Highway to Helen

Highway to Helen

It all started with an earthquake. On March 20, 1980, the communities in Skamania County, Washington, US, experienced a 4.2 magnitude earthquake; this was the first definite sign that Mount St. Helens, a volcano that had been largely dormant, was about to erupt.

Over the next two months earthquakes of magnitudes 4.0 and higher became the norm, the area around Mount St. Helens was evacuated, and an ominous bulge started to appear on the north side of the mountain. Then, on a cool Sunday morning in May, the entire north face of the volcano slid away as the volcano erupted with massive explosive force at 8:32 am.

Over the next few years, the site around the mountain was converted into a large national park: testing grounds for geologists to study and observe how nature can heal its own wounds. The very road to the mountain follows the path the lahar flows took that fateful day in 1980. As we travel along it, the scenery goes from a beautifully wooded countryside to the desolated aftermath left by the volcano. And since, Mount St. Helens has become a beacon for tourists—and a perfect place for a weekend getaway.

Plan Ahead

Washington is a beautiful state and home to one of the rarest ecosystems in the world: a temperate rainforest. This means that it is very rainy, so if you’re wanting to get a good view of the mountain, you need to plan with the weather in mind.

There are two common ways to get to the mountain: from the east and the west. Since it’s our first trip to the mountain, we’ll come from the west where we’ll get the best views and have some of the best hiking opportunities at the mountain. There are a few places to stay in the area that I recommend depending on what you’re looking for:

Photo by Beverly Unrau

Toutle is the closest place to stay and is slightly up the highway that you’d take to the mountain

Castle Rock is the town at the base of that highway where the highway meets the interstate

Kelso which is just south of Castle Rock, but is a slightly bigger town so it has a larger variety of options for lodging.

For all the best hikes to and views of Mount St. Helens herself, we’ll want to end up at Johnston Ridge Observatory (named after a man who died there in the eruption where he thought he would be safe), but we’ll need to make a few pit stops first. The first of which is the Mount St. Helen’s Visitors Center. Now, if you decided to stay in Toutle, you’ll have to backtrack a little, but I promise, this visitor’s center is worth seeing.

The Visitor’s Center

The Mount St. Helens Visitor’s Center is home to an old, but surprisingly moving video about the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. The 15-minute video describes how volcanos are made and why they erupt, as well as sharing some insight on the 1980 eruption. After the movie, explore the displays depicting how the earth’s crust moves, the history of the Mount St. Helens area, and see how the wildlife survived the eruption.

The Forest Learning Center

Our next stop, the Forest Learning Center, won’t be for a while, so I recommend enjoying the stunning scenery and pulling off the highway at the many scenic viewpoints along the route!

The Forest Learning Center is a fun place for children to learn about volcanos and how the forests survive and or come back after an eruption. The gift shop is well stocked and open year-round, but the actual exhibit is only open during certain seasons, so be sure to check out the schedule before you come.

As we continue on the highway, be sure to stop at the many viewpoints, including Coldwater Lake, for some fantastic views of the volcano and the destruction that can still be seen on the mountain sides along the way.

Johnston Observatory

Now to our final destination: Johnston Ridge Observatory! At the Observatory, watch some of the great informational videos about the Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption and enjoy the fantastic presentations by the rangers, Make sure to take a look around at the displays—they are especially well-designed.

Take a Hike

Here, you will find many trailheads to many of the great hikes in the area. Because you have the time, plan on hiking for most of the day. I recommend the Harry’s Ridge Hike: an eight-mile round-trip hike that takes you to many great spots to view the mountain and the surrounding areas.

As you explore the area, be sure to ask the park rangers for hiking suggestions and trail stories as there is always more to be discovered. Since we came to Mount St. Helens as a weekend getaway, perhaps hike Harry’s Ridge one day, and do some of the many shorter hikes and museums another. You never know what you’ll uncover at this beautiful location of healing at Mount St. Helens.

—Beverly Unrau