Special Reports

2005: Volcano often a 'one-trip wonder'

On really busy days at Mount St. Helens, Mark Smith can't help but feel a pang of disappointment as he watches cars zip by his Eco Park Resort on Highway 504.

He knows that in a few hours, those cars will be zipping by again in the other direction.

"Mount St. Helens has turned into a one-trip wonder," Smith said. "To a lot of people it's just something to look at, like the Space Needle. People are getting a shallow view and not really experiencing the mountain."

What used to be a hotbed for weeklong camping trips before St. Helens erupted May 18, 1980, is now primarily visited by day-trippers.

Mark Plotkin of the Cowlitz County Tourism Department says the volcano gets more visitors than it did before the eruption, but they aren't staying as long. The Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center gets more than 400,000 visitors most years. The nearest campground is 20 miles away and outside the monument.

"They have world-class visitors centers," said Smith, 45. "But the monument has become recreationally bankrupt."

There are ample campsites around the mountain, but only a few wi thin the boundaries of the 110,000-acre national volcanic monument. And, with the exception of a few trails, the area north of the mountain is off limits for safety reasons and to protect research plots.

This is not to say Mount St. Helens isn't a popular playground. When it's not actively erupting as it is now, climbers, snowmobilers, horseback riders and hikers flock to the mountain.

The Ape Cave gets about 100,000 visitors each year. With more than 13,000 climbers annually, no mountain in the U.S. is climbed more than St. Helens.

But even a round-trip climb to the summit takes less than 10 hours.

Smith says he gets about 3,000 campers annually at his campground. When his family owned one of the three lodges on Spirit Lake in the 1970s, they drew as many as 10,000 customers each year.

Many locals think visitors would stay longer if the U.S. Forest Service allowed access to more parts of the monument. The current land use plan runs through 2009.

"It's too bad people aren't staying longer," Smith said. "The mountain has so much more to offer than the canned presentations at Johnston Ridge.

"It's been 25 years since the eruption. We have an entire generation of people who don't know what a great area for recreation we used to have here."


Christine Colasurdo, 43, still vividly remembers the mountain playground of the 1970s and the grudge she held for 10 years after St. Helens blew it away.

"It sounds stupid," said Colasurdo, who now lives in San Francisco, "but for all that time I was mad at the mountain."

She was 18 on that explosive Sunday when the eruption destroyed her family's cabin on the Toutle River; Harmony Falls Lodge, where she worked summers; and the area's recreation hub, Spirit Lake.

"I was very attached to the land and I thought it would be there forever," Colasurdo said. "And then it was gone. I couldn't believe it at first and then I was mad."

So mad, in fact, she couldn't bring herself to return to Spirit Lake until 1990. And when she did, she was surprised by her emotions.

"I thought I would just stand there and cry," said Colasurdo, who chronicled her experience in the book, "Return to Spirit Lake." "But the landscape was unrecognizable. It was like it was a different place."

She calls what happened next "a journey of rediscovery." She fell in love with Spirit Lake all over again. She hikes Harmony Trail every year and has discovered that even with the lush green land replaced by a gray moonscape, it's still an enjoyable place to play.

The barren Plains of Abraham on the eastern side of the mountain are a destination ride for mountain bikers. The Mount Margaret Backcountry, though closed to overnight camping this year, offers backpacking trips in the blast zone.

Not everybody is as impressed as Colasurdo by the new face of recreation at St. Helens.

Peter Whittaker of Rainier Mountaineering Inc. jokingly calls the mountain "Washington's largest ashtray."

He climbed St. Helens six times before the eruption, but doesn't have much interest in climbing the hulk that remains.

"It was a classic Northwest volcano climb before the eruption," Whittaker said. "But now the interest in the climbing community has dropped several levels."

Still, Hans Castren, St. Helens' lead climbing and backcountry ranger, says the monument is brimming with recreational opportunities.

"I can see why people who used the area before the eruption wouldn't want to come back," Castren said. "But when they do, they realize that it's still a beautiful, inviting landscape with plenty of things to do."

So much to do that it takes precise planning just to see the highlights in a day.


Last summer, Smith set aside a day to take his children to see Spirit Lake northeast of the mountain, Johnston Ridge to the northwest and the Ape Cave to the south.

The trip took 12 1/2 hours.

"And we were starting here at the mountain," Smith said.

The infrastructure in the monument is one of the biggest obstacles keeping people from experiencing St. Helens, the locals say.

It's less than five miles from Johnston Ridge Observatory to the Harmony Trailhead, the only hike to Spirit Lake. But the drive takes three hours as you drive back to Interstate 5 and work your way along Highway 12 through Mossyrock and Randle.

Smith says one of the beauties of pre-eruption St. Helens was Road 100, which gave easy access to all sides of the mountain.

With the road gone, the monument is now separated into three areas - the northwest, northeast and south - that can't easily be driven between.

Some locals would like to see Highway 504 pushed through from Johnston Ridge in front of the mouth of the crater to Windy Ridge.

The Forest Service opposes the idea for several reasons, said monument spokesman Tom Knappenberger. First, it would cost about $20 million. Second, the road would be an area susceptible to lahar, the mudflows that come down the sides of volcanoes. And third, the road would go through several research plots in the area.

"And why do you need to see more than one area of the mountain in a day?" Colasurdo asked. "You should spend an entire day at each area. It's not a 10-minute landscape."


When the monument's land-use plan opens for potential restructuring in 2009, the road debate could surface again.

Susan Wheeler, whose family owns the campground, restaurant, gas station and store in nearby Kid Valley, will be among those pushing for more access.

"We want access to the recreation area we used to enjoy," Wheeler said. "If they open up some of these areas, we'll start to see more people coming to St. Helens and staying for longer than just the day."

Knappenberger says the Forest Service also has to take into consideration safety and research when it decides if land will be opened.

"Recreation is important," he said. "But it's not the only thing we consider."

Colasurdo believes the Forest Service's land-use plan is just right.

"I don't think the areas in the blast zone need to be opened for recreation," Colasurdo said. "Education is so important. We can learn so much here and, besides, there is still plenty of great recreation around Mount St. Helens."

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Craig Hill: 253-597-8497


Originally published on May 16, 2005.