Pacific Northwest Day Trips: Mt. St. Helens

Adventure out into the National Volcanic Monument home to the most famous active volcano in the mainland U.S.  

COUGAR — On the morning of May 18, 1980, a modest-sized mountain in the Cascade Range of southwest Washington became the most famous volcano in the continental U.S.

At Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center, Ranger and Interpretive Specialist Alysa Adams gives a presentation to visitors, talking about the volcano and eruption. Photo by Mike Schultz
At Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center, Ranger and Interpretive Specialist Alysa Adams gives a presentation to visitors, talking about the volcano and eruption. Photo by Mike Schultz

Mt. St. Helens’ eruption was one of the largest in recorded history, beginning with a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, which triggered a massive landslide; nearly a cubic mile. The landslide tore open the mountain, releasing the pressurized gas and ash inside. 

The enormous ash cloud blasted outward at speeds of over 90 mph and upward, high enough to reach the stratosphere, and drift as far as California. Over 150 square miles of forest was blown down in an instant, or scorched dead in place. 

Fifty-seven people lost their lives in the eruption, while some 200 homes, 47 bridges, 184 miles of highways, and 15 miles of railways were destroyed. An estimated 5.4 million tons of ash was blown out of the volcano.  

In 1982, President Reagan and members of Congress established the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and created a vast landscape to explore and learn from. This is what makes the monument a perfect candidate for the Pacific Northwest Day Trip series.

In our third adventure of the series, we take you through the heart of the monument, right up to the face of the mountain. Along the way, we explore several centers, viewing spaces, historical sites, and of course, some delicious food. 

From all of us at ClarkCountyToday.com, we hope you have incredible adventures day tripping across the Pacific Northwest, beginning right here at home.

Here are our favorite spots within the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and beyond:

1. Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake

Large wooden walkways shown here criss-cross the wetland area adjacent to Silver Lake, behind the visitor center. They are ADA accessible. Photo by Mike Schultz
Large wooden walkways shown here criss-cross the wetland area adjacent to Silver Lake, behind the visitor center. They are ADA accessible. Photo by Mike Schultz
  • The visitor center is located 30 miles from the mountain
  • Outside, a small amphitheater is used for ranger presentations
  • Inside, a theater and exhibit with a large step-in model of the volcano can be found
  • Behind the center, trails and wooden platform walkways criss-cross the wetland adjacent to Silver Lake
  • The center also manages a seismograph with a live feed of the mountain  

2. Forest Learning Center by Weyerhaeuser

The Forest Learning Center on the way to the mountain, can be seen here from atop its elk viewing area overlooking the Toutle River Valley. Photo by Mike Schultz
The Forest Learning Center on the way to the mountain, can be seen here from atop its elk viewing area overlooking the Toutle River Valley. Photo by Mike Schultz
Inside the Forest Learning Center, an actual helicopter, shown here, serves as the cockpit for a virtual tour of the surrounding landscape. Photo by Mike Schultz
Inside the Forest Learning Center, an actual helicopter, shown here, serves as the cockpit for a virtual tour of the surrounding landscape. Photo by Mike Schultz
  • Located inside the blast zone, off the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway
  • The center is maintained through a partnership of Weyerhaeuser, WSDOT and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
  • The center showcases the recovery process for the forests surrounding the volcano
  • Outside is a large interactive children’s play area, viewing platforms for the mountain and a viewing platform for elk spotting
  • Inside, a theater and full-size exhibits featuring animals and trees fills the building
  • Kids activities and models of the region are scattered throughout the center  

3. Fire Mountain Grill at the 19 Mile House

The Fire Mountain Grill at the 19 Mile House is the only true restaurant on the way to the mountain, featuring burgers and famous cobblers. Photo by Mike Schultz
The Fire Mountain Grill at the 19 Mile House is the only true restaurant on the way to the mountain, featuring burgers and famous cobblers. Photo by Mike Schultz
  • The only true restaurant on the way to the mountain, Fire Mountain Grill features Americana cuisine and famous fruit cobblers
  • The building is historic and maintains a wrap around deck with views of the Toutle River below
  • Outfront, there is also a large Weyerhaeuser logging truck from 1980 that was totaled in the blast; it now has a tree growing through it 

4. Buried A-Frame and Bigfoot Statue

This A-frame home was half-buried during the mud flows resulting from the 1980 eruption. Photo by Mike Schultz
This A-frame home was half-buried during the mud flows resulting from the 1980 eruption. Photo by Mike Schultz
Seen here is the bigfoot statue near the buried A-frame on the way towards the volcano; the original was destroyed in the eruption, this is a replacement. Photo by Mike Schultz
Seen here is the bigfoot statue near the buried A-frame on the way towards the volcano; the original was destroyed in the eruption, this is a replacement. Photo by Mike Schultz
  • The half-buried A-Frame home is another historic stop on the way up, although you can no longer walk thru it
  • Refreshments and supplies are available for purchase at two small stores nearby, and helicopter tours of the valley also take off for here
  • The original bigfoot statue was destroyed in the 1980 eruption, and is now replaced with a larger, concrete version

5. Coldwater Lake Picnic and Boating Site

  • The lake was actually created by the eruption, when mudflows constructed and blocked Coldwater Creek
  • The lake shines a brilliant blue, and is safe for swimming, fishing and boating
  • A boat launch is available to visitors, as well as a picnic area with tables and a restroom with running water

6. Elk Rock Viewpoint, Castle Lake Viewpoint, and Loowit Viewpoint

  • These three viewpoints are in sequential order going towards the mountain, and each feature a stunning yet unique view
  • The are dotted nearly equidistant from each other over 14 miles of Spirit Lake Highway; just before Johnston Ridge Observatory
  • Each offers parking and a safe area to view and take photos of the mountain and Toutle River Valley

7. Hummocks Trail #229

  • Hummocks are, in fact, large pieces of Mt. St. Helens, hurled miles down the Toutle River Valley
  • Now hills, the hummocks create miniature valleys, which this trail winds through
  • The hike lasts several miles, but is easy in incline and has many beautiful forested points with views of the mountain  

8. Johnston Ridge Observatory

Icelandic Volcanologist and Ranger, Jorge Montalvo, conducts a presentation, shown here, atop Johnston Ridge Observatory’s main outlook area. Photo by Mike Schultz
Icelandic Volcanologist and Ranger, Jorge Montalvo, conducts a presentation, shown here, atop Johnston Ridge Observatory’s main outlook area. Photo by Mike Schultz
Seen here is the view of Mt. St. Helens from inside the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The building is designed to blend into the landscape; even having rocks and plants on the roof. Photo by Mike Schultz
Seen here is the view of Mt. St. Helens from inside the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The building is designed to blend into the landscape; even having rocks and plants on the roof. Photo by Mike Schultz
Shown here are people making their way to the main viewing platform outside Johnston Ridge Observatory on a clear day in July. Photo by Mike Schultz
Shown here are people making their way to the main viewing platform outside Johnston Ridge Observatory on a clear day in July. Photo by Mike Schultz
Photo by Mike Schultz
Photo by Mike Schultz
  • Named for the late volcanologist, David A. Johnston, who lost his life in the 1980 eruption while studying the mountain
  • The observatory is the epicenter of all things Mt. St. Helens: research, measurements, studies, views, exhibits, trails, etc.
  • A large parking lot also features a small food cart which is open sporadically
  • Up a somewhat steep walkway, you will find the observatory itself, with the main overlook of the volcano’s horseshoe-shaped crater
  • Inside the main building there are large scale models of the surrounding topography, as well as broken trees, a seismograph, a large scale theater playing a documentary, and more
  • Outside, to the east, there is an outdoor amphitheater constructed in 2012, for presentations, concerts and viewing
  • Connected to the observatory is a network of trails leading up the ridge and closer to the mountain
We'd love to hear your comments!

About The Author

Jacob Granneman is a filmmaker and writer from Clark County. He is a recent graduate of Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College, where he studied media production. He has produced documentary stories all over the Pacific Northwest and in Argentina. His passions range from loving people, to cinematography, to going on adventures in the most beautiful place on earth, i.e. his backyard. He lives with his wife in Vancouver, WA.

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