Mount St. Helens, fiery volcanic monster is part of Sierra/Cascades “ring of fire”

Mt. St. Helens belched ash and gases up to seven miles high into the atmosphere on May 18, 1980, raining two inches of ash on Yakima, some 70 miles away, and about a 1/4 inch of ash on Spokane, almost 250 miles distant (photo courtesy NFS).

Mt. St. Helens gaping crater looms over Windy Ridge and Spirit Lake. The catastrophic eruption unleashed almost a cubic mile of rock, earth and gases, raising the level of Spirit Lake 200 feet and leveling forest for up to 20 miles distant.
This view of Spirit Lake shows a small isle, all that is left of the high ground that once was home to the Spirit Lake Lodge and owner Harry Truman.
The Miner’s Car Memorial lies almost nine miles from Mt. St. Helens; the two owners and their nephew were killed in the explosive eruption, along with Harry Truman and 53 others.
Stripped and denuded trees stand nine miles from Mt. St. Helens, in mute testimony to the explosive eruption in 1980.

Mount St. Helens, WA, just northeast of Portland, OR and south of Mt. Rainier, had been menacing with volcanic activity for months prior to May 18, 1980.  The young volcano (compared to other volcanic peaks in the Cascades like Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier) had released steam, sent plumes of ash miles into the atmosphere, the north side of the 9,677 foot asymmetrical peak had begun to bulge and small earthquakes were being felt.

Hence, the US Forest Service had every reason to be wary as the peak flashed its volcanic temper early in 1980.  In April, as activity increased, safety zones, both red and blue, had been established around the volcano.  No one was to be in the red zone and only by signing a waiver could businesses enter the blue zone.

Sunday, May 18 dawned bright and sunny.  Eighty three year-old Harry
Truman, owner of the Spirit Lake Lodge at the foot of the volcano on the beautiful lake, had been a resident for 54 years.  He refused local official’s efforts to evacuate.  Volcanologist David Johnston was readying for another day of surveying the rumbling peak, from Coldwater Ridge. Miners Donald and Natalie Parker, with nephew Rick, had signed the waiver, driven their 1972 Pontiac to a trailhead eight miles from St. Helens and hiked to their cabin to work their Black Rock claim. 

None of them expected what happened that morning at 8:32 AM.  With little warning, a 5.1 earthquake was the prelude to Mt. St. Helens’s northside erupting with immense force.  Almost one cubic mile of the mountain’s north and northeast side exploded, releasing a pyroclastic flow that reduced the once grand 9,677 foot peak to  8,365 feet, leaving a gaping, one-mile-wide horseshoe crater.  The explosion sent a huge surge of earth, rock, ice and gases surging at 300 miles per hour, devastating an area about six miles wide and 20 miles in length.

Truman and his beloved  Spirit Lake Resort were blown away, as earth and rock filled Spirit Lake, initially raising the lake level almost 200 feet.  Johnston had time to radio “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it” before the cataclysm reached his lookout post.  Soon the eruption reached the Parkers, scorching their vehicle and killing all three.  The bodies of Truman and Johnston were never recovered.  Over 7,000 large game animals (bear, deer, elk) and millions of fish were killed and thousands of huge trees were leveled  The eruption offered a lesson in volcanic studies; of the 57 people killed, 53 of them were outside the blue zone – in areas that experts believed were safe from volcanic impacts.

Our most recent visit to the Mt. St. Helens Volcanic National Monument took us north of Portland on Interstate 5, then east on WA 503.  This route runs south of the volcano and up the east side.  Once one turns onto NF 99, the Windy Ridge spur road, the might of the eruption becomes graphically apparent.  One soon enters the area where huge trees were flattened like matchsticks, or their limbs denuded, leaving only skeleton trunks.

The Miner’s Car memorial, where the Parker’s rusted and flattened Pontiac remains, lies as mute testimony of the volcano’s might.  Traveling nearer the base of St. Helens, most of the terrain remains much as it was 34 years ago, barren and devastated.  Varied turnoffs look down on Spirit Lake, its northeast end still littered with the floating trunks of huge fir trees blown into the lake.  Visible near the lake’s west end is a small island, once the high ground that once was the home of Spirit Lake Resort.

NF 99 ends about two miles from the base of the volcano, where a gated road is open to hikers who want to trek closer to the peak.  We chose to hike to the top of the Windy Ridge overlook, up about 400 steps.  From here, one gains a true perspective of the explosion’s immensity, seeing the horseshoe crater, mile-upon-mile of devastated ridges and forest, Spirit Lake, and the Johnston Ridge Observatory, across the valley at the end of the Spirit Lake Highway.

When to go: The monument is open year-round, but many access roads are often closed by snows around November 1. 

What’s nearby: Portland is the largest city south, on I-5, offering provisions and lodging.  Mt. Rainier is just 50 miles north; we reached it the same day as our tour of St. Helens, and spent the night at our favorite Rainier campground, Ohanepekosh (and, that evening, drove up to the Paradise area). 

If you have additional time plan a “ring of fire” trip – taking in Mt. Lassen National Park (just east of Redding, CA), Mt Shasta and Crater Lake.  A more extended trip could take in Mt Hood, OR and Mt. Adams in Washington, all majestic peaks and part of the volcanic chain of the north Sierra and Cascade ranges.

Dining, lodging, camping options: The monument offers little in visitor services; nearby towns like Woodland, Cougar and Randle offer dining and lodging options, surrounding National Forest offers selected camping options.

What to bring: Binoculars, camera, good hiking shoes and gear for about any type of weather!

How to get there: To reach Mt. St. Helens from the Stockton area, 740 miles and 14 hours, go north on I-5 past Portland, then east, then north on WA 503 to reach NF 99, the Windy Ridge spur road.  Another option is to visit the volcano’s Johnston Observatory on the north side, reached by taking the Spirit Lake Highway off I-5.

To plan your visit: go to or call (503) 808-2592.

Next week, with still a good six weeks before snows hit the Sierra, we offer insight into weekend delights up Hwy. 108 east of Sonora, CA . 

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//, or contact me at 

Happy travels in the West!

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