Friday, August 27, 2010
Mt. St. Helens National Monument: Take the Detour off I-5!
How many times have you zipped along I-5 between Portland and Seattle and noticed the signs for Mt. St. Helens National Monument…and not turned off?
Not even once?
Me neither. Until today.
For years I pooh-poohed the visitor center at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Too touristy I figured. I’ve climbed to the summit from the south side and peered down into the crater (which I highly recommend), so driving to a visitor center seemed too crowded and tame.
If you want to see up close the aftermath of geologic forces that make the Pacific Northwest such a spectacularly scenic (and sometimes dangerous) place, take that exit off I-5 at Castle Rock and keep on driving. Besides awesome views and good hiking trails, the film at the visitor center has an ending more stunning than anything Hollywood could conjure. Plus there’s a bonus on the way back (keep reading…).
About an hour north of Portland, I turn off at 4 p.m. for the 55-mile drive to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, a bit late in the day since the center closes at 6. What I didn’t factor in was time to stop at the numerous viewpoints along the way and do much hiking. Next time I’ll go earlier with my hiking boots, pack, and water.
While climbing gradually, the two-lane highway winds along the Toutle River valley, in and out of forest, and crosses some impressive bridges traversing gulches along the way. As you get closer, St. Helen peeks eerily above the foothills, its blown off summit a stark contrast with the forested green foothills.
The Loowit Trail
Less than a mile from the observatory, well into the denuded blast zone, I stop to take a short hike on the Loowit Trail that circumnavigates the mountain. I don’t have time to go too far, but views of the still-smoldering volcano are amazing (note, you can enter the off-limits zone via the Loowit Trail only).
Purple lupine and bright orange Indian paintbrush are emerging alongside the remnants of splintered tree trunks, reminders of the devastating 1980 eruption. If I’d been here when the north side of the mountain collapsed and unleashed a superheated cloud of ash, I would have been quickly incinerated—a sobering thought. A little over 60 people within the blast zone lost their lives that morning, including David Johnston, the young geologist and namesake of Johnston Ridge Observatory.
The Johnston Ridge Observatory
Arriving at the Johnston Ridge Observatory parking area is a surprise because I don't see the building. In a nod to environment-sensitive design, it has been built right into the hillside and isn't visible from the road.
I get to the observatory just about 25 minutes before closing, which doesn’t give me much time. Over the P.A. system, they’re announcing seating for the last showing of the 16-minute film, so I scoot in and grab a seat. As the lights go out, ominous music starts playing as scenes of trees being mowed down by the pyroclastic blast fill the screen.
“Mommy, I’m scared!” says a little boy seated behind me.
It’s not all scary, but quite informative. A haunting touch is the replay of David Johnston’s last words over the radio to the U.S. Geological Survey office in Vancouver, Washington. “Vancouver! This is it!” he yelled frantically as the mountain collapsed directly in front of him.
When the film is over, but the lights are still out, we’re asked to remain seated. Curtains rise behind the raised screen, and in front of us sits the star of the show – the gaping, open maw of Mt. St. Helens just a few miles away, still puffing steam. Because we’ve just seen eruption footage, it’s a jaw-dropping moment.
Before heading back down to the lowlands, I dash up the concrete pathway to a viewpoint above the observatory and twirl slowly around to take it all in. Thirty years after the 1980 eruption, old-growth tree trunks still lie flattened from the blast on the surrounding ridges. A bit of Mt. Adams is visible above the ridge to the east.
Earlier on the drive up, I’d noticed a sign for homemade cobbler, so of course I’m watching for it carefully as I head back down. Just around a bend as I enter Kid Valley, there it is, like a cute Grandma’s house surrounded by a tidy lawn and profuse colorful flowers.
Patty’s Place at 19-Mile House sits perched above the North Fork of the Toutle River, cozy and inviting in the golden glow of a summer evening. Inside the warm wood-paneled dining room with hand carvings and Mt. St. Helens memorabilia, I grab a corner table and order a wild mountain berry cobbler a la mode with a scoop of huckleberry ice cream. Dinner.
“The huckleberry ice cream costs more, is that okay?” asks the young waitress.
“How much more?”
“It’s $5.19 instead of $4.99,” she replies.
I think I can handle that. As I dive into the fresh warm cobbler (before snapping a picture, sorry!), I'm happy, sharing the room with other happy people on this soft summer night. The cobbler is wonderful, tart-sweet fruit with a crispy-yet-crumbly topping.
Flush with mountain fresh air and a marvelous little road trip, I flashback to family vacations when I was a kid, which were about driving around the West and taking in its grandeur. Then I head back to I-5 with a smile on my face.
When You Go
There are two roads into the Mt. St. Helens National Monument. Farther north on I-5 is the turnoff to Windy Ridge, which overlooks Spirit Lake. The Johnston Observatory closes for the winter at the end of October. This year admission to the visitor center is $8 for adults. If you plan on hiking, be sure and take lots of water.