The Eruption and Life after Lava

Posted July 24th 2018 in Latest News, News and Updates,


The Cascade Mountains of Washington State are part of the Pacific Rim of Fire formed by earthquakes and volcanoes.  Sunday May 18th 1980 provided an awesome demonstration of the earth’s incredible forces when Mount St. Helens, located halfway between Seattle and Portland, erupted.

The north face of the tall symmetrical mountain collapsed in a massive rock debris avalanche. In a few moments this slab of rock and ice slammed into Spirit Lake, crossed a ridge 1,300 feet high, and roared 14 miles down the Toutle River.

The avalanche rapidly released pressurised gases within the volcano. A tremendous lateral explosion ripped through the avalanche and developed into a turbulent, stone-filled wind that swept over ridges and toppled trees. Nearly 150 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead and standing.

At the same time a mushroom-shaped column of ash rose thousands of feet skyward and drifted downwind, turning day into night, as dark, grey ash fell hundreds of miles away, over eastern Washington and beyond. Wet, cement-like slurries of rock and mud scoured all sides of the volcano. Searing flows of pumice poured from the crater. The eruption lasted 9 hours, but Mount St. Helens and the surrounding landscape were dramatically changed within moments. A vast, grey landscape lay where once the forested slopes of Mount St. Helens grew.

In 1982 the President and Congress created the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument for research, recreation, and education managed by the US Forest Service. Inside the Monument, the environment is left to respond naturally to the disturbance.  As the 40thanniversary approaches, now is a great time to see how the landscape is regenerating with new forests and re-colonisation by wildlife.

It is possible to approach the mountain from the west, the east or the south. For first timers, the western approach from Interstate 5 is best, with three visitor centres sited along well-paved Route 504 each telling different aspects of this incredible story.

The Mount St Helen’s Visitor Centre is a Washington State Park, sometimes called Seaquest or Silver Lake, and is found at Mile 5.  This is the oldest and may be visited best on the way down, when the first timer already has a perspective on what happened higher up on the mountain.  In addition to indoor displays and films, there is a delightful half-mile boardwalk through wetland.

At Mile 33 the Forest Learning Centre, sponsored by timber specialists Weyerhaeuser, has exciting exhibits including a sit-in helicopter.  This tells the remarkable story of the recovery of forests, fish and wildlife following the eruption.

At the top of the road, Mile 52, stands the US Forest Service’s Johnston Ridge Observatory.  In the heart of the 1980 blast zone, this hosts interpretive displays that tell the biological, geological and human story of Mount St. Helens. Visitors to Johnston Ridge Observatory can enjoy multiple award-winning films, listen to ranger talks, and observe this unique landscape.

The west-side experience up Route 504 takes a full day.  For visitors who have already done this, a tougher summer drive up Forest 99 to Windy Ridge Interpretative Site approaches Mount St. Helens from the east, revealing views of the log-filled Spirit Lake in the most devastated part of the blast zone.

State capital, Olympia provides a good option for lodging, an intimate ambiance with beautiful waterfront locations, and a delightful Capitol building overlooking a lake and parkland designed by the Olmsted partnership (famed for Central Park, New York). Tumwater Falls Park in the City and Wolf Haven International Sanctuary towards Tenino are also superb local attractions.

Simpler accommodation, closer to the west side of Mount St. Helens, can be found along Interstate 5 in small gateway communities such as Castle Rock, Kelso and Longview in the county of Cowlitz (Visit Mt St Helens), Chehalis and Centralia in Lewis County.

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