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Day-Trippin’ in Volcano Country

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

She’s no saint. Just ask anyone who lives along the North Fork of the Toutle River — or
the families of those who perished when a relatively young mountain of volcanic origin
exploded, leveling more than 230 square miles of forest in less than five minutes during a
cataclysmic eruption on May 18, 1980. It’s a story that vividly unfolds right before your
eyes as you sit in the comfort of the Johnston Ridge Observatory. When the 16-minute video
presentation ends in the state-of-the-art theater, the screen rolls up into the ceiling …
and moments later you are looking out a huge window facing the snowy slopes of a mountain
that changed lives and landscape forever. A mere five-and-a-half miles from where you are
sitting is the smoldering crater of one of the most infamous volcanoes in the world —
Washington State’s Mount St. Helens. Spending a day in a motorhome exploring the
110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, located about midway between
Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, is both awe-inspiring and chilling. The “Saint
of the Pacific Northwest” could erupt again any day with little warning. Or, she could
growl, smoke and rumble for a long, long time before another major geological event. You
just don’t know. It’s that very mixture of seeing one of the Earth’s most striking displays
of geographic evolution that draws huge numbers of visitors each year to Mount St. Helens.
According to Tom Knappenberger, the public affairs officer for the Gifford Pinchot National
Forest (of which Mount St. Helens is a part), more than 1.5 million visitors enjoy some
aspect of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument each year. Some merely come to hike
and fish, or take part in other outdoor recreation activities. But the majority of
out-of-state residents come to see the mountain itself. That’s what drew us here.
Knappenberger says more than 200,000 visitors make the hour-and-fifteen minute, 50-mile
drive from the visitor center — located five miles east of Castle Rock, Washington, on
State Highway 504 — to where the beautifully maintained Spirit Lake Memorial Highway ends
at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, the closest viewing site to the crater. (Depending upon
road conditions, the observatory is open from May through October, while the rest of the
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is open year-round — again depending on road
conditions.) RVers will find the drive up to the Johnston Ridge site is more like a
half-day. There are several attractions along the way worth pulling your motorhome into for
a closer look at the devastation Mount St. Helens wrought. Such attractions include the
28-foot-tall Bigfoot statue, made from wire, cement and ash from Mount St. Helens, to
elaborate learning centers that show in detail how both man and nature rebound from such an
event. The drive is easy; Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (a designated scenic byway) is wide,
smooth and new. The eruption and subsequent volcanic mud-and-debris flows and flooding in
1980 took out 14 bridges and destroyed much of the old highway that ran along the river. In
fact, one of the must-stops on the drive up to see the volcano is Hoffstadt Creek Bridge.
This is the tallest and largest of the bridges built for the new highway; it stands 370
feet above the creek and spans 2,340 feet across the gorge. When you see RVs driving over
it they look miniscule in relation to the bridge. Yet another recommended stop is the
Weyerhaeuser-sponsored Forest Learning Center, located just outside the western boundary of
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. There, we spent a lot of time walking through
the many displays that show in vivid detail what loggers in the area endured when the
mountain blew — and how fortunate they were that the eruption happened in a rare work lull
during a major logging operation. The timber flattened by the initial blast contained
enough wood to build an estimated 300,000 homes. Outside the learning center’s doors, on
the bluff overlooking the North Fork of the Toutle River, we looked down upon elk feeding
along the gravel bars and fields. (Binoculars are a must-have for this scenic outing.) Our
next stop took us to the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, named for the lake that formed
when debris and ash from the eruption blocked many of the mountain streams in the area.
One, Coldwater Creek, suddenly turned into a 200-foot-deep lake; today it offers boating
and trout fishing. Inside the visitor center is a detailed history of the area from an
ecological viewpoint. The center also has a small restaurant, bookstore, ranger-led
programs and a nice view of the valley and of Mount St. Helens. But by far the most
awe-inspiring view is from Johnston Ridge Observatory, named in memory of David A.
Johnston, a scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who was monitoring the
mountain from the very location the center is situated and was one of the 57 people who
lost their lives when the mountain erupted. “The whole north flank of Mount St. Helens
collapsed down into the valley below it,” recalled Ed Klimasauskas, a geologist and former
public information officer for the USGS. “As the landslide collapsed into the valley, it
released its pent-up energy,” Klimasauskas continued. “And all of these gases exploded
outward in a tremendous blast that covered a 230-square-mile area in minutes.” Locals
recall some area residents survived by driving their cars at speeds of 100 mph just to
escape the pyroclastic mudflows. In addition to the 57 human lives lost, wildlife
specialists say the blast killed an estimated 7,000 deer, elk and bear, as well as all
birds and small mammals in the area. In the theater documentary, you get a strong sense of
the massive force of nature when the mountain blew. Even more vivid are the words uttered
by Johnston, the USGS geologist who was monitoring the eruptions from a camp called
Coldwater II, six miles from the mountaintop. He radioed the volcanic observatory:
VVancouver! Vancouver! This is it…!” he said. His remains were never found. Those fateful
words send chills down the spines of anyone who stands looking across the little valley
into the crater. As you head back down Highway 504 toward Castle Rock, make it a point to
stop at the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center and watch the glass-blowing exhibition. The
glass is made using some of the silica from Mount St. Helens, which gives the handmade
pieces a very unique DNA. And, if you want a completely different perspective of the area,
take a 30-minute helicopter tour to the mountain. The $100 price is worth every penny if
the weather is clear. A few miles farther down the highway, just as you roll into the wide
spot in the road called Kid Valley, stop in at the 19 Mile House for lunch or dinner. The
home-cooked food is excellent — especially the cobblers. Should you want to spend a couple
of days taking in more of what the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Gifford
Pinchot National Forest have to offer, make Seaquest State Park, located on Highway 504
about eight miles from Castle Rock (Exit 49), your homebase. Better yet, travel a half-hour
south on Interstate 5 to Woodland, Washington. Take Exit 21 and travel east on State
Highway 503, which takes you around the southern side of the national volcanic monument and
into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. What you see here is what the area to the
northwest of the volcano looked like before the eruption: The forest is thick, wildlife
abounds and the mountain streams run wild and clear. If you are a waterfall lover, scenic
photographer, or love to hike and stream fish, this older, narrower, winding highway that
follows the Lewis River offers such outdoor activities in abundance. Continuing east, the
drive will be at a much slower pace once Highway 503 turns into Forest Route 90 through the
little burg of Cougar. The road is narrow in places, but RVs less than 36 feet long should
have no problems navigating. After all, logging trucks still ply the same roads. There are
numerous RV parks along the lower section of the Lewis River Highway. One we liked was the
Lone Fir Resort Motel and RV Park, at the outskirts of Cougar, with 32 full-hookup sites.
Fill the tank and stock the fridge before continuing on into the mountains; food and fuel
service is non-existent once you leave Cougar. From Cougar you’ll pass Swift Reservoir,
well-known for great trout fishing. Soon the road narrows as FR 90 continues on an easterly
bent, winding its way up, down and around the heavily forested mountains. There seem to be
waterfalls and beautiful streams around every turn. If you have a smaller coach, or a
dinghy, take the time to drive FR 90 to the Lewis River Falls. The paved forest road
eventually intersects with Forest Road 51 (Curly Creek Road); follow it to Forest Road 30
(Wind River Highway) — a right turn here leads you to Carson, Washington, on State Highway
14 and the north bank of the Columbia River. From there, you are just a short drive west
along Highway 14 to Stevenson, Washington, at which point you can cross the Bridge of the
Gods and pick up Interstate 84 back to Portland, Oregon. Taking this southern route through
the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is a full day’s adventure without many stops, but it’s
worth the time and effort because there’s so much to see and do. It also gives you an even
greater sense of the awesome power of the Mount St. Helens eruption. This year marks the
25th anniversary of the eruption, but it’s still a vivid memory in the minds of folks who
live here.

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