Mt. St. Helens

Miles driven today: 261 Total miles driven: 503

We left Paradise at around 830. Another sunny day and somewhat of a heatwave for this area – 32C. Very hot. Our destination today was Mt. St. Helens, another volcano in the Washington chain, like Mt. Rainier. Unlike Mt Rainier (so far), Mt. St. Helens famously suffered a massive eruption in May 1980 which blew the top and the west side of the mountain sky high, causing massive damage to the surrounding area and an ash cloud that travelled around the world.

It was about 120 miles to drive. Nowhere near that far as the crow flies, but in order to get to the Johnston Ridge Observatory to view the crater, we had to travel almost 3/4 of the way around. Anyway, it was a lovely drive on country roads through forests, then fruit farms and small towns. The drive on the Spirit Highway, the final road into the park, is quite spectacular. There is a visitor centre at the start of the road but the Observatory is 47 miles further along, very close to the mountain atop a neighbouring hill. It is close to the place where the vulcanologist David Johnston observed the eruption on the fatal day. He broadcast back the news of the eruption and the collapse of the mountain but was then overtaken by the blast and his body was never found.

The eruption came on May 18th 1980. After two months of volcanic activity and shaken by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale, the north face of this tall symmetrical volcano collapsed in a massive rock debris avalanche. In a few moments this slab of rock and ice slammed into Spirit Lake, creating waves 200 feet high, crossed a ridge 1,300 feet high, and roared 14 miles down the Toutle River.

The avalanche rapidly released pressurized gases within the volcano. A tremendous lateral explosion ripped through the avalanche and developed into a turbulent, stone-filled wind that swept over ridges and toppled trees. Nearly 150 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead and standing. The sight of these vast acres of felled trees – millions of them – was quite staggering.

At the same time a mushroom-shaped column of ash rose thousands of feet skyward and drifted downwind, turning day into night as dark, gray ash fell over eastern Washington and beyond. Wet, cement-like slurries of rock and mud scoured all sides of the volcano. Searing flows of pumice poured from the crater. The eruption lasted 9 hours, but Mount St. Helens and the surrounding landscape were dramatically changed within moments. The mudslides covered rivers and created hummocks, craters and swallowed bridges and homes as they raced downwards at over 150 miles per hour.

A vast, gray landscape lay where once the forested slopes of Mount St. Helens grew. In 1982 the President and Congress created the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument for research, recreation, and education. Inside the Monument, the environment is left to respond naturally to the disturbance.

Photos of the area before and after the eruption are very telling but nature is ever changing. New lakes and wet lands have been created and vegetation is emerging. There is a new cone growing within the crater of the mountain and it has already regained some of its height. However, the surrounding hills which were once so densely covered in trees are a long way from pre-eruption coverage. Further away from the blast zone, mass replanting has occurred over the decades since 1980 and the hills are once again forested.

Both visitor centres show excellent short films illustrating the eruption with old film and recordings of the calls from the scientist observers including David Johnston. It is very much brought to life and very awe inspiring to watch. The mountain is very clearly still “live”, fumes are appearing at various places over the crater and the new cone is growing quite fast. Needless to say, it is very closely monitored. It is an unbelievable sight really – a huge mountain left with a massive crater at the top. Difficult to imagine it happening and what a huge event it was.

We had a very interesting day visiting Mt. St. Helens and then turned north to Olympia, the state capital, positioned at the bottom of the Puget Sound where we are spending the night. Our day has been a journey from Paradise to Olympia with a visit to fiery Hell in the middle…..

Picked up supplies at Walmart and cooked a couple of steaks for dinner tonight. On again in the morning into the Olympic National Park.