Mount St. Helens  (MSH)
Visitors Resource Packet
Compiled/Written by Lloyd & Doris Anderson
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Johnston Ridge Observatory Complex

            See also: Seven Wonders Summary, 1c and 3b-3e

            Planning Your Trip.  The Johnston Ridge Observatory complex is the highlight of a trip to MSH.  MP 52.  Open daily 10-6 May - October or later, depending on funding and weather.  Call 360-274-2140.  Current visibility, see  The remaining sheets in Section 3 cover most other MSH attractions.  See Section 3h for ideas on planning your MSH visit.

            The Building and Highway.  The Observatory is the crown jewel of the National Volcanic Monument’s plan to help the public learn about and experience the volcano.  To encourage the maximum number of visits, the government began by building, at great expense, the safe, comfortable, pleasurable Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (SR 504).  It takes 80 minutes to drive its 52 miles from I-5 (Exit 49) to the Observatory’s parking lot where the road ends.  A second reason for the government’s enormous outlay of highway funds was survivability.  The old highway followed the river in the valley.  Each moderate mudflow threatened it.  The new highway was constructed high above the valley floor out of the reach of future mudflows.  It cost $165 million and took 15 years to design and build.  The Observatory was built into the ridge with thick, reinforced concrete walls like the gigantic gun emplacements at Normandy.  Even if a moderate event destroyed the glass and contents, the building might be repairable.  This final leg of the highway and the Observatory were opened in May 1997.

            Best View.  Without question the Johnston Ridge Observatory complex provides the best views of the devastation to the mountain's north side accessible by car.  Ranging from 4200-4300’ in elevation it allows visitors to look directly into the horseshoe shaped crater with its lava dome.  It also provides the best views of the Toutle Valley’s deeply eroded avalanche deposits.  The complex befits the volcanic eruption it displays with its $10.5 million visitor center, spacious observation deck and walks, mall-sized parking lot, trails and recently ridge-top vista.  About 700,000 people visit the complex annually.

            The view at the Observatory is the next best thing to spending a few hours hovering over the area in a helicopter. Four miles from the base of the mountain, the complex lies just a few hundred yards from the location selected for the most forward observation station before the eruption.  Both the avalanche and ensuing blast took direct aim at this first ridge north of the volcano.  The 31-year old USGS volcanologist on duty, Dr. David A. Johnston, perished.  The ridge and complex were named in his honor.  Seen from its unobstructed 360 degree ridgetop view are the hollowed-out mountain enclosed by a towering rim on three sides, lava dome, apron descending into the debris-clogged and erosion-sculptured valley, the hummocky Toutle Valley stretching off to the west, the Pumice Plain to the east with Mt. Adams on the horizon, the spillover in Coldwater Creek ravine to the north and the devastation in every direction.

            Best Feature.  In the 16,000 square foot building is a large theater which shows a 16-minute film using computerized animation and special effects on a 33-foot-wide-screen to re-enact the eruption.  The viewer sees, hears and almost feels the largest landslide in recorded history and the blast of rock, ash and gas shattering the forest at 300 mph. The finale occurs after the movie ends, however, when the curtain is raised and the real Mount St. Helens appears through a glass wall, weather permitting.

            The film is shown every half hour, at 15 and 45 minutes after the hour.  A large digital readout in the lobby gives a countdown to the next showing.  Heavy doors, like those of an elevator, automatically close when it is time to begin.  People exit the film at the front of the auditorium, producing a sea of bodies in the display area leading back to the lobby.  By walking clockwise from the front desk to the exit doors of the theater after the film begins, one can read the displays while the film is in progress without being hurried by a crowd. 

            Don’t miss the remarkable display just outside the theater exit that explains some useful information scientists learned from the eruption.  For instance, they were only aware of about three lateral volcanic explosions before this one; so, it did not occur to them that the volcano might explode laterally, even though the north slope had bulged 450’ over two months and thousands of earthquakes indicated magma was moving up into the volcano.  In hindsight scientists have found evidence of nearly 300 lateral volcanic eruptions in the remains of old volcanoes.  This shows the limited knowledge of science.  In view of such limited knowledge, it is hard to understand how science can be so very certain of their claim that the earth has existed for 4.5 billion years.

            Next comes displays telling the stories of a dozen survivors.  Then an extended section on volcano predicting and monitoring.  An operating seismograph and sensor allows one to see his or her own vibrations while stepping or jumping.  A bank of three seismographs receives live information from three remote sensors in critical locations within 10 miles.  This information is forwarded to the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.

            Second Best Feature.  In a large room to the left of the lobby is a 12-foot diameter model of the blast area landscape with 30,000 multicolored tiny lights that go on and off to show the sequence of events during the eruption: 1) the landslide that raced down the mountain at speeds in excess of 100 mph filling the valley to the north with up to 600’ of deposits, sloshing into Spirit Lake and raising the lake bottom nearly 300’, flying 1000’ up the face of Johnston Ridge leaving substantial deposits along the summit and in the deep canyon to the north and roaring 14 miles down the Toutle Valley, burying the Toutle River and State Route 504; 2) the blast, as it radiated out from the side of the mountain and destroyed a half-moon of forest 25 miles east and west and 17 miles to the north; 3) the east bound column of ash; 4) the various mudflows; 5) the pyroclastic flows through the day; and 6) the growing lava dome.  One can see these waves of destruction flowing out from the crater over the ridges and down the valleys as the lights go on and off. The narrator and sound effects fill the room.  The sequence is played over and over as visitors, especially children, push the many all-too-available start buttons and promptly walk away.  A person could spend hours studying the model until he had learned the topography of 400 square miles of MSH

            Now the readout says the next film showing will begin in 50 seconds, so it is time to move through the corridor of murals with old-growth forests on its walls and the sound of dripping water and chirping birds that re-create the feel of the pre-eruption forest.  All the seats in the auditorium are good ones but if you like to get the full effect, sit up real close.  Sometimes you feel like ducking the logs flying through the forest. 

            In the sales area you can buy a video copy of the award winning film just seen.  The sales area is stocked by the Northwest Interpretive Association which provides a large selection of relevant books to the visitor centers.  The staffed information desk delights to answer your still unanswered questions, pro-vide Junior Ranger materials and checkout foreign language headsets.  Forest interpreters offer a variety of formal talks and guided walks.  An amenity not yet mentioned are the spacious, clean lavatories. 

            Crossing to the East Side.  It would take only six more miles of highway to reach the Forest Service road on the east side which has three unique attractions: 1) the Windy Ridge viewpoint which offers the best view of Spirit Lake, 2) a standing dead "ghost forest" searded by the hot blast of the eruption, and 3) access to the Loowit Trail which skirts the mountain’s north base.  But debate rages over building those last six miles of highway because of ecological reasons and because the land is so unstable.  Therefore, it is a 160 mile drive from the Observatory to Windy Ridge.  One must drive back out to I-5, north to a highway crossing the Cascades and east to roads going south to Windy Ridge.  There are also unique features on the south side of MSH.  But it takes a lot of driving to reach them.  Ideally one can spend three days visiting the three clusters of attractions known as the West Side, the East Side and the South Side of MSH.                 Lloyd Anderson, Rev 6/6/01

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