Ask anybody what is the greatest mountain in the State of Washington, and they’re prone to mention Mount Rainier, but ask them which had the most memorable eruption, and Mount St Helens takes the cake. Blowing its top in 1980, the blast was one of the most destructive in the United States.
Mount St Helens is the most recent volcano to erupt in Washington’s history, but the intervening 39 years have allowed the region around it to renew its lease on life. The Cascade Mountain region is among the most beautiful in the world, and that beauty is easily perceptive there. The volcanic soil is among the Earth’s most fertile, so despite the millions of tons of hot ash reducing the surrounding greenery to a cinder, today you’d think of the site as a place of supreme tranquility.
A fantastic day trip for any Pacific Northwesterner, Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument sits in the southwest of Washington state, just 70 miles north of Portland, Oregon. Since the volcano is still considered active, there are no lodges or residences on it, so any place you stay for the night will have to have some distance.
But once you’ve come to the mountain’s doorstep, you’re in for a treat. The instant visual gratification of seeing it after exiting the parking lot is impossible to convey in text or even pictorial form. A mountain’s size can’t be given proper scale without an in person viewing, and Mount St Helens’ sheer visual awe is worth a visit.
There are a couple of visitors centers around the area, but we had a superb experience at the one on Johnston Ridge. It’s named after David A. Johnston, the volcanologist who perished on the ridge while studying the volcano when it blew. The center offers not just an awesome view, but also an informative place about the volcano’s past, present, and future. A visitor’s pass is required to enter, and is about $7 and helps the center thrive.
Surrounding the ridge are multiple hiking opportunities, and if you’re physically up to snuff you can even try scaling the mountain itself. Just make sure you have the right permits and gear!
Additionally there are numerous lakes around the area. The nearest to the north side is Spirit Lake, but it is currently under biological monitoring and off limits to civilians. Coldwater Lake is just a few minutes drive from Johnston Ridge, and offers a perfect substitute. Open to swimming, boating and fishing, anybody wanting a lake visit will be fulfilled. There’s even a partial view of the mountain. A hiking trail outside the perimeter of the lake is just right for the casual hiking crowd.
And there’s even more of the park to explore including multiple lakes, hiking trails, campsites, and forests. Of particular note is the Ape Caves, an ancient maze of lava tubes that are the longest in North America.
So the next time you’re planning a mountain visit to Rainier for the hundredth time, give Mount St Helens a little love. It has an equally illustrious history, and everyone will be envious of the pictures you’ll take.