Mount St. Helens struggles to draw tourists 44 years after 1980 eruption


More than four decades after the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, area tourism — like the mountain’s landscape — is still struggling to return to pre-blast norms.

The number of visits to private tourist locations near the volcano have plummeted since that May 18, 1980, morning when a column of ash burst out of Mount St. Helens, eventually killing 57 people, as well as destroying 200 homes, and land used for fishing, hunting and timber harvests.

Last year, there was another blow. A landslide took out a portion of the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway and the only access to the U.S. Forest Service’s Johnston Ridge Observatory — the main tourism center on the north side of the mountain, where the eruption’s crater is located. 

The site is still blocked today.

The Mount St. Helens Institute has opened the former Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center as a main stop inside the national volcanic monument. Now renamed the Science and Learning Center, the U.S. Forest Service operates the site on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. up until May 25, when it will be open daily.

The nonprofit institute is still planning for the center’s $35 million redesign to bring indoor lodging back to the mountain, as well as expanding trails and adding more educational classes to the site.

Declining tourism

Eco Park Resort is the closest private campground to the volcano. It has six cabins and 10 tent sites, and a network of trails on about 90 acres of wilderness just outside of the national monument.

Mark Smith, Eco Park’s owner, said the resort used to average 38 bus tours a day at its peak in 1995, with about 3.4 million visitors staying at the resort per year at that time.

But in the past two decades, Eco Park is only doing a fraction of the tourism numbers that it used to.

“Now we get about 220,000, 200,000 visitors,” Smith said.

Smith’s family has been in the Mount St. Helens tourism business since before the 1980 blast. Their history started with the Spirit Lake Lodge, located at the base of the volcano, which was run as a family business by his parents, Dave and Mariam Smith, in 1970.

When the eruption destroyed the lodge, the federal government bought the Smith’s parcel, and the family put the breaks on the tourism industry until 1992, when they began offering off-road access tours to the blast zone. The Smiths bought the property that is now Eco Park Lodge, near Hoffstadt Creek and about 25 minutes away of the blast zone, in 1993.

Since then, the Smiths built the resort’s stables and cafe, as well as over 12 miles of trails. For a while, tourism was back on the mountain, Smith said.

At its peak in the mid-1990s, he said Eco Park had nine employees and a handful of step-on bus guides, averaged 40 guests a night at their campground and averaged 50-55 guests at their nightly dinner shows.

Now, Smith said Eco Park is down to two employees: himself and someone he hired to do lawn maintenance. He estimates he would need about 150 overnight accommodation spots with 500 heads in beds per season to break even.

He said tourism options, including lodging, around the mountain are minimal today.

The peak of the north side’s mountain is an hour from the few hotels in Castle Rock; if someone wanted to stay overnight indoors near the volcano, the closest options are Smith’s Eco Park and the Mount St. Helens Institute’s Science and Learning Center, the latter of which just started offering overnight stays, making it the only indoor overnight option inside the national monument.

A nonprofit’s plan

Despite Smith’s view on tourism declines, Mount St. Helens Institute staff are raising millions of dollars to bring indoor lodging closer to the blast zone, as well to update nearby trails with access to fishing and boating.

The first step of the center’s planned multimillion dollar expansion is to add more student accommodations and staff housing so thousands of additional youth can sleep on the mountain. Pilot kayak rentals and camping are also included in this phase.

Students participating in one of the institute’s overnight adventures can stay at the center today, in bunk beds that line the wall of the V-shaped building’s large conference room.

“It’s kind of like ‘Night at the Museum,’” said Mount St. Helens Institute acting Executive Director Alyssa Hoyt.

While the novelty of sleeping in the visitor center is sure to be exciting, Hoyt said the space wasn’t designed for sleeping when first built in 1992.

The U.S. Forest Service visitor center closed to the public in 2007, and the institute started partnering with the agency to offer education programs and public events at the site in 2011. In 2022, the Forest Service gave the institute a 30-year permit, offering time to gather funding and build the expansion.

With the first phase of the renovation, Hoyt said the goal is to have accommodations for students to stay in groups and in individual cabins. She said the plan is to house 120 participants at a time, increasing the institute’s yearly outdoor school from 500 students to 6,000.

The institute also wants to offer overnight stay options in the off-season for nonstudent visitors, said Hoyt, and having those cabins available will offer more options for people who don't want to camp.

The second phase of the expansion includes 40 RV/tent sites, expected to serve 5,000 visitors a year, in addition to updating area hiking and mountain biking trails, which would also let people reach spots for fishing and boating.

The last phase includes updating the actual center to be more sustainable and better designed for the nonprofit’s outdoor education programs.

The nonprofit has raised $1.7 million of its $6.1 million goal for phase one through sources including the Cowlitz Tribal Foundation, the Murdock Foundation, the Washington State Conservation and Recreation Office and individual donations. Hoyt said the institute is looking to raise the rest of the money through private donations, government funding requests and foundations.

Next, the institute plans to work with the Forest Service and Cowlitz Public Utilities District to determine what power infrastructure the center will need going forward, and what is allowed inside national monuments.