Mt. St. Helens

One of the most prominent peaks in the Northwest's rugged Cascade Range, Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument affords visitors an up-close look at the site of the most destructive volcanic blast in U.S. history.

Just 55 miles northeast of Portland, and 155 miles southeast of Seattle, this once soaring, conical summit stood at 9,667 feet above sea level. Then, on May 18, 1980, a massive eruption launched a 36,000-foot plume of steam and ash into the air and sent nearly 4 million cubic yards of debris through the Toutle and Cowlitz river valleys. The devastating eruption leveled a 230-square-mile area, claiming 57 lives and more than 250 homes. The mountain now stands at 8,365 feet, and a horseshoe-shape crater—most visible from the north—now forms the scarred summit. A modern highway carries travelers to within about 5 miles of the summit, and the surrounding region offers thrilling opportunities for climbing, hiking, and learning about volcanology.

Best Time to Go

It's best to visit from mid-May through late October, as the last section of Spirit Lake Highway, Johnston Ridge Observatory, and many of the park's forest roads are closed the rest of the year. The other visitor centers along the lower sections of the highway are open year-round, but overcast skies typically obscure the mountain's summit in winter.

Park Highlights

Ape Cave. The longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States, Ape Cave is one of the park's outstanding attractions. Two routes traverse the tube. The lower route is an easy hour-long hike; the upper route is more challenging and takes about three hours. It's a good idea to bring a light source (although you can rent lanterns from the headquarters for $5) and warm clothing—temperatures in the cave don't rise above the mid-40s. In high season ranger-led walks are sometimes available; inquire at the Apes' Headquarters (360/449–7800), off Forest Service Road 8303, 3 miles north of the junction of Forest Roads 83 and 90. Although Ape Cave is open year-round, the headquarters closes from November through April. Cougar, Washington, 98616. 360/449–7800; www.fs.usda.gov/giffordpinchot.

Johnston Ridge Observatory. The visitor center closest to the summit is named for scientist David Johnston, who was killed by the mountain's immense lateral blast, and stands at the end of the park's Spirit Lake Highway. Inside are fascinating exhibits on the mountain's geology, instruments measuring volcanic and seismic activity, and a theater that shows a riveting film that recounts the 1980 eruption. Several short trails afford spectacular views of the summit. 2400 Spirit Lake Hwy., Toutle, Washington, 98649. 360/274–2140; www.fs.usda.gov/giffordpinchot. $8. Mid-May–early Nov., daily 10–6. Closed mid-May–early Nov..

Spirit Lake Highway. Officially known as Highway 504, this winding road rises some 4,000 feet from the town of Castle Rock (just off I–5, Exit 49) to within about 5 miles of the Mt. St. Helens summit. Along this road are several visitor centers that interpret the region's geology and geography, and several turnouts afford views of the destruction wrought upon the Toutle and Cowlitz river valleys. Don't miss the Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake (Hwy. 504, 5 miles east of I–5, 360/274–0962, www.parks.wa.gov) in Seaquest State Park, which shows video footage of the eruption, contains superb exhibits on the region's geologic beginnings, and houses a scale model of the mountain that you can actually climb through.

Stay the Night

Mt. St. Helens is in a remote area. You'll find a handful of chain motels in Kelso and Longview, about 10 to 15 miles south.

Patty's Place at 19 Mile House. For a memorable meal midway up Spirit Lake Highway, drop by this rustic roadhouse with a veranda overlooking the North Fork Toutle River—be sure to save room for the fresh-fruit cobblers. 9440 Spirit Lake Hwy., Kid Valley, Washington, 98649. 360/274–8779. Closed Nov.–Apr..

Lewis River B&B. In Woodland, 30 miles south of Castle Rock but right on Highway 503, the gateway for approaching great Mount St. Helens hiking from the south, the charming Lewis River B&B is a terrific lodging option. The seven rooms and suites have upscale, contemporary furnishings, and most overlook the scenic Lewis River. 2339 Lewis River Rd., Woodland, Washington, 98674. 360/225–8630; www.lewisriverbedandbreakfast.com. 7 rooms. Breakfast.

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