At the close of the 2007 season, the Johnson Ridge observatory closed due to lack of federal funding for continued operation. All photos are from a 2004 visit. However, after some extensive efforts it was funded again and is now open on a regular basis. However, as it is at fairly high altitude it is only open during the season that Highway 504 is open to the end of the road.
Also, keep in mind that as part of the funding package to keep the Johnson Ridge Observatory open for visitors is that they now charge $8 per person entry fee.
The Johnson Ridge Observatory allows one to look right into the crater of Mt. St. Helens. This is the side of the mountain that collapsed in what was termed at the time "The World's Largest Land Slide". When that happened, the blast that had been going upwards on May 18, 1980 also blew out the side. The force of this blast leveled everything in its path for several dozen miles.
There are a few walking trails up here where you can explore a little bit, but please be careful not to walk off the trail as many of the plants in this area are fagile and are recovering from the eruption. Watching the area recover naturally is part of what the national monument is all about.
Do not come in Winter unless you have made sure that the road is passable. The weather can change fast at higher elevations, and when things are closed they are closed for good reason.
For more information on the annual schedule of events, see the web site below. If they have moved the web site for the observatory do a web search for Johnson Ridge Observatory.
There are at least 3 entrances into the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Park area. We drove into the park on Highway 504, which itself is quite a distance from the main road of Rt. /Interstate 5. You will find that there are several visitor centers along Highway 504, and several observation points along this route. You must purchase a pass to enter any of the 3 visitor centers in the park. New rates have been established for passes since we visited here, so a quick check of the park's website may be advisable. When we visited in 2004, admission at the Silver Lake Center only* was $3 per person or $6 per person for all three visitor centers. Children ages 15 and under were free. Golden Passports are accepted here.
We stopped at Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake which I would highly recommend because not only can you purchase passes here but because it is chock full of interesting displays and exhibits, a 16-minute theater presentation, and a one-mile hiking trail around Silver Lake! I absolutely loved this trail with its views of the lake, the foliage and the wildlife found there. At this point you are at an elevation of only 500 feet! (I don't remember being able to see Mt. St. Helens from this vantage point, but the scenery is gorgeous!)
There is no food service inside this particular Visitor's Center, but when we visited there was a Food Truck outside where you could get drinks, hot dogs, snacks, etc., for a fairly reasonable price. As I remember it, only 1 of the 3 visitor centers actually had a cafe inside. If you do not plan to pay for admission to the visitor centers, you probably should bring your own water & food particularly if you will be hiking as there is not really any other place to purchase it on this route other than that food truck unless things have since changed.
Soon after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, the National Forest Service decided to capitalize on the event and installed a small visitor's center in a trailer on the edge of Silver Lake, and essentially in the boundaries of Seaquest State Park. The location was selected because:
1) The mountain was still very active, and this was considered a safe distance and location due to the way the slopes work around Silver Lake.
2)The state gave them permission to have it on their state park land as part of Seaquest State Park
3)The views of the mountain were quite good on clear days, and if there happened to be some smoke and ash coming out of the mountain visitors could see it from here without getting themselves into danger.
4)The location was well downhill from the danger area, and therefore helped contain the huge crowds that had come to watch the volcano in areas where they were safe. It gave the crowds something to visit and see the mountain and understand what was going on, while many of the roads further up the hill were being rebuilt.
5)The movies shown here were intended to give people a healthy respect and fear for what might happen to them should they get too close to the mountain.
This wonderful new visitor's center opened in 1987, and the temporary center in the trailers closed.
In 2000, the Visitor's Center was determined to be beyond the mission of the US Forest Service, and operation of the center was transferred to the State of Washington.
My how things have changed since those early days! The tiny trailer that I visited as a child has now also become an adult. Still owned and managed by the State of Washington, and still essentially located on land that is part of Seaquest State Park, the visitors center today hosts rooms of material about the volcano. There are several different movies that play in the theatre, with the primary one being a 13 minute introduction to everything that happened before, during, and after the eruption. It is possible to spend an hour or more looking through all the material that is here. It is definitely a must-see on your way up to the mountain, as this facility really sets the stage for what you will see further up the hill.
The center really contains the story of the mountain, including history from First Nations people (and even photo albums and historic artifacts from these times), the geological reasons for the eruption (including a diagram of the Juan de Fuca Plate and the North American Plate) and a model of mountain with before and after photographs of the areas impacted by the eruption.
At one time it was possible to watch a working seismograph of the information coming from the mountain, but today anyone can watch this anywhere in the world as it is reported on a web server. The old mechanical live-from-the-mountain-feed seismograph has been turned off but is still on exhibit in the museum / visitor's center here.
Also, this center is reasonably close to the freeway, making it a good stopover place if you are looking for something that is good to do reasonably close to Interstate 5. This is opposed to the several hour trip to the top of Johnson Ridge and return that is required to really see the National Volcanic Monument.
Also, this visitor's center is below the usual snow line, so it is possible to visit it in all except the most unusual weather. Further up the hill, many of the roads are closed in winter.
If you are able to time your visit so that you come through here in the winter, and then are able to visit again in the summer, I highly recommend visiting here in the winter months. This visitor's center receives some 300,000 tourists a year, even though interest in the Volcano has waned in recent decades as people have forgotten about the eruption. In winter months there are far fewer people at this visitor's center, and it is much easier to enjoy the displays and facilities.
Standard Admission Price is $5, with discounts for children and students but not seniors. If you are a registered educational group with advanced registration, there is no charge. The center is open 9 to 4 during the winter months, and 9 to 5 during the more popular tourist months (currently May 1 to September 30). It is closed on certain holidays, which are listed on the web page for the center.
The Visitor's Center also offers a one mile trail overlooking Silver Lake which is open dawn to dusk.
As this center essentially sits on land that is part of Seaquest State Park, please see my Seaquest State Park page for more information about the area around the visitor's center.
For fantastic, panoramic views of Mt. St. Helens and the surrounding parklands, take time to stop at the "Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center." The side of the building facing Mount St. Helens is virtually a wall of glass! This modern, new center also offers a video-wall theater program, interpretive exhibits, a staffed information desk, gift & book shop and another interesting quarter mile trail, called "Winds of Change Interpretive Trail." After enjoying the trail and the views, the sun and mountain fresh air, you'll be able to fill your empty stomach at the nice little coffee shop which offers a selection of sandwiches, soups, salads, snacks and drinks.
I could have spent a lot more time at this stop, if only for absorbing the magnificent view, but we had to move on. If you only make 1 or 2 stops along Highway 504, Coldwater Ridge Visitor's Center should be one of them.
You are at an elevation of 3,200 ft. at this point.
The Johnston Ridge Observatory is named in honor of David A. Johnston, a U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist who was on duty at the Coldwater II observation post that fateful day in May, 1982, and one of the 57 people who lost their lives in the 1982 eruption. The Johnston Observatory was the 3rd visitor center to be constructed in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and it's completion marked the end of a 12-year, multi-million dollar park-building program.
The extremely friendly & helpful Park Rangers will give you the fascinating facts and story of what happened on May 18, 1980, during and after the eruption that make the whole event come to life. You would be foolish not to take advantage of their encyclopedic knowledge of the event & the park system created around this area.
Located 52 miles east of Castle Rock, at the terminus of Highway 504 and the loftiest of the observation areas, the Johnston Ridge Observatory is directly across from the north face of Mount St. Helens and is in the heart of the blast zone. In fact your are within 5 miles of the remaining north face of the volcano. This center has the most dramatic view of the snow-capped mountain including the lava dome, crater and blast area.
At this point you are at an elevation of 4,200 ft. and Mount St. Helens tops out at 8,364 ft.
If you plan to be in the Seattle area, your trip there would be incomplete without a visit to the "Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument." Only a couple hours south of Seattle, Mount St. Helens is a sight you won't soon forget. In 1982, the U.S. Congress designated 110,000 acres of forest and lakes surrounding the volcano as a national park area. The park service has done a fabulous job of building new roads and visitor centers, making hiking and climbing available, and recording the history and events of May 18, 1980, when Mount St. Helens explosion and eruption caused several deaths and wide-spread destruction. An event marking the 25th anniversary of the eruption has been planned for 2005. Instead, they may be celebrating the one year anniversary if the predictions of geologists and other experts of a new major eruption come true in the next fews weeks of October, 2004. UPDATE October, 2009: No major eruptions or reports of volcanic activity for a long time now. The last major activity was recorded in Spring, 2006. At that time a ban on climbing Mount St. Helens was in place. Check their website for updates for any restrictions.
Admission to a single visitors center in the park is $3.00 for adults; for a multi-site pass which you can use to visit ALL visitors centers is $6 adult; 15 years old and younger ~ free. Backpacking, climbing and camping permits are required. Visit the website for information on where to purchase these permits.
Our next stop was the Forest Learning Center. This was so educational. It was sponsored by Weyerhauser so it is definitely biased. But we needed to stop here in order to understand the regrowth of the forest, to learn what it took to salvage the blown down trees and replant. Then traveling through those replanted mountains to the edge of the monument where it is being allowed to regrow naturally (and is quite bare) provided us with the knowledge that we wouldn't have had otherwise. Nowhere else was this story told. I was impressed and understood for the first time the concept of managed forests.
Located at mile 33 these are some of the things I learned: They salvaged 850 million board ft over 21,000 acres in 2 yrs. If it wasn't salvaged quickly the lumber was not useful. 18.4 million trees were replanted by hand over 45,500 acres beginning in 1981.
The first trees planted have now been had a ceremonial harvesting signifying a successful effort.
No sound from the eruption was heard in a 60 mile radius around the volcano due to the nature of sound waves. They bounced up skipping over areas before coming back down. The furthest the eruption was heard was 690 miles away in Canada.
Cowlitz County owns this facility and considered closing or selling it for awhile. They decided to close it over the winter for renovations and it reopened in Spring 2009.
We felt this was a great place to stop for the first real good look at the volcano. It is a beautifully built building with a wonderful view of the valley. It was built at the end of the volcanic landslide deposit making it a graphic illustration of how far the landslide came. This was also the best place to buy the blown-glass with ash in it. There were some beautiful pieces. The gift shop was also the best we stopped at. It was a beautiful building and just what we needed. There was a great photograph of the volcano blowing off ash, a wall full of newspaper articles documenting the event, a diorama of the whole area, some good books and videos for sale along with the usual small knickknacks. There is a restaurant as well. From here you can also take a helicopter ride over the volcanic area. And here is the Memorial Grove to honor those who lost their lives in the eruption.
Entrance is free.
The Johnston Ridge Observatory is also a state-of-the-art center featuring interpretive displays, eyewitness accounts, a wide-screen theater presentation, and an awesome viewing area inside and out. A half-mile walk on the "Eruption Trail" will give you a good idea of the way the eruption changed the landscape over this area. Staffers will gladly answer questions and what they don't know can probably be answered by one of the books to be found for sale by the Northwest Interpretive Associations books in the gift shop. A snack area is also near by for your comfort and pleasure as all the fresh air and walking tends to make you thirsty and hungry!
Again, I can't urge you strongly enough to take advantage of the Park Rangers there and the wealth of information they possess. Just like this magnificent national park, they should also be considered a national treasure!
Passes are required for admission. The Center is open from a scheduled date in May through October; daily hours are 10am to 6pm. Call to make sure.
Reminder: Your elevation at this point is 4,200 ft. You are within 5 miles of Mount St. Helens remaining portion of the north face.
Despite the devastation that occured on May 18, 1980, some plants and animals did survive the lehars and the lateral blasts. Pocket gophers, fish and salamanders were protected because of their burrows, because of hibernation or because of ice covered lakes.
Today, some animal populations such as the Roosevelt elk have returned in greater numbers than the pre-1980, pre-eruption populations. When we visited in June, 2004, we saw fish, ducks, deer, and snakes. The flowers that grow there are astonishing...fireweed, fox glove, lupines and more than I can name. The colors are vibrant and the flowers cover alot of the area. The forest is rebuilding rapidly as well. Timber companies have replanted acre upon acre of hardwood timber trees, and as you drive Rt. 504 you will see stands of trees marked as to which year they were planted. I found this really interesting because you can then gauge how long it takes a tree to grow until full maturity versus the time it took the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 to literally flatten hundreds of acres of trees--it was seconds in some cases and only minutes in others.
Dude. This was so much better than I thought it would be, (and I thought it would be pretty cool). 131 on the east side of the park then on 99 to the best view of the mountain. You go through a large area where the forest took the impact of the 1980 eruption. You get a good look at Spirit Lake that must be filled with hundreds of thousands of dead trees still floating on the edges after almost 30 years.
On the south side of the park, (NF-90 to NF-83), is a totally amazing place called Ape Cave. It was so cool. Just do a search to get an idea of what I'm talking about.
The driving can be pretty intense, so I would recommend your car be in tip-top shape. Next time I come here, I'm going to hike to the rim. Awesome.
This is at the end of the paved road and is as close as you can get to the volcano without hiking. Built near the same place that David Johnston was last heard yelling, "Vancouver, this is it!" it is a beautiful and eerie place. Surrounded by volcano blasted area the forest is gone. Slowly grasses and herbs are returning, both good and bad. There is much that can be said about the area, the visitors center, the land, the mountain. But the most important thing would be to go, if you can, and learn about it yourself. It is so impressive and amazing, and all the geology, the human reactions, the deaths, the survivors, the forest, the lakes, the animals, what has been learned, what has changed, the research: it fills books, and newspapers and scholarly papers.
The mountain has quieted down, no new rumblings or growth. And still the learning continues. So does the gradual return of vacationers, hikers, climbers to explore and enjoy this mountain of fire.
$8 entrance fee. Our America the Beautiful pass was accepted as payment.
The Mount Saint Helens Visitor Center is located at Seaquest State Park and operated by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. The visitors center has a view of the famous mountain about 30 miles away to east-southeast. The drive to Johnston Overlook is a twisty 50 miles through much of the blast and flood zone along the Toutle River that will take well over an hour to drive, even without traffic (though I'd swear the sign at the visitors center said it was 75 miles or so).
The visitors center has public restrooms, gifts, books, information about the mountain, and a few snack stands in the summer. Check here for fee information, road and trail conditions, and updates on closures before you begin the trek toward the mountain.
All photos are from a 2004 trip that I took with some friends to Mt. St. Helens. Therefore, many things could have changed since these photos were taken.
One of the big ideas of the monument was to preserve the eruption zone so that research into plant and animal life, recovering naturally after the eruption, could be performed.
Much of this devastation, and much of the recovery process, may be observed from the road to Johnson Ridge without even stopping and getting out of your car, but stopping and getting out of your car at any of the wide spots certainly helps!!!
So, take the time to stop at the various wide spots in the road, take a look over the edge, and see how the mountain is recovering from the eruption.
For many of you, these photos probably don't mean much, but for those of us who saw the results of the 1980 eruptions soon after it happened, the ongoing natural transformation has been amazing and interesting to watch.
Keep in mind that as of this writing, the Johnson Ridge Observatory is no longer being funded, and therefore will be closed for the 2008 season. However, it is still a good place to look into the crater.
This bridge is on the Spirit Memorial highway and marks the western edge of the blast zone when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980. The bridge itself is 370 feet high and about 600 feet long. As you approach from the west, there is a pull-out and small parking lot so you can get out of the car and get an appreciation for how big the bridge is. It's also a very scenic area, and the forest has regrown nicely around this site.
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