Pilgrimage to Mount St Helens Volcano

Ranger led talk at Johnston Ridge Observatory, Mount St Helens

It’s been 37 years since the eruption of the Mount St Helens Volcano, located in southwestern Washington State. And just about every year, it’s been almost like a religious routine for me to visit this once symmetrical and beautiful, snow capped mountain, on or around the anniversary of the “big blast.” On May 18, 1980, forces of nature not seen by most modern day Americans were unleashed by a sleeping giant in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. A moderate sized earthquake beneath the trembling mountain helped uncork the volcano’s pressure, releasing tons of ash into the air along with searing heat, incinerating everything in it’s path. Left behind are “ghost forests,” some remnants still standing, but most blown down in an instant, lying like matchsticks.

Today the forests around the mountain are slowly rebuilding. If one visits certain viewing areas within the national monument, it would be hard to believe that such a cataclysm ever took place here. Nature has once again reclaimed the land. Acres and acres of ashy landscape devoid of any life have been replaced by grass, trees, shrubs, flowers, and wildlife.

Upon entering the Mount St Helens Volcanic National Monument, one has the opportunity to pull over in a few parking areas to get a sweeping view of the Toutle River Valley and, of course, the volcano. The small lake to the right in the image below is Castle Lake, formed as a result of the May 18 eruption.

A popular lookout, Loowit, is the stop just before the Johnston Ridge Observatory that is built on the side of a ridge overlooking the lahar plain, at the foot of the volcano. One is standing within 5 miles of the crater here.

There are plenty of these cute, little Ground Squirrels scurrying about the ashy landscape.

Here is what the landscape looked like on this day, when leaving the Loowit lookout area.

Once at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, you may peruse the exhibits or watch a fascinating movie in the auditorium that is played on a regular schedule. This is a fee area, but certain permits are allowed if you have one. Get a sweeping view of the lahar valley below and zoom into the crater with your photography equipment.

Also, just peeking up over a ridge, the upper portion of Mount Adams, another titan in the Cascade Range, can be seen from this viewpoint.

Mount Adams

In the distance, one can espy a portion of Spirit Lake. With a permit, one can hike into the backcountry on trails within the monument. These are desolate areas, and one needs to be fully prepared with life sustaining supplies when hiking into these areas. There is no shade, and the sun beats down relentlessly. It is especially dangerous during the summer months.

There is also an outdoor amphitheater adjacent to the observatory building. During the summertime, ranger talks and music performances are held here.

Adjacent to the observatory building is an ADA accessible trail to the top of a viewing area. The front side is clear of snow now, but the rear side of the hilly trail is not completely clear of snow yet. In fact, I encountered areas of the trail completely covered with snow for several yards.

On the rear side of the trail is a monument to the 57 lives lost during the May 18 eruption.

Continue following the path down the hillside that leads to the rear of the main parking lot.

As a postscript, I wanted to mention that the colorful, spring wildflowers have not yet bloomed. We experienced a harsh winter and cold, wet spring. Look to June for the blooms. Have fun and enjoy your national monument!

All images property of Peggy A Thompson

About northwestphotos

A long time resident of Washington State, located in the beautiful Pacific Northwest USA. I enjoy regional travel, exploring all the wondrous, natural settings that the Pacific Northwest has to offer. If you get a chance, visit my Northwestphotos Zazzle store, http://www.zazzle.com/northwestphotos.
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6 Responses to Pilgrimage to Mount St Helens Volcano

  1. Gunta says:

    How time flies. Has it really been so many years since the eruption? I was still living in California, following the news closely as the scientists reported the signs of the impending blowout. I need to add this spot to the already long list of stops I’d like to make on a trip north. Hopefully we’ll be settled in the new place by the end of July and can start planning some adventures then! Thanks for this great look at a historical event.

    • I know…time does fly! Definitely a site you’d want to see! Although, I highly recommend visiting the volcano when there is still snow on it. It looks a lot prettier. It gets really hot up there during the summer, and the winds blow the dry ash around. But it’s still quite something else to see for the first time, whatever time of year it is. Just make sure to get a full tank of gas near I-5, as there are no services available for miles and miles. It’s a long drive up Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.

  2. It is remarkable, how resilient nature is and how strongly it comes back after such a cataclysm.

  3. I go every ten years. Love it there.

  4. Jet Eliot says:

    Lovely post, thank you for the reminder of this glorious mountain. I visited Mt. St. Helens once; and really enjoyed the history, anniversary, and photos here.

    • Thank you! Even though we are surrounded with so much awe and beauty here in the Pacific Northwest, we are also mindful of the tremendous forces of nature that can sometimes take us by surprise, and, without mercy.

Thank you!

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