Mount St. Helens, once a recreational playground for Washington, until one quiet Sunday morning in 1980 when the snowcapped mountain vaporized. A mudslide decimated a forest and a crater remained where a peak once stood. A scar in the landscape recovers and a trip to Mount St. Helens with kids is a must for your Washington road trip.
What happened at Mount St. Helens
In 1792 British explorer Captain George Vancouver officially named Mount St. Helens after Baron St. Helens, an ambassador. Though the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and Yakama Nation’s name translates into the smoker, suggesting a history of volcanic activity.
On March 20, 1980, a 4.2-magnitude earthquake rocked Mount St. Helens and jumpstarted the volcanic activity. The next week, steam started to vent. Volcanologists flew in from around the world to watch Mount St. Helens from every vantage point. By the end of April, a bulge appeared on the north side of the mountain.
After weeks intense monitoring, Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, in a fury that geologists compared to Mount Vesuvius. Another earthquake, a 5.1-magnitude, melted the snowpack into a violent mudslide and pulverized the top of the stratovolcano into a cloud of black ash.
For the next 9 hours, a plume of ash soared 12 to 16 miles into the atmosphere that turned day into night. The eruption generated 3.9 million cubic yards of material, like ash, pumice, trees and boulders, that rushed 17 miles downstream.
In all, the eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people. In its wrath, it destroyed 47 bridges, 15 miles of railroad, 185 miles of highway and 250 homes. It was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history.
After the eruption, Mount St. Helens went from a 9,677-foot snow-capped peak to a 8,363-foot mountain with a one-mile wide, horseshoe-shaped crater. Since the 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens continues to rumble, with intermittent episodes of venting steam and erupting lava domes. The majority of the area is closed to visitors so scientists can continue to monitor the volcanic activity.
What to do in 3 hours at Mount St. Helens
Drive to the Johnston Ridge Observatory’s visitor center, at the end of State Route 504 (Spirit Lake Highway) and walk through the exhibits detailing the eruption. Watch one of the dramatic films and attend a ranger program, if available. Our program offered amazing historic photos of the eruption.
Kids need to move so we hiked the Eruption Trail, a .5-mile trail from the Visitor Center. See the lava dome and the crater along with a pumice plain and landslide deposit. If time permits, stop at the Loowit Viewpoint, just west of the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
Mount St. Helens with Kids
The Johnston Ridge Observatory is a must for school-age kids with geologic exhibits and live seismographs. The visitor center offers two different films, perfect for school-age kids. Though the movies might be intense for preschoolers and too loud for babies.
During our visit to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, my kids attended a Junior Ranger program that explained the eruption in a way a kid could understand. The program took less than an hour and parents are welcome to stay or explore the monument on their own.
Family Fun at Mount St. Helens
Due to the delicate nature of the recovering landscape and the continued seismic activity, I found limited recreational activities at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument’s Johnston Ridge Observatory. Visit other nearby locations.
- Coldwater Lake Recreation Area offers a picnic area, an interpretive trail and a boat launch.
- Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake is a Washington State Park that offers exhibits on the 1980 eruption. Located 6 miles from Castle Rock along State Route 504, it’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer season.
- Try the eastside or southside of Mount St. Helens for more recreational activities, like Lava Canyon, Ape Cave or Spirit Lake viewpoints.
- Eco Park Resorts offers horseback tours, the closest to Mount St. Helens, that ride through the blast zone.
Camping near Mount St. Helens
For my visit to Mount St. Helens, I decided to stay as close as possible. At Eco Park Resort, just 25 miles west from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, I found several cozy, off-the-grid cabins along with tent and RV camping that unplugged my kids and recharged my spirit.
With a flicker of the gas-powered lights, my kids, 9, 13 and 14, and I settled in for the night under our cozy patchwork quilts. Set in a pristine landscape in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, it’s hard to believe the destruction that happened here 37 years ago.
Our cabin featured a pair of bunk beds that’s my boys fought over (in a good way) and a full-sized bed, each dressed with a cozy quilts for the brisk Washington nights. Since the cabins lack electricity, two gas-powered, wall-mounted lamps lighted our cabin. The flickering glow ignited my boys’ pioneering imaginations.
Inside our cabin, I found a table with four chairs, perfect for games after dinner. The long counter on one side of the cabin offered amble space for organizing camping equipment.
Outside our cabin, I made dinner on my gas camp stove, while my daughter swung on the cabin’s back porch swing. As we looked across the grassy meadow, we saw the first flickers of the nightly fire in Eco Park’s fire pit while my boys played in the late summer sun.
The owners of Eco Park Resort, Dawn and Mark Smith, offer their personal experiences of the day that Mount St. Helens erupted. The Smith family resort, Spirit Lake Lodge fell victim to 500-feet of ash that day. As the land recovered, the Smith family returned and opened Eco Park Resort in 1995 at 14000 Spirit Lake Highway.
Where’s Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
The Johnston Ridge Observatory is located 52 miles east of Castle Rock, Washington, along State Route 504 (Spirit Lake Highway). It’s located 110 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, and 150 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington.
Both cities offer international airports. The closest towns with traveler’s services are Castle Rock or Kelso, both along Interstate 5. Public transportation is not available to the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area offers a scenic drive, just 165 miles away. Astoria and the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks offers more national park fun, 120 miles west.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is open 7 days a week from mid-May until the end of October, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase an adult admission for $8 per person, kids 15 and under enter for free.
Know Before You Go:
- Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument’s Johnston Ridge Observatory is closed from the end of October until mid-May.
- Mount St. Helens includes levels of restricted areas for the safety and protection of the recovering landscape.
- Pets, bikes and horses are prohibited to protect the recovering landscape. Though a few bike trails are open.
- Camping is prohibited at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
- Eco Park Resort is open from May until November and reservations are required.
- Bring a battery-operated lantern for your stay at Eco Park Resort for additional lighting in the cabin and making after-dark runs to the potty.
- Individual ground fires aren’t allowed at Eco Park Resort, though they light a fire pit that guests can enjoy. Remember the marshmallows!
- Due to the remote location, Wi-Fi is not available at Eco Park Resort, though I had reliable cell service.
- Since the cabin is off-grid, no electrical outlets are available in the cabin. Remember to charge the phone before arriving.
- The cabins are heated though I didn’t turn of the heat for my stay.
- The hot water is on a timer and the bathrooms contain showers only. The doors lock and if you have little kids, I recommend staying with them.