Mount St. Helens West
The best place to start exploring the monument is the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake (tel. 360/274-0962; www.parks.wa.gov/mountsthelens.asp), operated by Washington State Parks and located at Silver Lake, 5 miles east of Castle Rock on Wash. 504. The visitor center houses extensive exhibits on the eruption and its effects on the region. May through September, it's open daily from 9am to 5pm (until 4pm in other months). Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children 7 to 17, and free for children 6 and under. A family pass is $8.
Continuing east from the visitor center, at milepost 27, you'll come to the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center (tel. 360/274-5200; www.mt-st-helens.com). This is a restaurant and takeoff site for 30-minute helicopter flights over Mount St. Helens ($157 per person with a three-person minimum), but it also has great views. From June to August this visitor center is open daily 9am-9pm June-August, closing times vary during other months.
A few miles farther, just past milepost 33, is the Charles W. Bingham Forest Learning Center (tel. 360/414-3439), open mid-May through mid-October daily from 10am to 6pm (until 5pm in Oct). This is primarily a promotional center for the timber industry, but, in a theater designed to resemble an ash-covered landscape, you can watch a short, fascinating video about the eruption. Outside both the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center and the Forest Learning Center, you can usually see numerous elk on the floor of the Toutle River Valley far below.
Of the many visitor centers, none offers a more awe-inspiring view than that from the Johnston Ridge Observatory (tel. 360/274-2140), at the eastern end of Wash. 504. Built into the mountainside and designed to blend into the landscape, this observatory houses the equipment that is still used to monitor activity within Mount St. Helens. The observatory is open from mid-May to October, daily from 10am to 6pm. If you're up for a bit of hiking, the best choice on this side of the monument is the Boundary Ridge Trail, which heads east from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, with a jaw-dropping view of the blast zone the entire way. This trail leads for many miles across the monument, so you can hike as much or as little as you want. There is a good turnaround point about 1 mile out from the observatory.
Mount St. Helens East
For a different perspective on the devastation wrought by Mount St. Helens's eruption, drive around to the mountain's east side and take the road up to Windy Ridge. It takes a couple of hours longer to get to this side of the mountain, but you will be rewarded with equally amazing views, better hiking opportunities, and smaller crowds. To reach the east side of the mountain, take U.S. 12 east from exit 68 off I-5. In Randle, head south on Forest Road 25 and watch for Forest Road 99, the road to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint. This road crosses many miles of blown-down trees that were felled by a single blast, a reminder of the awesome power of nature. More than a quarter century after the eruption, life is slowly returning to the devastated forest. At the Windy Ridge Viewpoint, visitors get one of the best close-up views of the crater. A long staircase climbs 220 feet up the hill above the parking area for even better views. Below Windy Ridge lies Spirit Lake, once one of the most popular summer vacation spots in the Washington Cascades. Today the lake is desolate and lifeless. The 1-mile Harmony Trail leads down to the shore of Spirit Lake and is a very worthwhile hike; just keep in mind that it's a 600-foot climb back up to the trailhead parking lot.
Mount St. Helens South
The south side of the monument was the least affected by the eruption, and consequently does not offer the dramatic scenes of devastation as on the east and west sides. However, this area offers some good hiking and a couple of very interesting volcanic features. The first one you'll come to is the Ape Cave, a lava tube that was formed 1,900 years ago when lava poured from the volcano. When the lava finally stopped flowing, it left a 2-mile-long cave that is the longest continuous lava tube in the Western Hemisphere. At the Ape's Headquarters, you can join a regular ranger-led exploration of the cave or rent a lantern for exploring the cave on your own. This center is open daily from 10:30am to 5pm between late June and Labor Day.
Of the trails on this side of the monument, the Lava Canyon Trail is the most fascinating. It follows a canyon that was unearthed by a mudflow that swept down this side of the mountain after the eruption. However, in 2007, this trail was not accessible due to a washout on the road leading to the trailhead.
On Wash. 503, the road leading to the south side of the monument, you'll find, in the town of Ariel, the Lelooska Foundation, 165 Merwin Village Rd. (tel. 360/225-9522; www.lelooska.org). Something of a Native American cultural center, this combination museum and art gallery features Native American arts and crafts from around the country, though the emphasis is on the work of Northwest artists. This is one of the finest Native American galleries in the state and is open on Saturdays from 11am to 3pm between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. Additionally, one Saturday evening each month in the spring and fall, there are performances of traditional Northwest Coast Native American masked dances, accompanied by traditional storytelling. The performances are held in a reproduction of a traditional cedar longhouse. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for children ages 12 and under, and advance reservations are required.
A Few Unique Ways to See the National Monument
For a bird's-eye view of the volcano, take a helicopter flight from the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center (tel. 360/274-7750; www.hoffstadtairtours.com), for $129 per person. Rides operate between June and September and last about 25 minutes.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.