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Johnston Ridge Observatory has some of the best views of the crater, but it is also the few places in the park with a fee. Do you think your National Parks Pass is good at a "Volcanic National Monument?" Nah... Do you think they tell you about this fee at the visitors center before you take the long drive? Nah... How about even walking into the visitors center and buying a book? No thanks, unless you pay $8 to enjoy the view first. The parking lot and the bathrooms are thankfully free.
Unique Suggestions: If you end up at Johnston Observatory, pee in their clean and modern restroom, but don't bother with their fee, especially if you already purchased a National Parks Pass which they refuse to honor.
Fun Alternatives: Just a half mile before the Johnston Observatory is the Loowit Overlook which has equally impressive views, plenty of parking, access to many of the same trails.... AND IT'S FREE!!!!
Updated Feb 27, 2008
For many, the Johnson Ridge Visitor Center (JRVC) is the quick ‘been there, done that’ covering Mt St Helens. At some 4,255 Feet / 1,297 Meters the JRVC is set amidst the devastation of the Blast Zone and offers a great view of the inner crater and lava dome. For the traveler who only has one day … well, OK. You also get a nice high point from which you can venture off northwards into the Mt Margaret Backcountry Area - a vast area still denuded from the May 1980 eruption. The JRVC is very educational - ok, a little dumbed down in that National Park manner. My problem with it is that it gets so crowded on a sunny summer weekend that experience is transformed. Come up during the week or not during school vacations and maybe it is more tolerable. The view is incredible and without the circus crush, it would be well worth the long trip up here. Both the JRVC and the road up here - as well as the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center which you come across a few miles lower, built before the JRVC - were built at considerable cost. They have been very successful in luring tourists up here. Just a fraction of that cost thrown at trail maintenance would brighten my face - ie the Loowit Trail which goes around the mountain’s base was laid out dramatically but always seems to be washed out in several places where you least expect - well, at first, least expect - that the drama is lost on another dangerous detour over soft ash slopes.
One other note, the time to get up here should not be underestimated. You come up here for the day.
Unique Suggestions: Try and get up here early, the view is washed out at midday. There is some great hiking possibilities out of here or if the day is hot, you could try Coldwater Lake, located between the CRVC and the JRVC. I wonder why they call it ‘Coldwater Lake”?! ;-)
Fun Alternatives: Give yourself more time and explore the other wonders of this dramatic landscape. Yeah, you might want to come up here too, but check out the other tips for more ideas.
Updated Jul 3, 2005