If you’re planning a visit to the Pacific Northwest and want to see a something spectacular, don’t skip a drive to Mt. St. Helens. Here you get to experience part of the Cascade Mountain Range and what makes it unique. You’ll see wildlife, tall Douglas Firs, cold mountain streams, lakes, a volcano, and perhaps Bigfoot. Easily accessible from Seattle or Portland, the road to Mt. St. Helens is only 53 miles long starting at Castle Rock, WA on I-5. There are many visitor centers where you can stop on the way but very few gas stations so start your trip with a full tank.
My wife asked what I wanted to do for my Birthday and I said visit the volcano. Unfortunately the kids were sick on my birthday so I delayed our trip to Mt. St. Helens for the next clear weekend when nothing else was on the calendar. The day finally arrived so we packed a picnic, the cameras, hiking poles, Washington State Discover Pass, and lots of water. Check out my post for packing an easy picnic.
Our first stop was Seaquest State Park, about 5.5 miles on Hwy. 504 from I-5. It was around noon and time for lunch. Seaquest is essentially a camping park but is great for a picnic too. It also has some hiking trails and one that leads to a visitor center across highway 504 where a boardwalk winds through some marshland and besides Silver Lake where we saw birds, fish, and lots of wildflowers. The Mt. St. Helens Visitors Center at Silver Lake contains some great displays and a video for a small fee. Of course we first had our lunch in the shade of the tall fir trees.
As we continued down the road toward our destination we began to cross over many rivers. The Toutle River got our attention. We learned from the first visitor center how the river carried destructive mud flows during the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Around mile marker 20 you’ll see a sign leading to an overview of the Sediment Retention Structure. Here you can take a short hike for a closer look at the river and all the sediment that remains as a result of the mud flows.
Hoffstadt Bluffs is another great place to stop and you’ll find it around mile marker 27. They offer free yet interesting displays related to Mt. St. Helens, a restaurant, and a gift shop inside their impressive lodge styled building. On the outside they offer a great view of the mountain in the distance and helicopter rides if you want to get up close and personal with the volcano.
Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
From Hoffstadt Bluffs you’ll notice the road beginning to climb and wind more as you head east. The Forest Learning Center is at mile marker 33 where you’ll get more awesome views of the mountain and the Elk grazing below along the Toutle River Basin. This impressive visitor’s center is free of charge and houses an indoor forest exhibit where you’ll learn all about the forest and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. It’s ideal for all ages.
Mt. St. Helens Forest Learning Center view over Toutle River Basin
There are more great places to stop like Elk Rock and Coldwater Lake before you reach the Johnston Ridge Observatory. We opted to pass them on the way up. It was getting late and we all wanted to reach our destination to look squarely into the crater of the volcano.
Our excitement grew as we walked up the path towards the large open viewing area that was crowded with tourists from all over the world. The views of the crater, lava dome, and the landslide deposit were captivating. Fortunately there is a half mile walk, Eruption Trail, that leads away from the building where you can get even better views of not just the mountain but the entire surrounding area. You’ll also see Mt. Adams and the hillsides that contain the remains of downed trees from the 1980 eruption. Inside of the observatory you’ll find a comfortable theater and educational exhibits. The end of the film was truly spectacular. We were impressed by the high quality of the film and found it enjoyable as well as educational.
Mt. St. Helens Crater Lava Dome at the Johnston Ridge Observatory – National Volcanic Monument
Driving back down to I-5 was quick and easy, although we stopped at Elk Rock for a few more pictures. We were also on the lookout for Bigfoot since we saw him on the way up and wanted to get a picture with him.
- Mt. St. Helen’s T-Shirt and Souvenir Center with Big Foot Exhibits
We stopped at the Mt. St. Helen’s T-Shirt and Souvenir Center, took some pictures with Bigfoot, and looked at the merchandise. It was actually a pleasant and unexpected surprise. The store had unusual items that we did not see in all the other visitor centers. Of course all the Bigfoot merchandise was unique too. If you stop here be sure to ask about the last time Bigfoot was spotted.
- Mt. St. Helen’s T-Shirt and Souvenir Center Big Foot Statue
Not once were we bored when traveling on Hwy 504 and the observatory was outstanding. Bathroom facilities all along the road to Mt. St. Helens were acceptable to my wife and daughter, and that’s not something we’ve experienced everywhere. The views were incredible from many different places along the way. Overall, we had a great travel experience. Don’t miss out on this great American treasure if you’re ever in the Northwest.