Road to Mount St. Helens Open as Eruption Anniversary Approaches


Editor's note: This article was published prior to a debris slide that closed access to Johnston Ridge near Coldwater Lake on Sunday.  As of Monday, May 15, the road remained closed. 

From old growth to prehistoric mountains and waters, the “Evergreen State” title is as fitting for Washington’s everlasting elegance as it is for the trees that line the hills.

Yet, colorful blips in time — cherry blossoms, wildflowers, sunshine — make the seasons exciting.

Mount St. Helens possesses both kinds of beauty: ancient and ephemeral. Once a perfect cone and alpine landscape, the eruption on May 18, 1980, turned the volcano and its surroundings to a lifeless moonscape.

That disaster was 43 years ago next week. While much of its impacts will remain visible forever (like the giant chunk of mountain off the top), visitors to Mount St. Helens can now see it teeming with life. Mountain goats, elk, eagles and trees have been restored, through both their own resilience and through the efforts of the Cowlitz Tribe, Forest Service and other groups.

And despite being perhaps Washington’s most famous landmark, Mount St. Helens possesses a “hidden gem” feeling. On Thursday, two Chronicle staffers passed just 20 cars between Toutle and Johnston Ridge Observatory, at the end of the Spirit Lake Highway, which opened last week for the summer.

Usually, according to a spokesperson, the Washington State Department of Transportation aims to open the road near Mother’s Day and almost always before the eruption anniversary. The observatory, which includes a gift shop, interpretive displays and ranger talks, opens later in the spring or in early summer. The area is named for volcanologist David A. Johnston, who was killed by the eruption.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 110,000-acres around Mount St. Helens were designated as a National Volcanic Monument by the president and Congress in 1982, thereby leaving the area to “respond naturally” to the eruption. Between the observatory, Coldwater Lake, a wide range of trails and countless viewpoints along the highway, a day trip to the volcano can be fun for kids, drivers and outdoors enthusiasts alike. 

Aided by programs from the Mount St. Helens Institute, it’s become a destination for researchers in all the natural sciences, especially as the geology and biology of the blast zone are one-of-a-kind.

Visitors to all parts of the mountain, especially the unshaded blast zone, should always pack water and sunscreen. 

On the way back, people should consider stopping at Fire Mountain Grill. Looking out over the wild, sediment-packed Toutle River, the lunch and dinner spot offers all that a restaurant at the foot of the Cascades should: elk, berries and an array of sandwiches for hungry hikers. They’re open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursdays through Mondays and are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Learn more about the volcanic monument at For trip planning, head to