Special Reports

Having a blast at Mount St. Helens

The Mount St. Helens landscape that still bears the scars 30 years after the 1980 eruption remains a popular outdoors playground.

The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument covers more than 110,000 acres and offers hiking along pumice-laden hills, mountain bike treks across barren ground and a chance to fish a lake created by the eruption. Just beyond the monument boundaries, there are helicopter tours and bike races.

While many people begin, and end, their trip to the volcano at Johnston Ridge Observatory, there is so much more to see and do. We’ve picked 10 other options to add variety to your visit.


The south side of Mount St. Helens offers the state’s longest underground hike.

The Ape Cave is a 21/4-mile lava tube formed about 2,000 years ago. It was one of several lava tubes in the area, but the only one open to the public.

While hikers of all ages can explore the cave, it is not an easy walk. Hikers walk on uneven ground and scramble over rock piles that will take them to the roof of the cave.

The cave is very dark and cold so wear warm clothes and take a powerful headlamp or flashlight with spare batteries and bulbs.

Some people believe the cave is the home of Big Foot.

Cost: A $15 per day Northwest Forest Pass is required for each vehicle.

Green Trails map: 364 – Mount St. Helens

Information: 360-247-3900


One of the easiest ways for families with young children to get away from the crowd at Johnston Ridge Observatory is to take the first mile of the Boundary Trail. “It’s an awesome view,” said Todd Cullings, assistant visitor center director at Johnston Ridge. “There’s a great view into the crater, a great view of the pumice plain on the valley floor.” The trail out to an interpretive sign and bulletin board drops just 100 feet, making it easy walking. Going beyond that point becomes risky for young children or people with a fear of heights, said Todd Cullings, assistant visitor center director at Johnston Ridge. At 11/2 miles out, the trail reaches Devil’s Elbow where a narrow trail was blasted out of a cliff face.

Cost: $8 for people 16 and older if you go to the visitor center

Note: The trail along Johnston Ridge is exposed, so pack water and sunscreen

Information: www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/recreation/trails


There is perhaps no more stunning place to take in the view of the gutted volcano than from atop the crater rim.

Standing 8,365 feet above sea level, the view not only includes the lava dome but also Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount Hood.

The hike up Monitor Ridge is challenging but doable for most people if they give themselves enough time to make the 4,500-foot climb over five miles. Expect the round-trip to take you five to 12 hours depending on your fitness level.

Do not get too close to the edge and do not venture out onto snow cornices for a better view. An experienced climber died in February after falling into the crater when a cornice collapsed. If cornices block your view, walk along the crater until you find an opening.

Road 830 to Climbers Bivouac, the most popular trailhead for climbing the mountain, typically opens in the middle of June. When the road is closed climbers usually leave from Marble Mountain Sno-Park.

Cost: $22 for a one-day climbing permit. A $15 per vehicle Northwest Forest Pass is also required.

Green Trails map: 364S – Mount St. Helens NW

Information: www.mshinstitute.org


The lake was created when a landslide caused by the 1980 eruption dammed Coldwater Creek. The big attractions here are lakeside trails and fishing. The first trail is the 1/2-mile long Birth of the Lake Trail, a handicap-accessible paved and boardwalk trail with interpretive signs. The Lake Trail covers 41/2 miles to reach the end of the lake. Bjorn Beech of The Fly Fisher in Lacey said the fishing really begins in June, once the water warms. Fishing from a small boat (electric motors only) or a float tube or pontoon boat are the best options for chasing the rainbow trout. Fly anglers use woolly buggers, chironomids, damsels and streamers. The fishing seems best at the north end of the lake. Special regulations are in effect.

Cost: $8 for people 16 and older if you go to the visitor center

Note: The day-use area features the lone picnic area in the monument, restrooms, a fish cleaning station, boat launch and hands-on discovery area.

Information: www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/04mshnvm/attractions


Located across state Route 504 from the Coldwater Lake area, this trail offers families an easy 2.3-mile walk on a paved path through a diverse area. The trail is named after “the deposits left when these big globs of material, pumice and soil mixed together, were ejected when the volcano exploded and landed there,” said Rod Ludvigsen, monument recreation use specialist. The lumps, some as tall as buses, were thrown seven miles from the crater. Visitors will also see open meadows and a number of ponds. One of them features a beaver dam five to six feet high and almost 100 feet long, Cullings said. “There’s also a very rare commodity on the monument, shade. You’re in the shade of a 30-year alder forest. It’s one of those gems that not too many visit,” Cullings said.

Cost: None

Note: It will take 70 to 90 minutes for this hike.

Information: www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/recreation/trails


Gary Walker, a monument staff member, says there are many reasons to explore the Mount Margaret Backcountry.

“Solitude and vistas,” Walker said. “There are not a lot of people out there and you can see (Mounts) Adams, Hood, Rainier and you are looking back into the crater.”

But the backcountry isn’t for everybody.

“It’s rugged, strenuous and hikers need to be in good physical condition,” Walker said.

Depending on the route, backpackers will have to travel six to eight miles to reach the first camping area.

A free permit is required to camp in the backcountry, but a permit is not needed for day trips into or through the backcountry. The hike from the Norway Pass trailhead on Forest Service Road 26 is about 12 miles round trip and climbs about 2,200 feet.

Walker says July through September is the best time to hike and he recommends sending in your permit request at least two weeks in advance.

Cost: $5 per vehicle per day for a Northwest Forest Pass

Green Trails map: 332 – Spirit Lake

Information: 360-449-7871, www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/04mshnvm/ backcountry


The Plains of Abraham on the east flank of Mount St. Helens is one of the state’s most unusual mountain bike destinations. A trip here is like riding on the surface of the moon.

The plains are part of the 30-mile Loowit Trail that circles the mountain. While the area is easiest to access from Windy Ridge, those looking for a tougher challenge approach from the south via Ape Canyon. The southerly approach starts with a 1.7-mile, 700-foot climb.

A ride on the Plains of Abraham will cover anywhere from 12 to 21.6 miles. The terrain can be harsh on bikes so be sure to take extra tubes and a multitool. Riders should have at least intermediate skills.

Walker says July through September is the best time to ride.

Cost: $15 per vehicle Northwest Forest Pass

Green Trails map: 364S – Mount St. Helens NW.

Information: www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm


Driving Route 504 from Interstate 5 takes you up the Toutle River valley, past a mix of visitor centers, attractions like the A-frame home buried by mud and debris and helicopter tours offering a bird’s eye view of the volcano.

Start at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake, and run by Washington State Parks and Recreation. Children will like the walk-through model of the volcano. “They have a nice boardwalk trail that not too many people know about. It goes over a mudflow that created Silver Lake 2,500 years ago,” Cullings said. The center charges admission.

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center features the Memories of a Lost Landscape exhibit that looks at life at St. Helens before the blast. A paved walking path takes visitors to a memorial grove, planted in 2000 in memory of the 57 people who died in the 1980 eruption. The center also offers helicopter tours.

Mount St. Helens Forest Learning Center is a joint operation between Weyerhaeuser Co., Washington State Department of Transportation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Exhibits look at the forest before and after the blast, while the Eruption Chamber is a multimedia program that gives you a “you are there” feel for the blast itself.

Cost: Helicopter tours start at $150.

Note: It’s just a 1/2-mile hike to the top of the sediment retention dam. At 1,800 feet long, 184 feet high, it’s touted as the largest earthen dam in North America.

Information: www.co.cowlitz.wa.us/tourism/brochure/online/msh.htm


Tour de Blast is a challenging annual bicycle ride that climbs almost 4,000 feet over 41 miles from Toutle to the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

The reward? Stunning views of the volcano and a 41-mile return trip that is downhill (except for one long 1,000-foot climb) on the way back. A spaghetti feed awaits finishers in Toutle.

The June 19 ride, which usually draws about 1,400 riders, is on the shoulders of Route 504. The highway is open to vehicle traffic during the race, but the shoulders are wide enough to accommodate the cyclists.

Camping is available at Toutle Lake High School the night before the ride for $10.

Cost: $55 or $65 with T-shirt.

Map: A course map is on the event website.

Information: www.tourdeblast.com


For a different view, travel south from Randle to this viewpoint northeast of the crater. So stark is the landscape here, crews filmed scenes for the John Hillcoat movie “The Road” along Forest Road 99, the access route to the viewpoint. Note that the road often doesn’t open until early summer. There is no visitor center here, but there are interpreter-led programs on weekends during the summer. The talks focus on the eruption blast and how it changed the landscape. Interpreters also talk about Spirit Lake. While there, you can climb the Sand Stairs, 142 steps that lead up to a ridge that provides a great view of the volcano and Mount Adams, Ludvigsen said. The steps are named after the sand-like pumice that covers the hillside.

Cost: $8 for people 16 and older, self-service pay station

Map: www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/04maps/images/2009-mount-st-helens-recreation-map.jpg

Information: www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/04mshnvm/attractions/east.shtml