No one probably had a thought that a disaster was lurking around the corner on that ordinary May day almost 40 years ago. Up until 1980, Mount St. Helens in Washington was a beautiful, peaked, glacier-clad volcano. It's really not hard to understand the nickname "Fuji-san of America" when you look back at pictures from before the disaster, where the white snow sparkles on the slopes and the coniferous forest warms the base of the volcano. Sure, there had been some known eruptions in the past, but absolutely nothing to indicate an impending disaster.
On the morning of May 18, a large earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale struck the area, setting off a chain reaction in Mount St Helens that would end in America's largest ever volcanic eruption. With a force equivalent to 1500 atomic bombs, Mount St Helens' north face collapsed in a giant explosion. Almost 500 meters of the volcano's top went up in smoke in a second, and toxic gases and particles quickly spread in the direction of the explosion. But that was only the beginning of the disaster. The heat from the volcano quickly melted the glaciers and in the masses of water began to rush down from the mountain, in a so-called Lava. Mud, trees, stones – everything was swept away and destroyed everything in its path. In the afternoon, the volcano calmed down, but towns as far as 50 miles from the eruption had to be evacuated due to the ash rain that covered the town. Two weeks later, the ash had reached around the entire earth. 57 people lost their lives, hundreds of houses were destroyed and thousands of animals died. Today, Mount St Helens is almost unrecognizable from the old photos. Only a large open crater remains, and the millions of tons of earth and volcanic rock thrown away in the volcanic eruption have reshaped the landscape beyond recognition. Today, Mount St. Helens is a protected national monument with numerous hiking trails of all difficulty levels and some of America's longest lava caves.
I don't know what it is about volcanoes, but there's something exciting about all this power bubbling beneath the surface. We packed our backpacks with juicy sandwiches from Safeway and loads of water and headed out among some of America's most beautiful scenery. There are three motor roads into Mount St Helens, we visited the two least visited of them: The eastern road up to Windy Ridge and the southern to Ape Cave.
South road to lava cave
Our first stop was at Ape cave, which are the remains of an older eruption that occurred more than two thousand years ago. The flowing lava from the volcano solidified on the surface, creating large lava tubes that have been buried underground over the years. Today, the 4 kilometer long tunnel is well hidden under trees and grass, but a deep hole with stairs has been excavated to take you underground. It is possible to visit the caves on your own, but we chose to follow a guide down in the dark. Well equipped with both headlamps and gas lanterns. We were a little worried about how the daughter would feel about leaving the summer heat and going down into the 5 degree and pitch black cave, but we had prepared with both fleece jackets and windbreakers, so the whole family kept warm really well. The stairs took us down to the beginning of the 4 kilometer long cave, where 2000 degree lava once flowed. The walk went between bat colonies, stalactites and spiders in the large lava tube, which in some places had a ceiling of 10 meters. The lava flow must have been unimaginably large as it slowly flowed down the slope thousands of years ago.
At the end of the road lies Lava Canyon Trail, which takes you to one of the areas where a Lava at the last eruption passed by with all its force and created a gorge. There are also several older lava fields here that you can walk on and see all these lava blocks thrown around by the forces of the water.
Trail of Two Forests is an easy hike on a raised boardwalk in the forest, but well worth stopping at to learn more about volcanoes and volcanic eruptions. Among other things, here you walk past scores of large, deep holes in the ground. The explanation is as logical as it is magical. As lava flows past trees, the trees begin to burn. The lava around the tree solidifies in contact with air, while the tree's trunk and roots char and burn up. Over the years, the ash disappears and eventually the only thing left of the tree is a single large underground hole in a lava capsule.
East road to Windy Ridge
Still, almost 40 years after the eruption, you can see traces of the explosion on the way up to Windy Ridge. Seemingly endless forests of dead and bare trees that lie like forgotten pickaxes along the slopes of the volcano. The 300-year-old forest was obliterated in seconds by temperatures of nearly 500 degrees and a pressure wave stronger than a Category 5 hurricane. Nothing survived. But life is returning to Mount St Helens again, although not very quickly.
The winding and narrow road slowly climbs, with a number of interesting stops along the way. The stop at the half-melted and badly chewed car (Miner's car) that happened to get in the way of the eruption is a good wake-up call. There is not too much traffic even though it is high season. The west route to Johnston Observatory is the popular route for bus tourists, no big buses can go up to Windy Peak.
When you arrive at the large parking lot at Windy Peak, at an altitude of 1200 meters, our hike began. A sandy natural staircase of 400 steps took us up to an impressive view of the crater and explosion area. It is hard to imagine that there were people who were peacefully walking here on Mount St Helens that day in May, but who were never found after the eruption. Spirit lake below us is still filled with logs from the explosion. Although many logs sink into the lake every year, a large amount of trees still floats on one shore of the lake. It's actually kind of scary to see that there's still smoke coming from the volcano, a reminder that Mount St Helens is a live volcano. Nowadays, however, the authorities have 24-hour monitoring of the volcano's slightest movement and temperature change, so that everyone will have time to evacuate. But Windy peaks may not be the place you want to be during an eruption. I feel a little nervous on the ground. It feels cold and still. Today the volcano seems to have a sleepy morning.
We hiked on a bit up on the edge of the mountain Boundary Trail. Here from above you can see how close it is between the volcanoes of the Cascade Mountains. Mount Adams looms to the east and Mount Rainier rises to the north. It's no wonder that everywhere in Washington you see Vulcano Evacuation Route-signs, so that you can quickly get to safety if the disaster were to happen again. I guess the signs came into place after Mount St Helens erupted.
The slopes were full of spring flowers in red and purple that fought against the strong wind. One or two small trees had begun to peek out. It may look like a lunar landscape, but the forest is about to reclaim the volcano. Life begins again after the disaster. We wandered back to the car and set the GPS in the direction of the night's motel, a little more humbled by the immense forces of nature.
Do you want to read more about Mount St Helens?
Where is Mount St Helens?
Mount St. Helens is located in Washington State in the northwestern United States, about a 4-hour drive south of Seattle.
How much time do I need to spend to visit the volcano?
Two days are needed if you want to have time to hike a bit and visit more than one place. It takes time to drive around the volcano and we only managed two stops. We didn't have time to stop at popular ones Johnston Ridge Observatory, which I regret.
When is the best time to go here?
The roads up to the crater are only open during the summer months, usually from May/June to October - but check before you go here! Quite often roads are closed due to race.
How much does it cost to visit the park?
To visit recreation sites in Washington state, either is required day pass (for about $5, which applies to car+passenger) or one America the Beautiful-annual pass ($80, for car+passenger) valid for most parks throughout the US. We bought annual passes, as we visited a large number of national and state parks on our road trip.
Want to read even more about Mount St Helens National Monument?
- Map with hiking trails on US Forest Service
- Visitor's guide (pdf) at US Forest Service
- Information from the authorities about current security mode around Mount St Helens.
- General info from the park official site.
- Film about the outbreak on YouTube from the Smithsonian Channel.
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