Friday, May 14, 2010

Mt. St. Helens: It's a Blast

Thirty years have passed since that fateful day in May when the landscape of a chunk of western Washington suddenly and dramatically changed forever. On the morning of May 18, 1980, a 5.1 earthquake centered at Mt. St. Helens triggered the largest landslide in recorded history. This, in turn, set off a massive eruption when trapped gases and super-heated ash spewed 60,000’ into the air. When it was all over, 230 square miles of forest were flattened, 57 people lost their lives, and 1300’ in elevation disappeared from the mountain.
Today, you can view a much quieter volcano and learn more about that eventful day by visiting one of several visitor centers and interpretive sites in Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The easiest and most popular access route is from the western side along Highway 504 (exit 49 on Interstate 5). Five miles west of the freeway is the Silver Lake Visitors Center operated by Washington State Parks. Admission is $3 and this is the only facility open year-round.
Displays feature information about the geology of volcanoes and the natural history of the region. Of special interest, is a timeline with newspaper front pages detailing the events before, during, and after the eruption; and a collection of mementos from various camps and resorts around Spirit Lake. There is a short video, book/gift store, and nature trail at the site.
From here, it is an additional 47 miles to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Make sure you have plenty of gas as there are no services on this or any of the other routes in the park. The observatory is at the end of the road and, as the closest point to the volcano, offers a breathtaking, unobstructed view across the pumice plain to the massive crater. Here you will find interpretive displays focused on volcanic geology as well as a video, ranger talks, and a trail to higher viewpoints. Admission charge is $8, but free for holders of a federal Senior Pass.
While most visitors to the park stick to the western side, it is the access from the east that provides the most dramatic view of the power and damage done by the 1980 eruption. There are no videos or museums on this side, but a number of trails and view sites offer explanations and a ranger is on duty at Windy Ridge during summer months. It is a long drive (allow about three hours from Portland) from either Woodland or US Highway 12 at Randle, but well worth it especially if you have only visited the western side. There is a feeling of remoteness and desolation as Forest Service Road 99 winds its way up to Windy Ridge. The drive passes through the blown down forest where blasts of wind more than 300 mph knocked down mature Douglas Fir like matchsticks. On clear days, there are sweeping views to the other dormant volcanoes of the Cascade Range and you can only wonder if they too will someday awaken from years of dormancy like St. Helens.
There are a few short trails along the way offering an opportunity to see close-up how nature is making a comeback in this devastated area. Finally, at the end of the road is Windy Ridge where the panoramic view overlooks the volcano and Spirit Lake. Once a popular resort, the lake is now filled with decomposing logs and surrounded by a landscape more reminiscent of the surface of the moon than wooded, western Washington.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the eruption, several events have been planned. Mt. St. Helens Institute will offer an education program focused on volcanic science in your backyard on May 15, and on the actual anniversary date, May 18, there will be a free admission day at the Johnston Ridge Observatory when the Forest Service will unveil a new, interactive seismic exhibit and movies.
To relive events, may I suggest a visit to and a search for CBS News Mt. St. Helens for a very young and serious Dan Rather reporting the story accompanied by some amazing footage. It’s a blast from the past!

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