Mount St. Helens  (MSH)
Visitors Resource Packet
Compiled/Written by Lloyd & Doris Anderson
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West Side Volcano Attractions

See also:  3a. Johnston Ridge;  3b. Seeing 7 Wonders;  3d. SR504; 3e. Hikes; 1a. Packet Introduction

Development of the Volcano As a Showplace.  The 1980 eruption offered Americans an ideal opportunity to learn about volcanoes.  MSH was easily accessible yet not too close to major populations.  It was big but not too big.  Science saw it as a volcano research lab.  Educators saw it as a hands-on volcano experience.  Environmentalists were interested in recovery.  The timber industry wanted the public to see the commercial side of forests impacted by catastrophe.  Together Americans could develop an unequaled volcano complex for the whole world to visit.

The planning led to a 110,000-acre national volcanic monument, five visitor centers and a world-class mountain highway to access it all.  The first visitor center opened just six years after the eruption.  Naturally it was named “Mount St. Helens Visitor Center” but now that name causes confusion because there are more.  Located just five miles east of Interstate 5 it covered all aspects of volcanoes, the eruption and recovery.  Thirteen years after the eruption, the highway was completed to Coldwater Ridge where the second Forest Service visitor center opened (MP 43).  It emphasizes recovery in the blast zone.  In 1995 the Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center (MP 33.5) which depicts the timber industry’s struggle with the eruption opened.  The following year Cowlitz County Hoffstadt Bluffs visitor center opened at mile post 27.  Here at the beginning of the Blast Zone was a place to dine while gazing up the debris-clogged, erosion-scarred Upper Toutle Valley.  In 1997 the final 10 miles of highway opened along with the visitor center at the end of the road, Johnston Ridge Observatory.  The $165 million highway and $35 million worth of visitor centers have paid off.  Each year more visitors come from around the world--over 3.25 million in 1998.

The west side volcano attractions are listed in order of appearance from I-5 to correlate with the self-guided tour sheet (3d), not importance.  Some are functional, others educational, still others recreational, and one addresses very important commercial concerns--eating and gifts.  The Johnston Ridge Observatory has been covered in a separate sheet since it is not only the most dramatic and elaborate of the five but also offers the finest view.  While the Johnston Ridge and Silver Lake Forest Service visitor centers are seasonal, Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center is open year around (snow permitting) except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  The restaurant is open year around but not all days or hours off-season.  Weyerhaeuser is closed during the winter (details follow).  All five centers have a variety of outside walks/sights.  Four have helpful staffed information desks and a wide selection in their bookstores.  The three Forest Service centers provide scheduled interpretative talks all day long.  These uniformed speakers may be volunteers, staff or summer interns and are all enthusiastic and interesting.  But if you ask them about creation or wonder about those long ages of geology, they will say, “You can learn about that at a little place just west of Toutle.  It is called creation center or something...  On the south side of the highway.”  Yes, they actually direct people our way!  A fee is required for admittance to Forest Service attractions (see 1A).

MP 5  Mount St. Helens Visitor Center (also called Silver Lake Visitor Center).  Open daily 9-5 May-September. (360)274-2131.  Gives an overall orientation to MSH.  Displays show the geological history of the area, area Indian lore of the mountain, the world’s volcanoes (lighted map), MSH’s eruptive history, and all about the 1980 events.  One can walk down into a model of a volcano.  The story of the eruption can be told in many fascinating, informative ways.  Each visitor center except Hoffstadt Bluffs relates the drama in its own unique video/visual program.  The award-winning film here is 22 minutes long.  The 16,000 square foot building, Cowlitz County’s largest museum, cost $5.2 million.  It combines forest, lake and mountain in a striking setting on the shores of Silver Lake.  Display boards on an interpretative trail inform on waterfowl, wildlife and native vegetation.  Looking across the lake on good days one can see MSH 31 miles away.  The building’s 32-foot cathedral ceiling is surrounded by 150-foot Douglas firs.  The emphasis on evolution is heaviest in this building and diminishes with each newer visitor center.

MP 21  Sediment Retention Structure (SRS).  This is a dam on the Toutle River designed not to hold back water but to trap water-born sediment.  It is 184’ high and 1800 feet long, the largest earthen dam in North America.  It was built at a cost of $66 million and completed in 1989.  It slows down the water so sediment sinks to the bottom.  Why was it necessary?  Before the eruption the amount of sediment transported downstream annually would cover a football field to a height of 325 feet.  The average annual sediment going down stream in the five years after the eruption would cover the same football field to a height of 360 miles.  (The current volume of sediment in the river is much less than a football field one mile high.)  The SRS road goes one mile to a parking lot and gift shop with excellent display room and video.  A 300’ trail leads to an overview which looks slightly up at the dam’s face so what is happening on the upstream side cannot be seen.  A three-eighths mile path takes you to the top of the dam where you can see an incredible amount of sediment already captured.  In fact, the Corps of Engineers may have to raise the height of the dam at some future time.  Only the north wall of the spillway can be seen from SR 504.  It is located about a mile after the turnoff on the south side of the highway.

MP 27  Hoffstadt Bluffs (a restaurant and gift shop).  Open 9-9 during summer; shorter hours at other times.  (360)274-7750.  No admission charge.  Owned by Cowlitz County.  Built at a cost of $3.2 million and dedicated in 1996.  First-class, full-service restaurant and most complete MSH gift shop. The next closest to the mountain full-service restaurants are the 19 mile house and Toutle Diner at mile post 10.  Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center has a fast foods restaurant. The Hoffstadt wooden cathedral structure is located on a bluff overlooking the Toutle Valley, the dining room provides a breath-taking view through its high windows which face up valley with the mountain in the distance.  On the second floor is a cathedral-ceilinged banquet room for groups.  This visitor center has a very informative scale model of the volcano area with careful topographical contours.  In the lobby are large pictures of the volcano story and a extensive rack of newspaper stories from the time of the eruption.  (If you read everything, allow two hours for this rack alone.)  Nearby is a helicopter port which provides flights over the volcano.  See 3g-Sources for web site.

MP 33.5  Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center.  Open dates vary: generally open daily 10-6 from May something to October something.  Closed during winter.  (360)414-3439.  No admission fee.  After Johnston Ridge this is my favorite place, maybe because how mankind fulfills God’s command to “subdue the earth and have dominion over it” fascinates me.  Opened in 1995 this center focuses on the timber industry, the impact of the eruption on it and how it is restoring the destroyed commercial forests.  A re-creation of the dimly-lit forest floor surrounds you in the lobby--trees, ferns, salal, animals.  Even a mechanical woodpecker in a tree does his hammering every so often.  Next is the darkened eruption theater with a short eruption video.  Then a room shows the effects of the blast--the path of the blast sound (it was heard selectively for up to 600 miles away due to the physics of sound waves), the area damaged and extent of damage in various areas--and salvage operations.  Next comes the replanting effort, then a large model of a forest and a helicopter cockpit to sit in while a video takes you over the forest.  Then the products of the forest and the recycling of those products.  A comfortable viewing room shows a video about forest animals and a gift shop conclude the features inside this $4.5 million, 10,000 square foot building.  But the spectacular setting and view outside is still to be stated.  Perched 1300 feet above the Toutle Valley floor, the center commands a sweeping view up the valley with the mountain in the distance.  A half-mile trail descends 250’ down the slope providing more views of the landscape.  Also playground & five picnic tables.

MP 43  Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center.  Open 10-6 April to September; 10-5 at other times, weather permitting (360)274-2131.  Emphasizes the destruction of life and biological recovery in the blast zone.  Largest (28,000 square feet) and most expensive ($11.5 million) visitor center, it has its place among them.  With its green roof and extensive glass it stands out like a story-book castle on the barren ridge top.  At an elevation of 3200 feet it doesn’t have the broad view of Johnston Ridge (4250) or Elk Rock viewpoint (3750).  Further, portions of MSH are hidden by high ridges to the SE and the angle prevents seeing into the crater.  But it looks 500 feet down on beautiful, serene Coldwater Lake, its delta and it is surrounded by the devastation of the eruption.  Also, it has a large cafeteria area, the only food beyond Hoffstadt Bluffs.  However, the educational value of the display area is the primary mission of this center.  The displays are interesting, understandable, and some are interactive.  If one will spend 90 minutes reading the displays, taking some notes and later thinking through those notes, he will have a basic understanding of how life starts over after a catastrophe.  “Discover the fascinating ways that plants and animals have re-colonized the blast zone... Enjoy panoramic views of the volcano, newly formed lakes, and the debris-filled Toutle River Valley.  Learn the stories of the many ways life emerged from the ash...” -VR.  The 1/4th mile Winds of Change Interpretive Walk explains the havoc of the stone wind blast that slammed into Coldwater Ridge and those gentle winds of time, plants and animals that have aided recovery. 

MP 45  Coldwater Lake Recreation Area. This incredibly beautiful five mile long lake framed by canyon walls up to 2000 feet high was formed by the eruption.  The 1/4th mile Birth of a Lake Interpretive Trail explains how the debris avalanche dammed the creek so it became a 766 acre lake up to a half mile wide and how the Corps of Engineers stabilized the dam to prevent a downstream disaster.                                    Lloyd Anderson 6/12/00

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