Mount St. Helens | 38 Years Later

by Melanie and Jim

Geologists tell us Mt. St. Helens started its eruptive life over 37,000 years ago. It went through quiet periods between four major eruptive periods. The most recent in 1980, the modern eruptive period, was witnessed by residents nearby and by viewers the world over. Details of the eruption can be found at this link, in case you missed it. We traveled south on Interstate 5 toward Portland, OR, and took route 504 toward the visitor center at Johnston Ridge Observatory. To give a sense of scale, it is 5 miles from the Observatory (green marker in the upper right quadrant) to the crater at lower right. Click the picture to see details. 


Enlarge for more detail

Our first view of the mountain came at location A in the map above. The Weyerhaeuser Lumber Co. operates an educational site there. The Forest Learning Center tells their story about the eruption, destruction of the forest, their efforts to recover lumber, and to replant the trees.

In the valley below was the Toutle River. The river bore the brunt of huge amounts of the mountainside and trees that flowed downstream during the eruption. Today, it looks peaceful. Not so on 18 May 1980. A detailed account of the eruption is available.

We traveled a few miles farther east, gained altitude, and reached a turnout viewpoint at location B on the map above. It was our first unobstructed view of the mountain. The blast cleared trees from areas that were previously heavily forested. The north face of the mountain is still largely bare of trees.

A few more miles and twists and turns brought us to the visitor center. This parking lot attendant pointed the way.

A short walk presented this bunker-like building. It would never have survived the eruption.

The effects of the eruption have been long-lasting. Much of the area is recovering slowly. One effect still visible is in Spirit Lake. The lake is visible in the upper right of the first image in this post. Below is a zoomed view of Spirit Lake from Google Maps. The grey area is made up of tree trunks from the 1980 eruption which were swept off the mountain-sides and into the lake. You can use the +/- tool to zoom in much further.

This was a fascinating stop in our travels, well worth the “detour” off Interstate 5.

Wildflowers poke through in clumps near the visitor center.


6 thoughts on “Mount St. Helens | 38 Years Later

  1. jaicommunity

    Very neat Jim. I remember the eruption of 1980 – I was pretty young then but I recall the urgency and chaos during and after. I remember seeing images on television of the gases and vapors in the air. Even here in the great Midwest, I remember that we had quite a bit of ash that settled on everything. Thanks for the great post

    1. Jim R Post author

      Thank you. It was a fascinating event. Nature is such a powerful force. Seeing the region up close really brought home how devastating it was.

  2. shoreacres

    Certainly I remember this event. On the other hand, I was living in Salt Lake City at the time, and have no memory at all of local effects there. I finally looked up an ashfall map, and it’s fascinating to see. Utah missed out entirely. The winds carried the ash eastward, but it didn’t start a southerly move until it was past Utah. So, Colorado experienced it, but Utah didn’t. That really is interesting.

    1. Jim R Post author

      The forest fire smoke has been taking similar round-a-bout routes. We have had a lot from nearly straight north in our skies making it very hazy.


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