The rapid recovery of the ecosystem surrounding Mount St. Helens makes it hard to believe the volcano erupted only 37 years ago.
The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument stands as a living testament to nature’s regenerative power, and it’s easily accessible from Lewis County for those who want to get a close-up view of the mountain and the surrounding area by car or by foot.
What once stood as a lush forest dominated by a towering mountain as a backdrop has systematically emerged from the devastation of May 18, 1980. Evidence of the destruction still marks the landscape, with pieces of the mountain known as hummocks deposited throughout the blast zone. Blown-down trees still float in Spirit Lake just as they did 36 years ago, and fine ash and dirt will evoke an image of a desert landscape.
The signs of regeneration are best explored closely. Red paintbrush peeks through the ground along several hiking trails, and small trees insulated by snow at the time of the blast have begun to mature, especially in the Mount Margaret area. Wildlife has begun to call the area home once again, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility to encounter a herd of deer or elk.
Mount St. Helens is truly an area to be explored in-depth, with much to offer an entire family over the course of a few hours full day trip or even a few days in the region.
To get the closest you can to the mountain — or even on the crater in itself — you’ll have to utilize your feet. Several hikes offer the opportunity to view the mountain from a variety of angles that promise to change one’s perspective on the volcano.
One of the most popular hikes for families is the Hummocks Trail, a two-mile loop around several hummocks that allow for views of the mountain while serving as Mount St. Helens Ecosystem 101. Plant life and wildlife are plentiful in the area, and it’s not too difficult a trip for even the youngest among us.
Delving into moderate difficulty, the Hummocks to Johnston Ridge hike is a nearly 9-mile roundtrip that gains at least 2,000 feet in elevation while twisting and turning to offer consistently changing views of the north flank of the volcano. Bring your water and some nutrition for this one.
To get even more majestic views of the mountain — and maybe more importantly for some, away from the throngs at Johnston Ridge Observatory — park at the far end of the observatory lot and take the Boundary Trail to Harry’s Ridge or Coldwater Peak, two high-elevation areas that offer a strenuous hike with a rewarding view that few people get to see.
There are several other hikes, such as the Lakes Trail and other backcountry trails not covered here. The Washington Trails Association website at www.wta.org offers detailed information on several of those hikes, complete with trip reports from people who have been there and can offer advice for the trail.
Seeing the volcano is one thing, but learning about its history, the massive 1980 eruption and the landscape in general provides a valuable context to one’s excursion to Mount St. Helens.
Visitor-oriented facilities such as the Forest Learning Center and Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center serve as a prelude to the journey by providing information about the mountain along with attractions of their own. Closer to the volcano, the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center, formerly Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, provides an opportunity on weekends for the public to get general information about the monument and partake in events designed to give one a greater understanding of the area.
The main attraction for many, however, remains the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The observatory sees the greatest concentration of visitors during tourist season, opening May 1 through the summer and part of the fall season.
Facing the north flank of the mountain, the center built into the hillside offers interactive exhibits, a movie, guided hikes and much more. The U.S. Forest Service, which administers the area, offers a Junior Ranger program designed to keep young minds inquisitive.
The Mount St. Helens Institute, a nonprofit organization aiming to enhance people’s experiences at the mountain, offers a wide variety of activities from summit climbs with geologists to its annual Volcano Outdoor School and Volcano Camp. For more information on their offerings, visitmshinstitute.org or follow them on Facebook.
Wildlife abound in the Mount St. Helens area, and it’s not uncommon to see elk grazing from several viewpoints along state Route 505 near the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater. The aptly-named Elk Rock provides a pristine spot to search for wildlife in the hills below. Castle Lake Viewpoint nearby is a great viewing location as well.
The aforementioned Hummocks Trail is a great place to view birds due to its location close to water and trees. Warblers, sparrows, kingfishers, hummingbirds and even owls fly through on a regular basis.
Bring your binoculars.
Another excellent viewing area is the Meta Lake area, home to several species, and if you’re alert enough you can even see legions of tadpoles in the lake swimming around as they grow. Beavers have also been known to swim through the area on occasion.
Meta Lake is also a wonderful spot to see a great amount of plant and other life that survived the blast, as is much of the Mount Margaret Backcountry. Those areas are best accessed by Forest Roads 25 and 99 coming south from Randle.
As with any trip to Mount St. Helens, it’s always good to know before you go when it comes to hours of operation for facilities you wish to visit, road conditions and trail conditions. Find all the information you need by visiting the U.S. Forest Service’s website on Mount St. Helens atfs.usda.gov/mountsthelens.