On May 18, 1980, the landscape of the Pacific Northwest was forever changed by the blast of Mount Saint Helens. The famous eruption took place at 8:32 in the morning, removing the upper 1,300 feet of the mountain, which previously stood at 9,600 feet. The mountain also blasted outward, leaving a horseshoe-shaped crater and a barren wasteland in its path.
The eruption was a stunning 1,600 times larger than the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima and triggered the largest landslide in recorded history, destroying everything in its path. For nearly a decade, the blast zone was off limits, looking like an alien landscape in a region once full of forests and scenic beauty.
The 230 square miles of land scarred by the eruption started healing faster than imagined, with wildflowers, elk and flora returning in droves. Today, Mount Saint Helens is an outdoor recreation wonderland, providing memorable adventures and activities for all ages and abilities. While you could spend years exploring the region, we have narrowed down five must-do experiences around this iconic volcano, each of which provides a unique and breathtaking view of one of the nation’s most famous mountains. Whether you do all five or just pick and choose a few options, you and your family will gain a deeper appreciation for this strangely shaped, still active volcano.
Drive to Windy Ridge
Your best option for seeing the awesome destructive power of Mount Saint Helens is to head to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint near Spirit Lake. South of Packwood, along a seasonally open road, this is the ultimate view point and is perfect for all ages. With ranger-led programs occurring in the summer months, a short (but steep) trail uphill for a jaw-dropping panorama, and numerous areas to sit and watch the steam rise from inside the crater, few places in the world are as accessible and scenic around an active volcano. While witnessing the slow regrowth in the region, glance west to catch a glimpse of elk herds roaming the newly vegetated area. Seeing Mount Saint Helens from Windy Ridge is a must-experience Pacific Northwest destination.
Spend an Afternoon Exploring Johnston Ridge
Nowhere around Mount Saint Helens has a better visitor center detailing the eruption than at Johnston Ridge in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Seasonally open – typically from June through October – this region should be required for all visitors interested in Mount Saint Helens. Visitors to Johnston Ridge Observatory can enjoy multiple award-winning films, listen to ranger talks, observe the landscape, purchase souvenirs, set off on a hike or get a light lunch from the food cart. Johnston Ridge is where the eruption of Mount Saint Helens was first reported by USGS volcanologist David A. Johnston, who quickly perished as the blast came his way. Today the ridge and visitor center are named after him, allowing him to live on and show off the stunning volcano.
Climb to the Summit
Standing on the crater rim of Mount Saint Helens is an incredible experience and one every hiker in the PNW needs to try. From the summit, gaze down the steep slope directly into an active, smoldering and ever-growing dome. Here the sheer size and scale of the 1980 eruption becomes readily apparent. In each direction, stunning views of the region are observed, with mountains Hood, Adams and Rainier each looming large in the distance.
While not easy or for everyone, those who look at the erupted mountain with longing for adventure need to climb Mount Saint Helens. Because of crowds, permits are needed for all who climb with a quota placed on the number of climbers allowed on the mountain each day from April through October. Permits typically sell out on the day the can be purchased, which is usually the end of February. No matter when you summit, the National Forest Service updates climbing conditions on their website often so you can plan.
Hike Underground in Ancient Lava Tubes
No Mount Saint Helens adventure is complete until you experience the majestic and mystifying bliss found below ground. Known as the Ape Caves, the old lava tubes near Mount Saint Helens are a family-friendly destination and a place for more serious hikers to go for a unique adventure. Offering two trails – one easy at 3/4 of a mile in length and one much harder, requiring scrambling and squeezing, at a mile and a half in length – the caves are perfect for sunny or rainy days. The caves are constantly at a temperature of 42 degrees Fahrenheit, with water dripping from the cave ceiling, so come prepared. A raincoat, hat, good shoes, flashlights and extra batteries are required to complete this trek.
Wander Lava Canyon
In the southern shadow of Mount Saint Helens, a five-mile round trip trail will inspire and possibly terrify you in the best of ways. The Lava Canyon Trail leads to magnificent experiences and inspiring views. Best hiked as a full loop, the path starts out with a gorgeous waterfall view before crossing a stunning and memorable 125-foot, swinging suspension bridge. Once across the bridge, the views of the canyon are awesome, leading you further down the trail to a water crossing. After more great views of the greater Saint Helens’ region, the loop heads back ending at the same place you started. The best part of this trail is that the first section is completely ADA accessible and full of interpretive signage, so all ages and abilities can enjoy the experience. This is also a great picnic area for families!