Monday, March 1, 2021
March 1, 2021

Linkedin Pinterest

Mount St. Helens visitors centers are a blast

Variety of activities slated for anniversary of eruption

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
14 Photos
Visitors read about Mount St. Helens near a display of an old-growth tree stump blown over by the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Visitors read about Mount St. Helens near a display of an old-growth tree stump blown over by the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. (Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Remember that oddball, playing-with-your-head tune about the maybe-mountain? “First there is a mountain; then there is no mountain; then there is.”

Flower child Donovan didn’t realize he was singing about Mount St. Helens. That nearby mountain was right there at 8:30 a.m. May 18, 1980; then, one earthquake and landslide and eruption later, it wasn’t there anymore, at least not as we knew it.

Mount St. Helens is back and beckoning (minus its rounded top, which is now a fearsome, steaming crater). Scientists and civilians alike have been awestruck at the way life is reclaiming the scorched, battered landscape, using the rich raw materials that burst from below the crust of the earth and caused such destruction in the short term. Fifty-seven people, including a Columbian photojournalist, died in the eruption and what’s considered the largest avalanche in recorded human history.

Now, the U.S. Forest Service and the Mount St. Helens Institute have announced the seasonal daily opening of the Johnston Ridge Observatory on May 14, and Summer on the Mountain, a series of activities for kids and families, beginning the same day at the nearby Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center.

Johnston Ridge Observatory, which marks the end of state Highway 504, is the popular spring-to-autumn visitor center that peers into the crater from just 5 miles away, close enough to give you the feeling you could reach out and touch it from the observation deck. Visitors to Johnston Ridge can also take in films and ranger talks, buy souvenirs and lunches — and even set off on hikes, guided or not, into the wilderness.

If You Go

 What: Visiting Mount St. Helens.

• Where: From Vancouver, take Interstate 5 north to Exit 49 and Castle Rock, then right onto Spirit Lake Highway/state Highway 504. Follow the signs. The Science and Learning Center at Coldwater is 42 miles from Castle Rock; the Johnston Ridge Observatory is 52 miles from Castle Rock.

 When: Johnston Ridge Observatory is open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., May 14 to Nov. 1. Science and Learning Center is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 14 only. (Except for scheduled Summer on the Mountain events, the SLC is generally closed for the summer and open during the winter.) Free hiking at the Hummocks Trailhead, midway between the two facilities.

 Cost: $8; free for those younger than 15.

• Tips: Don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses, water bottle, hiking shoes, camera, binoculars, layered clothes. Even in summer, it can be cold and windy up there.

About 10 miles closer to Interstate 5 is the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater, overlooking 5-mile-long Coldwater Lake, which, amazingly enough, was created by the 1980 eruption and avalanche. The Science and Learning Center serves as the mountain’s autumn-to-spring visitor center. It closes when Johnston Ridge opens, and generally stays closed during the summer except for special public events and by-reservation-only campouts.

Magma and wool

Long before it was dubbed St. Helens from a distance — by British Capt. George Vancouver, the same seagoing hero who never actually set foot in the town named for him — the mountain was called Loowit, or Lady of Fire, by the Puyallup Tribe and Lawetlat’la, or Smoking Mountain, by the Cowlitz Tribe.

Cowlitz elder and spiritual leader Roy Wilson, the author of many books about his tribe’s history and culture, will offer “Spiritual connections and traditional stories from the mountain” at the Science and Learning Center at 1 p.m. May 14. There will be a lot more for children and families to do at both sites that day.

Four days later, on May 18 — the 36th anniversary of the blast — Johnston Ridge will host presentations by professor of earth and space sciences Ken Creager of the University of Washington and ecologist Nathan Reynolds of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.

Creager has been peering deep into the earth below the mountain in a four-year project, Imaging Magma Under St. Helens ( It has drawn scientists from far and wide — Oregon to Germany — who are gaining new insights into the geology and “architecture” of the magma underlying the Cascade mountain range.

Other attractions on the Spirit Lake Highway

• Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake, with information on culture, history, geology, plants and wildlife.

• Forest Learning Center, with information on natural history, forest recovery, reforestation and conservation.

• Great viewpoints past the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge.

Reynolds’ talk, by contrast, will focus on what’s on top: mountain goats. For thousands of years, native people hunted mountain goats around Mount St. Helens and collected their highly prized wool. The goat population was wiped out by the 1980 eruption, but now a herd of more than 100 is expanding on the slopes. Biologists and Cowlitz people are both actively tracking the growing group to better understand the science and to recover the lost art of weaving goat wool.

Hiking up there

Public hiking is available at Mount St. Helens, and not every trailhead requires a fee and permit. Visitors can park at Johnston Ridge and stroll west to the Loowit Viewpoint for a free gawk at the crater. But a fee is required to enter the observatory building.

The easy Hummocks Trail, with parking lot and trailhead between Johnston Ridge and the Science and Learning Center, is free. It’s a 2.4-mile loop tour of a traumatized-but-healing landscape. There, massive mounds of ash and jagged boulders, flung free by the eruption, sit like sentinels among vibrant new stands of trees and fields of flowers. Scan the horizon for herds of elk.

“It’s among the most diverse and interesting landscapes at Mount St. Helens,” scientist Peter Frenzen recently told The Columbian. “That area on the pumice plain and in the hummocks is a natural lab at the volcano.”

Please note: The Hummocks Trail is free. But stepping off the trail and into the protected wilderness earns you a $100 fine.

Summer on the Mountain

Events are all at the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater, unless otherwise noted.

 June 25: Live music at Johnston Ridge. Details to be announced.

 July 9: Sky and star party. Free. Overnight camping available with reservations. Visit

 Aug. 6: “Art eruption.” Make your own “mountain,” a painting or a photo. Go on a scavenger hunt. Free.

 Sept. 3-4: Family camp. $75 per person includes lodging, food, program. Scholarships available. Visit

 Oct. 1: Carnival of color. Celebrate leaf season with games, art and more. Free.

Did You Know?

• Johnston Ridge is named for David Johnston, a volcanologist who died in the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Monitoring the situation from an observation post 6 miles away, he transmitted the now-legendary words “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” before being obliterated by the north-side blast. His body was never found, but his U.S. Geological Survey trailer was.

Eruption anniversary events

10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 14

“It’s a Blast!” at the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater and the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

• Science and Learning Center will have the “amazing trashcano” volcano demonstration at 11 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.; guided Hummock Trail hikes at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; “Exploring the Crater Glacier Ice Caves” with Jared Smith at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.; and “Spiritual Connections and Traditional Stories” with Roy Wilson at 1 p.m.

• Johnston Ridge Observatory opens for the season with spectacular views, exhibits, films, gift shop and food.

May 18 at Johnston Ridge

• 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Ken Creager describes what lies below the volcano and the Imaging Magma Under Mount St. Helens, or iMUSH, project.

• 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Nathan Reynolds talks about the past, future and meaning of mountain goats on Mount St. Helens.