short hiking trail is not.
Birth of a Lake Trail at Coldwater Lake is a paved and boardwalk, accessible trail with interpretive signs.
The Johnston Ridge Observatory is the end of the road and has the best views of the volcano. The observatory has a great short film and a few displays with stories of the people who, against all odds, survived after getting caught in the path of destruction. A paved trail with switchbacks leads to more views of the volcano. This trail is very steep but it does have flat landings and is accessible with a strong helper.
We stayed at Eco Park Resort Campground small, family run resort close to the entrance of the monument. It has yurts, cabins and campsites. The cabins have solar lighting, propane appliances and shared restrooms. A communal fire pit is provided. Reservations are required. The owners wish to give their guests a unique, rustic experience and most of the 80 acres of the property has not been developed. The campsites are large, fairly flat with a lot of room and vegetation between the sites.
All of the visitor centers and overlooks have long RV parking spaces.