At 8.32 am on the 18 May 1980 an 5.1 magnitude earthquake triggered a series of events that rapidly caused one of the largest volcanic eruptions that has ever been recorded. The volcano underwent a catastrophic and deadly eruption which also triggered the largest landslide ever recorded.
Today mount Saint Helens is sleeping but the possibility of further eruptions is not only possible but expected. Regardless, the mountain is a popular tourist destination with a large visitors centre dedicated to the history of this mighty mountain and it also has several maintained walking trails.
Johnston Ridge Observatory
We followed the road to the car park, there was plenty of space and even a little food truck for snacks and drinks. Stock up here because there are no services on the trails. We walked up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, so named after the volcanologist David Johnston. David was the principal scientist on the Volcano’s monitoring team but was killed in the eruption while manning the observation post where the Visitor’s Centre now stands. David was the first to report the eruption, transmitting “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” before he was swept away by the blast; despite a thorough search, his body was never found.
The centre is open from May through October (depending upon snow so check the website to check they are open). There are exhibits interpretive displays that tell the story of Mount St. Helens, and you’ll find restrooms and a water filling station too. Outside the centre you can soak up the breath taking views of the volcano and the remnants of the crater. In summer you can also join one of the ranger talks or a guided hike. There is also a gift shop and a staffed information desk if you want to get maps and more information about the hikes. Please remember that in order to protect plant and local wildlife, pets are prohibited at the Johnston Ridge Visitor Centre, Plaza and Interpretive area. In all other areas pets must be kept on a lead.
Harry’s Ridge Trail
We had planned to walk Harry’s Ridge Trail to Spirit Lake. For those looking for something a little less strenuous then there is a fabulous 1km hike along the Eruption Trail. Take the paved trail opposite the Visitor’s Centre and follow upwards. There are information boards and the higher you go the better the views!
Harry’s Ridge trail, was named after a lovable curmudgeon who refused to leave his homestead beside Spirit Lake when Saint Helens was on the brink of erupting, the website says that Harry’s Ridge offers a fascinating panorama of the restless giant, still “smoking and belching occasionally” years after her devastating awakening… so it was with a little trepidation that we set off with the mountain smoking and belching quite clearly on this September afternoon!
The trail was marked as the Boundary Trail, which would lead us on to Harry’s Ridge and also to the rather aptly named Devils Elbow Trail. In the end I’m not sure which we walked but I do know it was very very hot and much much hotter than we had anticipated!
Take Sun Screen and Water
The trail guide says that Harry’s Ridge is 8.2 miles long (roundtrip) with an elevation gain of 970 feet; I thought that I would have retained some of my fitness from my 700kms hike across Spain but apparently not because I really felt the elevation today… and did I mention it was hot! This trail is very exposed and there is little shade, so ensure you have a sun hat, sun screen and plenty of water before you start.
Along the trail we read about the eruption and honestly it felt so surreal to be walking along beside this enormous sleeping volcano, whilst all around the effects of her mighty eruption was evident. I remember watching the news when St Helen’s erupted, I never expected for the landscape to still be so barren and desolate.
This was a totally awesome hike! We loved it but gosh I was happy to get back to the Observation Station and some cool and shade and cold water! We refilled our water bottles and drank them quickly and poured cold water on our heads and faces and then sat in the shade and shared an apple and drank some more. Washington did it again! I’m so happy we did this hike today! Not bad for a couple of old duffers