“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” These were the last words heard on the radio from Geologist, David A. Johnston, seconds before Mount St. Helens exploded in a massive eruption on Sunday, May 18, 1980. As a result of the volcano’s initial 60 mph, 800-degree pyroclastic flow, nearly 230 square miles of surrounding forest was blown over or left dead and standing. It was easily the most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history.
The eruption, Mount St. Helens’ first in 123 years, killed 57 people, the closest of whom was 30-year-old Johnston, who was monitoring the volcano just 5 miles away at the Coldwater II Observation Site (now the site of the Johnston Ridge observatory and visitor’s center). The irony of Johnston’s death, is that he was the one who feared Mount St. Helens the most, constantly referring to the 9,677-foot mountain in southwestern Washington state as a “dynamite keg with the fuse lit” (more than 10,000 earthquakes, 7,000 of them magnitude 2 and larger, at least 289 magnitudes 4 and 5, occurred in the previous two months). The trouble with this particular fuse is that nobody knew how long it was.
In 1982, President Reagan and Congress created the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument for research, recreation, and education. The monument is worth the visit and easy to reach by truck camper with three paved roads that provide access: State Route 504 (the Spirit Lake Highway) from the west, Forest Road 99 from the east, and Forest Road 83 from the south. Numerous viewpoints and miles of hiking trails have been created by the monument to explore the scarred landscape by both car and foot.
The Spirit Lake Highway and Johnston Ridge
The best way to begin any visit to Mount St. Helens is to drive to Johnston Ridge via the Spirit Lake Highway. Here you will find the aforementioned visitor’s center and parking lot. Johnston Ridge provides what are probably the best views of the mountain and the Toutle Valley below. On a clear day, you can enjoy breathtaking vistas of the lava domes and glacier on the mountain. From here you can also see the devastation wrought by the initial landslide and blast that left a massive, horseshoe-shaped crater. Spirit Lake, which doubled in size as a result of the landslide and blast, as well as Hummocks—intact pieces of the mountain the size of small hills—can also be seen from this excellent viewpoint.
The Spirit Lake Highway (Highway 504) is incredibly scenic. The 52-mile-long route follows the North Fork of the Toutle River and ascends up Johnston Ridge. Several observation points of the mountain can be found along the way with the best being the Mount St. Helens Forest Learning Center and the Elk Rock and the Loowit Viewpoints. Another highlight was our stop at the Coldwater Lake Recreation Area. This lake is one of three created by the 1980 eruption. The recreation area has restrooms, a picnic area, an interpretive boardwalk trail that goes out onto the lake, and a boat launch. Swimming and fishing are allowed in the lake, but beware the water is icy cold.
The closest viewpoint of Mount St. Helens can be found at Windy Point, which is located at the end of Forest Road 99 via Forest Road 25. The view from Windy Point is breathtaking with closeups of the mountain’s horseshoe-shaped crater and lava dome. The viewpoint also provides an excellent view of Spirit Lake, though more complete views of the lake can be found at the Donnybrook and Harmony Viewpoints northeast along the road. Windy Point offers two excellent hikes, one with steep stairs that climb over 100 feet to the top of Windy Ridge, the other which circles completely around the volcano in a large loop.
Forest Roads 25, 26 and 99
Unlike most forest service roads, these three roads are paved, but don’t let that fool you. All three are in poor shape with countless depressions, cracks, and potholes. The speed limit is 35 mph in most sections, but we recommend taking it much slower to save wear and tear on your truck’s suspension and tires and, of course, on your camper. However, Forest Road 99 provides what are probably some of the best views of the volcano’s blast zone, which leveled some 230 square miles of pristine forest. Today, you can still see remnants of the devastation wrought by the blast with countless dead trees still standing or laying on their side. Be careful of wildlife as you drive. Deer and black bears are plentiful in the area, especially on Forest Road 99, so be careful. In fact, we almost hit a small black bear as we rounded a corner on our way back down from the point. And speaking of bears…
On Forest Road 99, you can still access this viewpoint, which played an important role in the history of the Mount St. Helens eruption. Photographer Gary Rosenquist wanted closeup pictures of the mountain and chose this superb location on May 17 to get those pictures. Located 11 miles northeast of the mountain in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Gary, along with family and friends got more than they bargained for when the group witnessed the apocalyptic landslide and blast early the next morning. Rosenquist managed to snap 22 photographs—probably the best of the initial eruption—before the group barely made it to safety. Today, you can enjoy the same view of the volcano from where Rosenquist took his famous photographs on May 18, 1980.
Camping is plentiful around Mount St. Helens, especially in the adjacent Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which offers over 20 national forest campgrounds. Most are fairly small with the exception of the Iron Creek campground on Forest Road 99, which boasts an impressive 98 sites. This is dry camping at its finest with water spigots and pit toilets, but beware, if you rely on solar power to keep your batteries charged you won’t get much with all of the trees. Reservations may be made at some campgrounds, though many campgrounds also offer sites first come first served. Two state park campgrounds—Seaquest and Harry Gardner with full hookups—can be found on State Route 504 with additional RV parks located in Cresap Bay, Cougar, Beaver Bay, Swift, and Lower Falls.
Finding a good dispersed camping site in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest can be a little difficult, though not impossible with a little persistence and patience. Like most national forests, visitors may not drive beyond 150 feet from the main road and may not camp within 100 feet from creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. Some of the best of these boondocking sites can be found along Forest Roads 23, 21, 56, 24, and 60. For those in need of a quick, overnight campsite, trailhead parking lots are another good option as long as there are no signs prohibiting it.
We really enjoyed our time at the Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument. The volcano–which is still active, by the way—provides an eye-opening testament of nature’s power to create and destroy, which was the equivalent of about 500 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. What is encouraging, is that after 41 years, the land around the volcano is already adapting well with signs of life everywhere, including three new lakes and new growth of forests, wild flowers, and wildlife. What’s great about the monument is that all of the roads in and around the monument are accessible via truck camper. Unfortunately, some of the views were spoiled by cloud cover during our visit, which means we will need to come back. We are looking forward to it.