On May 18, 1980 Mount Saint Helens volcano in Washington state erupted. Over the next weeks this was a major story on TV and in print. Most impressively I remember a fine film of ash covering our local roads 890 miles away in Billings, Montana. With the Offpeakers traveling in Washington State, we could not pass up a visit to see the still active volcano and the fascinating Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. We were right in the neighborhood on a futile effort to get a view of Mount Rainier.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was set-aside for research, recreation, and education. Inside the 110,000 acre Monument, the environment is left to respond naturally to the havoc created from the eruption. The large sight has a variety of entrances, viewing areas, informational and educational displays, and opportunities for entertainment. A $5 pass for Monument access is required.
This admission is also covered by the useful Inter Agency pass. Mount Saint Helens is a popular destination. It sits only 75 minutes north of Portland and 2 hours south of Seattle. This is the high country, so a visit is best made in the summer, as many of the Forest Service Roads (the Monument sits inside the Gifford Pinchot National Forest) are only open from July to October.
Most visitors enter from the west side along Interstate 5. Our approach to the Monument was from the east side. This is a series of little used roads that have scenery worthy of a visit themselves. In an hour we saw active logging areas, thickly timbered land, mossy trees, clear streams, varieties of wild flowers, and evidence that a patriotic man does not care for Nancy anymore.
Top off the gas tank and bring along lunch, because there are very few services in the direct area.
Forest Service road 99 goes all the way into Windy Ridge, right between Spirit Lake and four miles to the crater. As we drove in starting 15 miles from the crater two things surprised us: how visible the effects of the eruptions were 36 years after the fact, and the resiliency of life.
Information displays at Bear Meadow show where some of the famous photos of the blast were taken 13 miles from the crater. An amateur photographer was camping with two friends on a ridge. He managed to snap 22 pictures in 30 seconds. He quickly realized that even at this distance he was not safe and they managed to get in their car and careen down the primitive roads, just getting behind a steep ridge to avoid the worst of the blast and survive.
The power of the eruption was immense. The side of the volcano had been expanding by 6 feet a day. The intense pressure sent a shock wave that traveled 670 miles per hour with temperatures of 700 degrees F. There were zones around the north eastern side (direction of the blast) where for several miles everything was incinerated and destroyed. In this area even the topsoil was stripped and recovery is much slower.
Further was the knock down zone where all trees in the direct blast were leveled. An interesting relic from the blast is the “Miner’s car”. This 1973 Pontiac Bonneville had been driven in by three people working a small mining claim. They had been warned of the danger and had signed release of liability forms. The car was flattened by the shock wave, the men disappeared.
Much of this area is showing signs of recovery. Downed timber has rotted away, adding nutrients to the scorched soil. Areas on the back side of hills were less damaged and seeds survived. The recovery of the area was greatly enhanced by the time of year of the eruption. As it was mid May, there was still significant snow on the ground. In the protected areas at least 8 miles from the blast, the three feet of snow allowed seeds (and in some cases, even small animals such as mice) to survive and begin the gradual recovery.
Driving in there, are several trail heads and informative displays to explain the eruption and aftermath. Further from the knock down zone is the vast areas where the hot gases scorched the trees bad enough to kill them. To this day the burned dead trees fill the sides of hills as monuments to the blast. All the way in at Windy Ridge, the ground is still gray pebbly matter from inside the volcano.
Here you can see visible remnants of one other onslaught from the eruption, a massive landslide. The side of the mountain broke free and slid down the valley. It roared up the other side, scouring the hillsides down to the bedrock. Over 300 feet of debris ended up piled on the ground around Spirit Lake. The slide roared over the lake and up the steep hills on the other side.
When it receded, it took the thick stand of trees that stood there back to the water, creating a thick mat of tree trunks that still choke a significant part of the recovering lake. A steep hike up a neighboring butte took us to a long ridge that has amazing views of the crater, lake, and surrounding areas. Just now plants are beginning to come into this area.
Thick wildflowers and young grasses are coming up in areas. We were surprised to see elk tracks along the damp path.
Even more so it was a pleasure to actually see the small group of elk that were beginning to make this area part of their range. On this overcast day we were pleased to receive a quick view of the mountain’s new, less lofty summit.
Take some time and see other sights affiliated with Mount Saint Helens. There is a Visitor Center on the west side of the Monument. On the southern side, the Offpeakers just had to see Ape Cave. Ape Cave is a 2.5 mile long lava tube from a previous eruption, it is open for hikes but in total darkness. There is good access to a significant portion of it with two options, normal or more extreme.
On this day we chose the normal option. It is a chilly 43 degrees F year round in the tube. While we enjoyed the twenty minute hike in the dark, we wished we had better flashlights or had arrived in time to rent the available lanterns.
Interesting numbers help visualize the eruption. Mount Saint Helens lost over 1,300 feet of elevation in the event. The ash thrown out comprised nearly a cubic mile in volume. If the ash was piled onto a football field, the stack would be 150 miles high. Great scenery, fun hikes, learning, this is another National Monument that has it all. The Offpeakers suggest you work Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument into your Northwest travel plans.
Do you have any volcano memories? Share them with us below!