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Mount St. Helens · 7 Wonders Museum

How the Mountain is a “side show”

   The parking lot of the Johnston Ridge Observatory (JRO) is 52 miles from I-5 at the end of SR (State Route) 504 on the North Side of Mount St. Helens. SR 504 (Spirit Lake Memorial Hwy) is also called the West Side Hwy because it approaches MSH from the west and takes you to the blast zone, four visitor centers and the 234 square miles of forest that suffered total destruction.  Unfortunately, most of it runs through private timber lands that were replanted after salvage operations.  Today those new trees are half way to harvest and hide the scarred land.  This explains the bewilderment of tourists who wonder, “Where are all those toppled forests I saw in the pictures?” 

       It is the East Side FR (Forest Road) 99 that passes through the standing dead forests and vast stretches of fallen timber, although new growth is taking over there also.  FR 99 is accessed from US 12 or SR 503 and FR 25.  The Harmony Falls trail on FR 99 descends hundreds of feet to Spirit Lake.  FR 99 ends at the Spirit Lake viewpoint high above the lake where the enormous floating log mat can still be seen.

     The South Side highway (SR503 & FR 83) features the Ape Cave lava tube, lahar and lava canyons (sometimes blocked by landslide), the Trail of Two Forests, and the trailhead for climbing MSH. 

     Our tours concentrate on the West Side highway which offers the best view of the crater.  Some folks have time to stay extra days, so the information above is provided in case you wish to explore the East and South Sides on your own while using our services on the West Side.  Visiting MSH is truly a “Side Show.”

     West Side features—more than a day.  It takes more than one day to enjoy all the West Side features when they are all open during the tourist season from about May 18 through the middle of October. Some visitor centers, including ours, are open during the winter on a limited basis – call before coming.  We plan all our tours keeping in mind that weather is a big factor here.  The mountain is only visible about 25% of the time.  But don’t let that discourage you.  Even on bad weather days there is much to enjoy.  Flexibility is the name of the game.

Danger & Current Activity.  

Authorities say there is little chance of the mountain erupting explosively without warning.    Thousands of earthquakes preceded the 1980 event.  They signaled that magma was rising from deep in the earth.  Of course, this opinion presumes the pressure from below builds slowly.  A vast surge of pressure would probably blow southwest Washington off the map.  Historically, MSH is the most active of the 14 Cascade volcanoes with major activity every hundred years or so.  
      The recent eruption was a slow-motion event.  Lava began oozing into the crater in October 2004 at the rate of a dump truck load every second or two.  By 2008 the scientists thought this episode was over.  But while active it placed over 100 million cubic yards of lava in the crater, more than the lava dome built between 1980 and 1986.

     Main West Side Attraction—the spectacular view of the mountain, crater and valley from the Johnston Ridge Observatory observation deck.  MSH stood a mile high from base to summit before it blew its top, May 18, 1980. The eruption poured 1/4 of its height, nearly the next 1/2 of its insides and north side into the valley below and destroyed 234 square miles of forest to the north, all in the first minutes of nine hours of fury.

      So, where must you be to see the valley and peer into the crater with all the desolation? Generally, to the north of the mountain.  The Federal government wanted to enable scientists and citizens to learn about volcanoes, so they relocated much of SR 504 (accessed at exit 49 of I-5) from the mudflow-wracked Toutle Valley to high above the valley floor, providing a breath-taking view of the valley below.  This $165 million 31-mile stretch of highway was built in stages until it arrived at the Johnston Ridge vista.  Paralleling the highway’s construction was the development of the $35 million worth of visitor centers.  Seventeen years after the main eruption, the crowning visitor center, Johnston Ridge Observatory, opened.  From its observation deck, the awe-struck visitor peers five miles across a deep canyon-laced valley into the mouth of the crater.

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