I was in fourth grade when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. I can’t say that I remember where I was when I heard the news, but I do remember the news coverage after the eruption. Eight years later, after I graduated from high school, I had the opportunity to visit Mount St. Helens with my aunt and cousin, who was living in Portland, Oregon, at the time. Even after eight years, the damage seemed fresh and I remember seeing mountainsides that looked like piles of toothpicks. So when we planned to visit Mount St. Helens with our kids twenty-five years after my last visit, I looked forward to seeing how much it had changed.
Visiting Mount St. Helens can be a little confusing, because there are several visitor centers to choose from, each run by a different agency. We had enough time to visit only two of the centers.
The Johnson Ridge Observatory is a must-see, in my opinion. This site has the best view of the mountain (when it isn’t covered by clouds) and is run by the U.S. Forest Service.
The area immediately surrounding the volcano is a National Volcanic Monument and has been left to recover on its own. No reforestation was done in this area. As you can see from the picture above, vegetation has begun to grow again on the mountain. We saw some beautiful wildflowers.
Inside the Visitor Center you can watch a film and view a 3D model of the mountain.
We also attended an interesting Ranger Program that explored myths about Mount St. Helens. All of the myths were busted by the end of the program.
We didn’t have enough time to do any hiking, but it appears there are plenty of trails on the mountain.
Our other stop was the Forest Learning Center.
This center is run by the Weyerhaeuser Company. While the company definitely uses the center as a PR tool, it has some very worthwhile exhibits and a playground, so it is also worth a stop, in my opinion. The playground has a volcano theme and is a great place to let kids burn off some energy after they’ve been cooped up in the car for a while.
The exhibits close at 4 p.m., whereas Johnston Ridge is open until 6 p.m., so for logistical purposes, if you are planning an afternoon visit, you might want to visit the Forest Learning Center first. Weyerhaeuser is a forestry company and uses the center to tell the story of how the eruption of Mount St. Helens affected the forestry industry and its workers. You’ll learn what the forest was like before the eruption, experience the blast first hand in a multi-media “eruption chamber,” and then learn about the salvage, recovery, and reforestation efforts.
There are exhibits that will interest both kids and adults. One of the kid-friendly exhibits allows kids to sit inside a helicopter and see a model of the mountain as it would look from a chopper.
Here’s another view of the mountain model.
Don’t miss the Discovery Room, which has several collections of hands-on learning items for kids. (But as an adult, I enjoyed them too.) See animal skulls of the animals that live in the forest.
I loved this collection of pinecones. Each one was labeled with the type of tree it comes from.
This interesting collection of rocks allows kids to explore the concept of density.
And, as you would expect, you can learn about the tools used in the forestry industry.
The Forest Learning Center also has a gift shop, a one-mile trail, and a scenic viewpoint.
There are other centers that we didn’t have time to visit. Washington State Parks operate the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake. The Science and Learning Center at Coldwater is open on weekends and by reservation and is operated by the U.S. Forest Service. The Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center at Mount St. Helens appears to be a commercial operation with a restaurant and helicopter tours. Since we didn’t visit any of these, I don’t have any recommendations whether or not these are worthwhile. If you have been to any of them, please leave a comment and let me and my readers know what you thought.
Ready to visit?
Johnston Ridge Observatory
24000 Spirit Lake Highway
P.O. Box 326
Toutle, WA 98649
Open May through October (check website for exact dates), 10 a.m. – 6 .m. daily
$8 admission; free admission for children 15 and under
Open May through September (check website for exact dates), 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily
This attraction appears in my e-book, How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips.