Preceded by two months of earthquakes and venting steam, Mount St Helens in southern Washington State erupted on May 18, 1980. The eruption started with another earthquake, which caused the mountain’s entire north side to slide to collapse. This is all to say that the eruption of Mount St. Helens was a cataclysmic event unlike any other in the United States. The mountain itself was left with a huge crater on its north side. The surrounding area was preserved in 1982 as Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument.
A Natural Disaster of Epic Proportions
The collapse caused a massive avalanche of rock and ice to crash into Spirit Lake, while the pressure in the mountain resulted in a massive lateral explosion. The blast leveled almost 150 square miles of forest and the eruption column reached a height of 80,000 feet (or 15 miles).
It was the most catastrophic volcanic eruption in U.S. history, killing 57 people. Large volcanic mudslides, known as lahars, came running down the mountain, flowing as far as the Columbia River Gorge 50 miles to the south. Huge areas instantly became a wasteland, thousands of wild animals died and damage costs exceeded $1 billion dollars.
Visiting Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument
This spectacular national monument lies an easy 2-hour drive north of Portland, Oregon and about 3.5 hours south of Seattle. Although it attracts about half a million visitors each year, it’s much less famous than other volcanoes in the region, such as Mount Hood or Mount Rainier.
There’s plenty to do, though. The main visitor area is the wonderful Johnston Ridge Observatory, which faces the crater and offers spectacular views of the volcanic valleys and canyons below. In summer, an abundance of colorful wildflowers covers the fertile slopes, making the scenery even more attractive.
Spend some time exploring the observatory and learning about the 1980 eruption before heading out on one of the nearby trails. Also make sure to stop at the Castle Lake and Loowit Viewpoints on your way in.
Visiting Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument can last between an hour or two and several days. You can get a good understanding of what happened there in a couple of hours, but there are also plenty of opportunities for overnight adventures. I would recommend, though, to stick around until sunset, which can be absolutely glorious.