A bit over 39 years ago, Mt. St. Helens erupted with an estimated 24-megatons of force. In an instant 1,300 feet of the mountain collapsed creating the largest landslide in recorded history. The result was the 5th tallest mountain in Washington State was reduced to the 52nd. The eruption caused 3.3 billion dollars in damage (adjusted for inflation).
I visited as a child about 10 years after the eruption and was awestruck by the damage. Entire forests were blown flat, trees ringing the mountain blown perpendicular to the mountain as far as the eye could see.
Twenty years later, I was interested in taking my kids to revisit the damage.
After exiting I-5, and driving towards the mountain, you notice a change in the forest. Land owned by Weyerhaeuser was quickly planted and the forest has grown substantially since then. Weyerhauser replanted 18-million trees by hand spread out over 63,000 acres after the blast, which is an astounding effort.
Weyerhaeuser has a free museum with an excellent playground to let your kids out of the car to explore. There are several fantastic viewpoints of Mt. St. Helens and with a decent long-range camera lens, the ability to photograph herds of elk in the valley below.
Mount Saint Helens is also known as the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is split between the east side and the west side. It’s a bit of a drive between the sides, so scheduling a day or two for each side may be in order. The west side is predominately where you’ll see the aftermath from the eruption, but the east side has some pretty stellar hikes and the Ape Caves, which are hike-able lava tubes.
Hop in the car and head towards the park, a viewpoint exists between Weyerhaeuser’s Museum and the Mt. St. Helen’s Visitor Center, and you’ll certainly notice the stark contrast. Nearly 40-years later the landscape feels almost desolate. Shrubs, Flowers, animals have returned, but trees are nearly completely absent. You’re able to look across the various valleys and still clearly see the toppled trees dotting the mountainsides.
We spent a fair amount of time here taking pictures. Partly amusing and partly concerning was the chipmunks, fed by humans to the point of comfort would approach you, and one nipped my on the hand while not paying attention (no blood or broken skin) to let me know he wanted food.
It was funny at the time, but don’t feed wild animals. Chipmunks are carriers of the Bubonic Plague and Rabies, so you really shouldn’t feed them, the result could be catastrophic for someone else’s family.
Stop at Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center Where they have. There is an entry fee of $5 for an adult and $2.50 for children between the ages of 7 and 17. Inside the visitor center, they have a large model of the Volcano, a seismograph to record the regularly occurring minor earthquakes at the volcano, a short video about the eruption that runs twice an hour as well as some displays.
The Gifford Pinchot National Forest has 1,500 miles of hiking making it hard to choose, but here are some of the more popular hikes.
The Ape Caves – The Ape Caves were formed about two thousand years ago from an eruption that isn’t particularly normal for the cascades and more resembled an eruption like the ones in Hawaii. There are two paths within the lava tube. There is the upper cave and lower cave. The lower cave is the friendly version for those with small or young children. The upper cave requires a bit of dexterity and climbing ability, I’ve never done it, but from what I hear is that it’s not overly difficult for someone in decent shape, however, one portion requires climbing over 8-foot tall remnants of a lava fall. Make sure to bring a coat, even in summer, in the depths of the cave the temperature drops to 40 degrees, and while you may not be overly concerned on the trip down, you start feeling it on the way back up.
You can hike to the rim of Mt. St. Helen’s Caldera, it’s a 6-hour hike up and a 4-hour hike back. You need to apply for a permit before journeying up the mountainside and be in good shape as well as consider yourself an experienced adventurer. It’s 8.2 miles out-and-back non-technical hike requiring a bit of comfort traversing rough terrain. During the summer months, you need to apply for a hiking permit in advance. They go fast. If you’re interested, I’d recommend applying on April 1st.
For the less technically inclined, we’d recommend the Birth of a Lake hike. It’s easy, kid-friendly, and if It’s warm outside, I’d highly recommend bringing a bathing suit to stop off and swim at the designated locations. Surprisingly and mysteriously fish have made their way to the lakes, believed to be secretly stocked nobody is sure how they got there. Coldwater Lake was formed after the eruption as a result of Coldwater Creek being dammed by volcanic debris. It’s a cool experience to visit a lake that was naturally formed in recent history. On the Southeastern side of the Park, I’d recommend the Lava Canyon hike. The canyon is the result of a volcanic mudslide. The trail also features a 125-foot cable suspension bridge. The hike gets more technical as you go up. One section includes a steel ladder to help you traverse up a steeper section. I was pretty much sold on the hike when I discovered there is a suspension bridge.