Get Your Ass Outside, or Mount St Helens

Pet and I tend to work strange hours, and that often leads to us planning on doing all kinds of things on Saturday, only to blow it all off in favor of sleep. It’s a frustrating habit that we’ve been trying to break. Last Saturday proved to be an exception.

We were awake by 7:30 in the morning, which is usually only obtainable by gunpoint, or by the needs of the job. But both of us were wide awake and ready to climb out of bed at that time. A few weeks prior I’d had the urge to go see Mount St. Helens, but Pet wasn’t into it. This weekend, I gave her a list of options: Mount St Helens, drive up the Gorge and see the waterfalls and Crown Point, the Mcloughlin House, or something else, but we had to get out and do something.

Pet chose Mount St Helens, and by 9:30 we were off and driving. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive, or about 130 miles, which is nothing for us to drive. We expected some delay in the drive, it was the weekend they closed the I5 in Vancouver, but traffic was light, and we made good time.

Originally we’d discussed stopping at the southmost visitor center a few miles off the I5, getting Pet some of the back story, and then progressing up to the mountain, but we ended up going straight up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, with the intention of stopping at information spots and viewpoints on the way down.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, I’ve included a few paragraphs at the very end of this post explaining what went on.

Johnston Ridge Observatory as photographed from the top of hte ridgeI’d been to Mount St. Helens a few times before, but the last time was 1995 or 1996, so the Johnston Ridge Observatory hadn’t been built yet. As far as I know, it’s the closest place casual observers can get to the mountain, and still have a building. You can hike a bit closer, but only so far, as the actual mountain itself is off limits unless you’re a scientist.

Or an Elk.

A quick readup on the observatory mentioned there was going to be costs involved, $8 per person to go inside, and another $5 for the day use pass because St Helens is a national monument. Pet and I were prepared with cash on hand.

Turns out admission was free on June 8, because it was National Get Outdoors Day. when we went inside, a helpful Forest service guy did confirm that there was no cost to visit that day.  Bonus!

We enjoyed a brief talk by a cute English gal about the technology related to tracking the volcano, and then went inside to see the 16 minute video about how the eruption happened. The video was ok, and the sound was awful, but the end was pretty neat: once the video ended, it raised a big curtain and you could see a breathtaking view of the mountain.

Tree Stump Knocked Over In The Blast, preserved inside the observatory

We exited the auditorium behind this big tree. This is one of the trees blown down in the blast, and it’s oriented in the observatory the same way it was when it fell. The mountain is on the left side of the photo, out of range.

On the right of the photo, you can see some photos mounted vertically that look like matchsticks. Well, you can kind of see them. Those are the trees that were blown down by the blast. When I was a kid, they were a lot more prominent as you drove into the blast zone, and they made a heck of an impact. at the observatory, there are stories of the survivors on that wall, recounting how they survived the blast.

So where are my photos of the mountain, you might be asking? Well, here’s the shot I like best. Taken with my crappy phone, which I don’t take very good photos with.

Mount St Helens as photographed from the Josnston ObservatoryIt was a great day to see the mountain; often there’s cloud cover or fog, but today was clear, sunny, and warm, so the shots were perfect. It was nice enough we didn’t need jackets, although when we hiked Johnston Ridge to get up top, it was pretty windy. This photo is about 4 miles from the mountain, 6 from the summit. It’s as close as we could comfortably get.

Pet (left) and Steph (right) with Mount St Helens on the far left


Pet and I have not gotten used to taking front facing camera photos. Even though this is a crap photo, I’m putting it up here, so if you hate it, just scroll past it.

Brozen Directional Compass, pointing out all the points of interest


The best way I can describe this is a compass, but I don’t know if that’s exactly what you’d call it. It’s at the top of Johnston Ridge, and it points out all the things of interest, and how far you are from them. For example, the Mount ST. Helens summit is 6 miles (9.7 km) from where we were, and Spirit Lake was 3.8 miles (6.1 km).

Red flowers growing near Mount St Helens


From the top of the ridge, there was a back trail leading back to the parking lot, so Pet and I took that down. This is just a photo of some pretty red flowers that were growing all over the area.

At this point, Pet and I were getting hungry. We’d eaten at 8:30, made it to the mountain by 12:15, and it was about 2pm when we left. So we figured we’d make a few quick stops, and then head somewhere to eat.

Mount Saint Helens Coldwater Observatory


The last time I’d gone to see Mount St Helens, I’d gone with my mother, and we’d visited the Coldwater Observatory. It was the closest you could get to the mountain at the time, and the Johnston observatory was being planned, but not yet constructed. I’d originally thought Pet and I were coming here, but then I read that they’d closed it a few years ago. The Folks staffing Johnston  told me it was open weekends, so we went.

It was kind of a disappointment. There was another theatre, with films being played, but we didn’t really want to sit down and watch them. There were a few panels describing the wildlife that returned to the mountain, and the really creepy “AI” forest service person. It’s a dummy dressed like a member of the Forest Service, but it has a blank face. There’s lips and nose, but no other features, and they project a face on it. When I was a teen, it was a guy, but this time it was a woman. It crosses the uncanny valley, so we moved on.

Most of the displays and exhibits had been removed, and the few that were left weren’t working. We talked to the guy manning the info desk, and he told us that when they closed the center down in the 2007, most of the exhibits went into the trash. The Coldwater Observatory was built in 1993, and most things were put on laserdisk. They had trouble transferring that data to the more digital age, so that stuff went away.



We’d seen the Forest Learning Center on the way up, but we chose to stop on the way down. I don’t have any photos of the building, my thumb covered them all, but I would say this place is one of the more interesting exhibits up in the Mount Sr Helens area. It’s a private enterprise, a partnership between Weyerhaeuser, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Washington Department of Transporation. You walk into a beautful lush looking forest, and then go into the small theatre, where they play a 4 minute film showing the devastation around the Mount St Helens eruption. From there, you walk out into a recreation of a logger trying to cut down a tree that was blown down by the eruptiion, and it has exhibits about the aftermath of the eruption.

I was glad we stopped, because while I’m familiar with the eruption and the aftermath, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, Pet had not, and the other film we watched really didn’t covered what happened to people. So she got to see another side of the eruption.

The photo above is taken from one of the Forest Learning Center’s elk viewing areas; we weren’t in the mood to climb the small bluff for the best lookout, so we just looked over the railing. That’s the Toutle River, which was a victim of the eruption. It used to be a much cleaner, nicer river, but the mud flows that went down it pretty much wiped it all out. Now it’s home to scrubby brush and elk.

The Buried A Frame

The last place Pet and I stopped was the buried A Frame. It was nearly complete when the eruption happened, and when the Toutle River was filled with mud, it buried the A Frame almost 5 feet deep. Whar you see here is a stagnant pond, because the parking area here is almost 5 feet higher than the base of the A frame. Needless to say, these folks never moved in.

Giant Bigfoot statue


Next  to the buried A Frame, in the same parking area, is Bigfoot. He’s about 30 feet tall, and made of concrete. There apparently was a Bigfoot sighting back in the 90s, and that’s what prompted the statue. That’s one hell of a smile on Bigfoot. I wish I’d parked our car in front of the statue, it would have made a great size comparison.

Once Pet and I made it back to Castle Rock, we skipped the first Volcano Learning Center, and headed back down I5 to get dinner and go home. By the time we made it home, it was 7:30, so we’d been gone 10 hours, and we were tired. It was well worth the trip though, free admission, beautiful day, lots of history to be had.

I realize in this post that I didn’t cover a lot of the history of Mount St Helens, so if you’re not from the United States you may not know much about what happened. Even if you’re in the United States, the eruption is less of a big deal in most places because it happened more than 30 years ago, and with the exception of a few small eruptions in the mid 2000s, it’s been quiet ever since.

On May 18, 1980 at about 8:32 am, Mount St. Helens in Washington state erupted. An earthquake helped the north face of the mountain slide away, and then the eruption happened. The eruption was a lateral blast, and it, added to the landslide of the north face, the pyroclastic flow, and the flash melting of the glaciers on the mountain, caused devastation as fast as 14 miles from the eruption point.

The mix of super heated steam, ash, rock, mud, etc splintered the trees in the nearby areas, depositied hundred of feet of debris into canyons and channels, sent a wave 600 feet high up the sides of the canyon Spirit lake was in, and sent hundred of thousands of tons of mud down the Toutle River. The mud eventually dumped off into the Columbia River, decreasing it’s depth to 1/3 of normal The ash blanketed the eastern portion of the Pacific Northwest, turning noon into night in Yakima, Washington, and sending ash all around the world within weeks.

Fifty seven people lost their lives, including David Johnston. Johnston Ridge is named for him, his famous last words were over the radio when St Helens erupted: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” They never found his body, but they did find portions of his camping trailer in 1993.

In 1982 the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was established as a place of remembrance and education. Aside from a few hiking trails, viewpoints, the highway through the blast zone, and the observatories, the area is left untouched, so it can studied, and people can observe how an area recovers from such a large scale disaster.

4 thoughts on “Get Your Ass Outside, or Mount St Helens

  1. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. I remember when Mt. St. Helen erupted and how the trees were just blown flat and covered with ash or mud. Such devastation. Its interesting to see how the area is regenerating.

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