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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Mount St. Helens: Still plenty of options for fun at monument despite May landslide

By , Columbian Managing Editor for Content
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The Mount St. Helens Science & Learning Center at Coldwater, once a formal visitors center, will serve as an improvised one while state Highway 504 is blocked.
The Mount St. Helens Science & Learning Center at Coldwater, once a formal visitors center, will serve as an improvised one while state Highway 504 is blocked. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Even though a landslide has cut off part of Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, you can still have fun at Mount St. Helens this summer.

You won’t be able stare into the maw of the volcano from Johnston Ridge Observatory, which lies at the end of the 51-mile highway, but the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument has more to offer than that one attraction.

“We don’t want people to think that the whole monument is closed because of this one slide,” said Gala Miller, a spokeswoman for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which manages the volcano.

On May 14, an estimated 300,000 cubic yards of rocks and mud slid from 2,000 feet above state Highway 504 and slammed into the Spirt Lake Outlet Bridge at milepost 49. The Washington Department of Transportation closed the highway at milepost 43.

The Forest Service is working with the state transportation department to push the roadblock a couple of miles closer to the crater so that summer visitors can reach trailheads for the Hummocks and Coldwater hiking routes, as well as Coldwater Lake, a popular spot for picnicking, boating and fishing.

With Johnston Ridge Observatory closed, the Mount St. Helens Science & Learning Center at Coldwater (milepost 42) will serve as the end-of-the-road facility. It’s open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily with an improvised bookstore and Forest Service employees available to answer questions. This building, which opened in 1993, was an official visitors center until the Forest Service closed it in 2007 for lack of funding. Now the nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute has a contract with the Forest Service to use it for educational programs.

North side

Here are other spots on the north side of Mount St. Helens along Spirit Lake Highway (state Highway 504), east of Interstate 5 at Castle Rock, where you can still explore.

The Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake at about milepost 5 is run by the state parks department. The center’s displays include a timeline of the volcano’s eruptions, as well as a seismograph tracking quakes and a step-in model of the volcano. Outside, a trail just over a half-mile long includes boardwalks over wetlands adjacent to the eponymous lake where you can watch waterfowl.

Weyerhaeuser Co.’s Forest Learning Center at milepost 33 tells the story of recovery following the eruption. The 1980 eruption devastated 68,000 acres of forest that Weyerhaeuser owned and managed.

Elk Rock Viewpoint at milepost 37 overlooks the Toutle River Valley, still choked by the debris avalanche unleashed when the side of the mountain gave way in the 1980 eruption.

From Castle Lake Viewpoint at milepost 40 you can see more directly into the crater.

South side

While the north side showcases the effects of the eruption’s blast of hot gases and massive mud-and-debris flow, the south side is the place to see ancient Hawaiian-style basalt lava flows. It’s also where climbers who have scored one of a limited number of permits (110 a day in the summer) begin their ascent to the rim of the volcano.

To get there, drive east of Interstate 5 at Woodland along state Highway 503 to Forest Service Road 90, which takes you to roads 81, 83 and 25. At press time, the upper reaches of these roads remain closed because winter’s heavy snow has yet to melt. You’ll have to wait until later this summer to visit favorites like June Lake, Lahar Viewpoint Interpretive Site and Lava Canyon along Road 83, or Windy Ridge Interpretive Site on Road 99 overlooking Spirit Lake. (To get to Windy Ridge this summer, you’ll have to go north on I-5, east on Highway 12 to Randle and then drive back south because of a landslide on Road 25. The road is closed at milepost 26. The closure will push back to milepost 23 when the snow melts.)

You can, however, reach the kid-friendly Trail of Two Forests Interpretive Site, where you can explore a 2,000-year-old lava flow that wrapped around trees and caused them to burst into flames. After the lava solidified, the trees rotted away, leaving impressions of their bark and voids where they once stood. You can climb down a ladder and into one of these tree wells. The site requires an Annual Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day-use fee.

Ape Cave Interpretive Site has opened for the season. There, you can climb through a pitch-black 2 1/2-mile lava tube, but that requires a timed reservation (which you can secure for $2 at recreation.gov), as well as a forest pass. You need two sources of light per person, sturdy shoes and warm clothing. When you come out of the upper cave, you’ll have to hike through deep snow to return to the parking lot, at least until it melts later in the summer.

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