Mount St Helens, a stratovolcano that caused massive destruction after the well-known eruption on May 18, 1980 and killed dozens of people, is only a few hours’ drive from Portland and Seattle.
If you make a road trip through the Northwest of America you should definitely not miss a visit to Mount St. Helens National Park! Hills strewn with trees that have been turned over like matchsticks, a landscape that is slowly turning green again and remains of devastating mud flows, the so-called lahars.
Today there is no sign of an upcoming eruption. So you can still admire the volcano, as well as the surroundings, in a safe way. Read on below to find all the information you need for your visit.
Mount St. Helens is located in the state of Washington in the United States. It is located 177km north of Portland and 250km south of Seattle, where it is also part of the Cascade Range.
On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens wrote history after 123 years of silence. After a series of earthquakes the already unstable northern slope collapsed, after which the stratovolcano erupted sideways with a force even tens of times higher than the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Trees were literally flattened and a large pyroclastic cloud followed with a temperature of about 500 degrees and destroyed everything in its path. Dozens of people died, many houses were destroyed and the environment turned into a lunar landscape.
In the history of the United States of America, it is even the most deadly and destructive volcano eruption ever!
The pictures below clearly show how the eruption has changed the volcano and the landscape.
In memory of this devastating eruption, Mount St Helens and its surroundings are part of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and has become an interesting stop for travelers on a trip through the Northwest of America.
Despite the fact that regular (light) earthquakes are still being recorded, there is currently no visible volcanic activity at Mount Saint Helens. There are also no signs of an upcoming eruption and you can now visit the volcano safely. Only during your visit you will unfortunately not be treated to a fireworks show and flying rocks. But perhaps that is better and safer too!
The USGS, United States Geological Survey, closely monitors the activity of Mount Saint Helens and publishes updates on its website. Unfortunately, the last update already dates from April 2014.
If Mount Saint Helens becomes more active again, check with the USGS before your visit whether it is safe enough to go. Better safe than sorry!
The best travel time for your visit to Mount Saint Helens is between mid-May and late October. During this period the only route to the volcano, the State Route 504, (if there is no snow anymore) is open until the end: the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
In the other months the road is open until Coldwater Lake, not all visitor centers are open and you will need to be prepared to drive in wintry conditions. Check the weather at Mount Saint Helens before you travel.
It is best to fly to Portland or Seattle and drive to Mount Saint Helens from here by rental car. There is no public transport to the volcano.
You can easily rent a car online via, for example Rentalcars.com. Sunny Cars is also recommended as they offer all-inclusive rates. So you immediately know what your total costs including insurance are for a car rental.
Mount Saint Helens can be visited in 1 day, as long as you do not climb the volcano.
Take a day trip to Mount Saint Helens from Portland or Seattle or add it as a stopover while traveling from Portland to Seattle (or vice versa). Below are the distances and travel times to the end point of the State Route 504 at the foot of the volcano, the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
|Portland – Johnston Ridge Observatory||177 km||1h 57 min|
|Seattle – Johnston Ridge Observatory||250 km||2h 53 min|
Mount St. Helens Visitor Centre
The first stop on the way to the volcano is the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, where you look out on the western slope of Mount St Helens and which is located next to Silver Lake. This lake is just behind the visitor center and if you want you can take a small walk of 1 mile (1600 meters), the Silver Lake Wetland Haven Trail.
The Mount St. Helens Visitor Center itself has an exhibition about the timeline prior to the May 18, 1980 eruption, a model of the volcano, a working seismograph, you can watch a film about the events up to the eruption (every hour at: 05 and: 35) and follow the seismic activity of Mount St Helens live.
|Type of visitor||Entrance fee|
|Adults 18 years and older||USD 5 / € 4,60|
|Children 7-17 years||USD 2,50 / € 2,30|
|Children (6 years old and younger)||Free of charge|
|Family (2 adults plus children)||USD 15 / € 13,80|
1 March- 15 May: daily from 09-16h (09.00 am – 04.00 pm).
16 May- 15 September: daily from 09-17h (09.00 am – 05.00 pm).
16 September – 31 October: daily from 09-16h (09.00 am – 04.00 pm).
1 November – 28 February: Thursday to Monday, 09-16h (09.00 am – 04.00 pm)
The visitor center is closed on New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and the following Friday, Christmas.
Forest Learning Center
During the eruption in 1980, many trees in the area were destroyed, almost 150,000 hectares. The Forest Learning Center gives you information about how the forest recovers after the eruption, how the reforestation of Mount Saint Helens takes place and what people do to preserve these forests.
A forest has even been recreated as it must have looked before the eruption and where you can walk through. You can also experience an eruption based on images and sounds in the Eruption Theater.
Are you traveling with children? Then they can enjoy themselves outside in the playground.
The admission is free.
The exhibition is open daily from May 18 to September 16 from 10-16h (10.00 am – 04.00 pm).
The souvenir shop, the Elk viewing point, the hiking trails and the playground are open from mid-May to October. From May to September from 10-18h (10.00 am – 06.00 pm) and in October from 10-17h (10.00 am – 05.00 pm).
Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center
The Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center is in the middle of the blast zone and overlooks both Mount Saint Helens and Coldwater Lake. A 55 meter deep lake that was formed by the eruption.
Previously the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center was located here. In 1993 it was even the first visitor center that was opened so close to the volcano. Unfortunately it was closed for the public again in November 2007.
After a thorough renovation, the visitor center was reopened in 2012 and renamed to the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center. Since then it is primarily being used for planned events and activities. But in the winter season, when Johnston Ridge Observatory is closed, you can come here for information about the volcano at the weekend.
If you are there in the summer months, you can take a look at Coldwater Lake. To the east of the visitor center is an area where you can picnic and look out over the lake from a boardwalk.
The admission is free.
Opened during the closure of Johnston Ridge Observatory in the winter months.
Saturday and Sunday between 10-16h (10.00 am and 04.00 pm), from November to mid-April (provided there are no holidays, maintenance or extreme weather).
Johnston Ridge Observatory
The Johnston Ridge Observatory is the end point of Highway 504 and is located at the foot of the volcano, in the middle of the so-called blast zone. It is named after a volcanologist: David Johnston. At the time of the eruption, he camped in the area and was never recovered.
The highlight of the Johnston Ridge Observatory is the amazing view of the volcano, where you stand eye to eye with this huge giant. It is definitely the best viewpoint on Mount Saint Helens! So bizarre to stand at such a short distance from a volcano, which caused so much destruction.
In the information center you will not only find out more about how active volcanoes are monitored and eruptions are predicted, but you will also find reports of eyewitnesses who survived the eruption. You can also try to cause an earthquake yourself, attend a ranger’s lecture or watch a video presentation in the theater about the eruption and how it has changed the landscape. A film of which you definitely do not want to miss the end!
|Type of visitor||Entrance fee|
|Adults 16 years and older||USD 8 / € 4,60|
|Children 15 years and younger||Free of charge|
Between May and 27 October 2019, depending on the snow.
Monday – Sunday, from 10-18h (10.00 am to 06.00 pm)
As soon as you take the turn you can see the volcano looming in the distance and the closer you get to this giant, the larger and more impressive Mount Saint Helens becomes.
Along the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (State Route 504) which is also partly in the “blast zone”, you will find several smaller lookouts in addition to a number of visitor centers overlooking the volcano. These not only offer you a beautiful view of the volcano (provided that the sight is good of course), but you can also still clearly see the effect of the eruption on the surrounding landscape and the Toutle River.
Even so many years after the eruption, the environment is still impressive and you can clearly see how the landscape is slowly recovering. You can hardly imagine what the environment must have looked like just after the eruption.
The viewpoints where you can make a stop are:
- Havilah Retreat Center (from the lawn in front of the building)
- Bridge View point (view of the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge)
- Forest Learning Center
- Elk Rock Viewpoint
- Castle Lake Viewpoint (open all year round, unless closed due to snow-plowing)
- Loowit Viewpoint (closed between November – mid-May)
- Johnston Ridge Observatory (opened mid-May – October)
You can do various walks around Mount St Helens. From easy to hard, from short to long. You can even climb the volcano. Below you will find some nice and short walks that you can do if you visit the area around the State Route 504 for a day.
Silver Lake Wetland Haven Trail
Silver Lake is located behind the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center and you can do the Silver Lake Wetland Haven walk. A short walk of 1 mile (1600 meters) on a boardwalk along Silver Lake and through the swamp area.
At the Havilah Retreat Center, where previously the Hoffstadt Bluff Visitors Center was located, is the Memorial Grove.
This forest was planted in memory of the 57 victims of the eruption on 18 May 1980. A short walkway leads through the forest to a memorial stone with the names of the 57 victims. You will find the entrance to the forest on the right-hand side of the large parking lot.
From the Johnston Ridge Observatory you can take a short walk on the Eruption trail. The paved footpath * is 0.8 miles (approx. 1.2km) round trip and offers you a view of Mount Saint Helens, the collapsed crater, the lava dome and the valley through which the hot glow cloud raged through.
Climbing Mount St. Helens
As long as Mount St. Helens is calm you have the opportunity to climb the volcano. Climbing is possible throughout the year, but the best climbing conditions are from late spring to early fall.
It is a tough walk of 7-12 hours across steep and rugged terrain, but despite this suitable for both beginners and experienced mountain climbers, as long as you are in good physical condition.
In addition, a permit for Mount St Helens is required, with only a maximum number of permits issued per day between 1 April and 31 October. This is to protect the environment and to ensure that it is not too busy on the mountain.
|1 April – 14 May||Max. 500 climbers per day|
|15 May- 31 October||Max. 100 climbers per day|
|1 November – 31 March||No max. number of climbers per day|
The costs for a permit are USD 15 / € 13.60 per person per day excluding USD 6 / € 5.50 reservation costs per transaction.
If you have more time, then there are plenty of other hiking trails in the area. The visitor centers can advise you about the possibilities.
Where can you eat or drink something, where can you find toilets and where can you refuel? Below you can read what the possibilities are along the State Route 504.
Food and drinks
Make sure you bring some food and drink yourself, because the possibilities to buy something on State Route 504 and at visitor centers are limited:
- Drew’s Grocery: a small supermarket along the State Route 504, at Toutle.
- Forest Learning Center: prepacked snacks and (soft) drinks.
- Fire Mountain Grill: opened for lunch and dinner.
In Castle Rock, before you take the exit to State Route 504, there are more options and you can go to various restaurants and supermarkets.
Toilets are available at the various visitor centers. However, keep in mind the opening times.
You can refuel at the Texaco in Castle Rock or at the Shell in Toutle.
However, if you want to spend the night closer to Mount St Helens? Then the rooms at the Timberland Inn & Suites at Castle Rock or the chalets at the Silver Cove RV Resort at Silver Lake are good options. goede opties. At the Silver Cove RV Resort you also have the opportunity to camp.