On March 15, 1980, Mt. St. Helens began waking up after being asleep for more than 130 years.
Two months later, at 8:32 a.m., on May 18, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake triggered the volcano to blast 1,314 feet of rock from its top, destroying everything within its reach. The earthquake caused the north face of the mountain to collapse in an avalanche, followed by a lateral explosion which ripped through the mountainside.
The eruption swept away 200 homes, 27 bridges, 185 miles of highway, and 15 miles of railway. It took the lives of 57 people, and also killed 7,000 big game animals such as elk, deer and bear; it destroyed all birds and small animals within the blast zone.
In the more than 35 years that have passed since the tragedy, the area has undergone great biological and geological change. In 1982, the President and Congress created the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument for research, recreation and education. It offers visitor centers, newly constructed roads and bridges guiding curious onlookers to observatories to within 5 miles of the base of the mountain.
Featuring some of the most spectacular views of the lava dome and glacier, as well as detailed exhibits, the Johnston Ridge Observatory is named after Volcanologist David Johnston, who was camped out on this ridge observing the volcano when Mount St. Helens erupted.
Located at the 52 -mile marker on state Route 504, visitors to the observatory will find interpretive displays that tell the biological, geological and human story of Mount St. Helens. There are also educational films, ranger talks and observation points.
It is open May through October, daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Cost is $8 per person for adults ages 16 and older, while children 15 and younger are admitted free.
Another great place to stop during a trip to the monument is the Forest Learning Center. The facility is a partnership between Weyerhaeuser Company, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The center, located off of SR-504 at mile post 33, is open May 13 through Sept. 18, daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free of charge, visitors can walk through a life-like forest and check out the Eruption Chamber. Through hands-on experiences, there are opportunities to learn about forest recovery, reforestation and conservation. The site also has an elk viewing area and a playground.
For more information about the recreation area’s visitors centers, activities and events, visit www.fs.usda.gov/mountsthelens or call (360) 449-7800.