Mount St. Helens 25 years after the eruption

For 25 years travelers from Germany, Japan, Canada, Mexico and all 50 states have visited it.

It's the geology lesson of the century. Its May 18, 1980 eruption left 57 dead in its wake.

And the story hasn't ended yet. The mountain blew again last fall although less forcefully. And, luckily, no one lost his life following that eruption.

Mount St. Helens, once the most beautiful of Washington's five perennial snow-covered peaks, is the world's largest ashtray. It's also the best day trip in Washington.

This year's silver anniversary of the 1980 eruption -- a big two-five for the explosion that rocked the region -- is a great time for any Puget Sounder alone or with out-of-town guests to visit the mountain. And it's affordable too. All five visitor centers along the newly re-engineered and resurfaced Spirit Lake Memorial Highway that leads to St. Helens are accessible with a $6 day pass for adults (age 16 and older), and free for kids under 16.

To get to the mountain, I took the 2 1/2-hour drive down I-5 to Castle Rock's exit 49, and headed east toward the still-smoking volcano early this month. It didn't take long until I wished I had brought my tent, mountain bike, and some good friends. Thanks to Weyerhaeuser, Washington State Parks & Recreation, the U.S. Forest Service and several private foundations, the story of St. Helens is brought to life.

As the morning fog burned off, and as I visited the five visitor centers, the power and allure of St. Helens was magnetic. Geology happens every minute on the mountain. From the north side, it is a gaping hole into a living devil's cauldron of rock, steam, and frequent clouds of ash.

Here are some of the don't-miss highlights:

Mount St. Helens Visitors Center is at mile marker five on State Route 504, Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. It is the first visitors center off I-5, and it does an excellent job of describing the geologic actions that triggered St. Helens' eruption 25 years ago--along with the 50 other eruptions that visit our planet every year. Giant murals and massive models allow visitors to experience volcanoes from inside the earth.

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitors Center at mile marker 27 is the helicopter jump-off spot for $115 flights to the crater. This visitor center also is a good spot to watch glassblowing in which volcanic ash is used. A restaurant and gift shop are among the facilities.

The Charles W. Bingham Forest Learning Center at mile marker 33 is a must stop. I enjoyed spying on many of the approximately 1500 elk in the re-grassed Toutle River Valley thanks to free telescopes provided by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. I loved the film that captures St. Helen's eruption, and I found the picnic tables with 15-mile views across the valley perfect for opening my lunchbox.

The big story here is the loss of 150,000 acres of forest land, almost half of which (68,000 acres) is privately owned by Weyerhaeuser. Dick Ford, forest manager of this stand of Weyerhaeuser acreage on that fateful day 25 years ago, runs the forest learning center. Ford answers questions with patience and personal insight.

``Yes, I lost lives of people I worked with.''

``Salvage the downed trees? You bet, and we had to work quickly, before they became diseased and damaged by insects. In fact, we saved enough trees to build the equivalent of 85,000 three-bedroom homes. And it was hard work.''

The reforestation process started with an experiment just four weeks after the eruption. What was the best environment for the newly-planted seedlings? Directly into the ash? In a mixture of ash and soil? Dig through the ash and plant in the soil only, leaving ash around as a protective mulch? Or plant nowhere near ash?

In a short time, the optimal planting strategy was clear: Seedling roots needed to be in ash-free soil, but the surrounding ash afforded great weed prevention, assuring the baby trees of weed-free growing. In the seven years following the 1980 eruption, Weyerhaeuser hand-planted 18.4 million trees. The oldest now tower almost 70 feet, and are being thinned with an eye toward harvesting over the next 25 years as they reach maturity.

While much of the still ash-covered, matchstick tree-scape on state and federal forest lands remains a testament to the raw force of nature, much habitat has naturally recovered--good news for wildlife. The big show is the elk herd now so reconstituted that some of the animals are being relocated to other parts of Washington to keep the balance of nature.

The Bingham Forest Learning Center is suited for all ages. Little ones can feel the difference in local critters' fur, paws, claws, teeth and jaws. Interactive lessons along with the stories of Ford, now director of the center, make this stop a good one.

Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center at mile marker 43 looks into the mouth of St. Helens, a short seven miles across the valley. While the mountain is obscured by clouds some 200 days a year, summertime, especially in the afternoons, promises the best views. The new ``whaleback'' ridge of lava inside the crater is clearly visible from Coldwater. Unlike Hawaii's more liquid magma, St. Helen's lava has the consistency of toothpaste. A total of 900 feet of it has formed in the throat of St. Helens since 1980.

Coldwater Center has several trails. The quarter-mile ``Winds of Change'' trail offers super views. Hummocks Trail 229 is a 2.3-mile loop into the debris- and mudflow-carved Toutle River valley. It is only a 300-foot elevation change, an easy family hike into bird-filled marshes and dried riverbed. South Coldwater Trail 230A climbs 3.1 miles and 1,300 feet up the east ridge of Coldwater Lake on old logging roads. Along the way hikers see scattered logging equipment blown topsy-turvy, a reminder of the power of the eruption.

Back in Coldwater Center, there are films, interactive exhibits, and even science-inspired video games, along with a cafeteria with inside and outside seating.

Johnston Ridge Observatory is three miles from the base of the volcano at the end of Spirit Lake Highway at mile marker 52. There isn't a better view of the crater accessible by road.

The observatory was closed last fall as Mount St. Helens started erupting again. Things have settled down now, and Johnston Ridge is once again open. The observatory was named after geologist David Johnston who perished in the 1980 blast.

The observatory is perched atop a 1,000-foot cliff at 4,200 feet, and boasts a 180-degree view that includes Mount Adams to the east and the Toutle River Valley to the west.

JRO has a theater that shows a 16-minute computer animation film projected onto a 33-foot-wide screen. Its fiber-optic multi-colored volcano eruption model is a ``wow-er.'' And for walkers, there's a paved three-quarter mile trail.

Tips for visiting Mount St. Helens

#Buy the one-day visitor pass. Although there is no charge for visiting the Forest Learning Center or the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, the other centers are excellent and easily worth twice the price of the pass.

#While the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway is a good one-day trip, it can be an even better weekend outing for campers and hikers. The flora and fauna are best seen from the valley floor or the slopes of the mountain.

#Hours: The first two visitors centers along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway open at 9 a.m. The Forest Learning Center, Coldwater, and JRO open at 10 a.m. They close at 5 p.m. Starting in June, they will close at 6 p.m.

#Web site:

#Phone: 360-274-7750 or 360-274-2100.

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