The anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ eruption draws tourists from all over the globe for not just that day, but multiple days surrounding it — and one look at the volcano makes it easy to see why.
On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted with tremendous destructive force. The eruption reduced the height of the mountain, which once stood 9,677 feet, to 8,363 feet and left a gaping crater that would continue to emit steam for several years after.
The landscape surrounding Mount St. Helens transformed from a lush forest to one resembling a moonscape, but only 36 years later, it’s evident that life teems in the blast zone even among the deposits of pieces of the mountain and landslide debris.
Mount St. Helens was a favorite destination among many who enjoyed camping, hiking and gazing upon nature’s beauty. Accessible from Lewis County and points south, primarily Toledo, the peak’s natural beauty was accentuated by endless trees in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and lakes such as Spirit Lake that allowed people to enjoy the landscape with one of Washington’s most recognizable peaks in the background.
The Spirit Lake area was home to a Scout camp and the old Spirit Lake Lodge, among other sites. Heavy snows during winter made the area a prime snowshoeing destination, and hot summers led people to seek out Spirit Lake as a refuge from the heat.
Photos from the U.S. Forest Service taken through the years before the eruption show what once was a pristine wilderness with the mountain gently keeping watch.
But in March 1980, the mountain awoke from a more than century-long dormancy, causing several earthquakes and alerting scientists that something major may be on the horizon.
March 27 brought about what is known as a phreatic eruption, blowing a 250-foot-wide new crater in the side of the mountain. The mountain signaled its renewed activity to the world with an ash column visible from miles away.
Earthquakes became an increasingly common occurrence, and more explosions of steam and ash prompted officials to act with urgency and begin to close the area surrounding the volcano to the public.
Over the coming weeks, the crater would continue to expand, but a telltale sign of the major eruption to come would grow on the mountain’s north side: a major bulge that would grow an average of five feet outward per day.
On May 18, at 8:32 a.m., Mount St. Helens’ most powerful eruption in more than 120 years awoke the Pacific Northwest to a series of booms and a miles-high ash cloud that would drift eastward.
The lateral blast caused the largest landslide in recorded history, in which the northern face of the mountain slid off toward Spirit Lake and the North Fork Toutle River, endangering many downstream.
The eruption’s force was so great that thousands of trees for several miles outward from the mountain were snapped, the Toutle River became a raging torrent of mud and ash, and the previously pristine forest became a barren landscape with chunks of the mountain coming to rest.
As for the beautiful Spirit Lake, it was pushed more than 800 feet up the hillside, bringing down numerous trees into the lake that still float in its waters today.
The greatest tragedy of the eruption came in the form of 57 lives that were lost, with several who would never be recovered.
Today, one look at Mount St. Helens shows just how destructive the eruption was to the mountain itself. Look inside the crater and you’ll see the volcano’s lava dome that has rebuilt ever so slowly, showing us all that one day she will awaken again. We just don’t know when.
In the 36 years since Mount St. Helens erupted, plant and animal life has returned to the area stunningly quickly. The pieces of the mountain deposited by the eruption, known as hummocks, and the surrounding areas have begun to become dotted with grasses and small trees. Lupine and red paintbrush are plentiful, especially in the springtime, showing the rapid recovery of the area. Animals such as elk roam the lower areas seeking water and shelter. Mountain goats have even been seen in areas such as the Mount Margaret Backcountry, north of Mount St. Helens itself.
For having erupted only three and a half decades ago, the mountain is extremely accessible, with two major tourist areas reachable from points in Lewis County. Although the mountain is in Skamania County, routes to both Windy Ridge on the mountain’s northeastern end and, to a lesser extent, Johnston Ridge Observatory on its northwestern end bring many travelers through our county.
As of the time of this post, Johnston Ridge Observatory has just opened for the season. The observatory sits mere miles from the crater, offering the best views of the mountain for those who just want to drive up and take a short walk to viewing points. It’s also a great launching point for some hikes that bring stunning views of the volcano, such as Harry’s Ridge and Loowit Falls.
Windy Ridge, meanwhile, offers a tremendous perspective of the mountain and is accessible from just south of Randle on Forest Roads 25 and 99. However, as of the time of this post, the road is still closed for the season but should reopen soon. We’ll alert you to when it does open!
If you’re coming down from Seattle or points north of Lewis County, the best way to get to Johnston Ridge is to take Interstate 5 down to Exit 63 and head through the town of Toledo. Stop in there for a bit for some food or, better yet, park your RV at a site near town overnight, then capture some glorious morning views of the volcano. From Toledo, the mountain is about an hour away.
Stay tuned…coming up later this week, we’ll show you a couple of places that are guaranteed to be a hit among anyone in your family looking forward to a Mount St. Helens trip, including one that takes you to a new lake formed by the effects of the eruption!