I was four years old when Mount St. Helens blew its top on May 18, 1980. Although I have no recollection of it happening, the stories of that monumental day have been ingrained in me ever since, and why a visit to this grand mountain has always been on my travel wish list. If you have never thought to explore the wonders of this National Volcanic Monument, I am here to explain to you why Mount St Helens should be added to your travel bucket list!
Located in southwest Washington State, Mount St. Helens can be visited as a day trip (although quite a long one) when visiting either Seattle or Portland, or more conveniently, as a side trip while traveling between the two cities (as we did). See below for accommodation recommendations.
While driving to the top of Mount St. Helens there are several visitor centers along the way that are very informative and far from boring! Even the kids (at the ages of 2 & 5) enjoyed the short documentaries shown. So make sure to take your time and stop at each one. From the turn off at Castle Rock, you should allow yourself approximately 4 hours to get to the final destination.
Top Things to See and Do at Mount St. Helens
Heading down a tree mold
- Silver Lake Visitor Centre is a great place to begin your experience as it is located just five miles off Interstate 5 on State Route 504. It is open year round, and offers interactive exhibits, a step-in model of the volcano, and theater programs twice an hour. Outside, a mile-long trail takes you into marshy plains surrounding Silver Lake where you can see plenty of waterfowl and a picture-perfect view of the mountain. Please check their website for current admission rates.
- Forest Learning Center is located inside the blast zone of the 1980’s eruption and is located at milepost 33. At this visitor center you can walk
through a life-like forest and experience the Eruption Chamber, and learn about forest recovery, reforestation and conservation of forest resources. Admission is free.
- Johnston Ridge Observatory is located at the end of State Highway 504 in the heart of the blast zone. The observatory hosts interpretive displays that tell the biological, geological, and human story of Mount St. Helens. Visitors can enjoy multiple award-winning films, listen to ranger talks, observe the landscape, purchase souvenirs, set off on a hike, or get a light lunch from the food cart. The observatory is open from mid-May until the end of October. Admission is an $8.00 day-use fee. Children 15 and under are free.
- The Trail of Two Forests is a short little walk that follows an elevated boardwalk over an ancient lava flow. There are several tree molds to discover, including one that you can crawl through. It is a nice easy walk (for all ages), informative, and very cool to see!
- Ape Cave is an experience one should not miss! Ape Cave is a lava tube that you can walk/crawl through, and apparently it is the longest one in the United States. If you were to walk the entire upper tube it is just over 2 miles (miles, not km!) in length. The lower cave is an easier walk of about .75 miles one way.
We have caved before, and really enjoy the experience, so we were raring to try out the lava tube. It is recommended to bring at least three sources of light per person. Hubby suggested we bring our big lantern, however I balked at his recommendation to lug it through the cave.
“We’ll be fine with the flashlights we have”, I said stubbornly.
What we had was a 10-year-old flashlight with batteries that were probably just as old, a bumble-bee flashlight of our sons, and a small Bic pen light. Seriously, what more did we need?
Although we made it through, my decision to not bring another source of light was rather silly. Actually, pretty down right ridiculous. It took a lot longer to walk through the tube than we had expected, and our light sources were really wavering by the time we made the round trip.
And just so you are aware – it is a round trip. I repeat: There is no exit at the end! We thought otherwise, and were a little deflated knowing that we had to trek all the way back again.
So if you are planning on exploring Ape Cave, word to the wise…listen to the recommendations, and better yet, bring an EXTRA source of light…just in case!
Both kids loved the experience as much as we did, and at such a young age we were so proud of their ability to walk through the entire lower half of the lava tube. It was definitely an awesome adventure!
The Ape Caves are located on the south side of Mount St. Helens and accessed through Woodland (go up highway 503
past Cougar). Driving time from I-5 and highway 504 (where all the Mount St. Helens Visitor Centers are) to the Ape Cave is just over an hour.
The caves are open year-round, however during the winter the parking lot is often snowed in.
Other Tips about Mount St. Helens
- Before you go, make sure to check the weather and conditions at Mount St. Helens. It is not advisable to go if there is fog, and also many of the visitor centers are closed during the winter and/or during severe weather.
- Please note: Pets are permitted only in designated pet areas, which there are not very many of, and must be on a leash. To protect plant and animal life and provide for visitor safety, pets are prohibited at all recreation sites and trails within the Monument’s restricted area.
- To give you an overview of the area, take a peak at this Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument general map.
If you would like more information about Mount St. Helens, please watch this amazing documentary on YouTube called Minute by Minute: The Eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Places to Stay
Campgrounds near Mount St. Helens
Although there are several lodging/motels available near Mount St. Helens, we had our RV trailing behind us and camped along the way. The following are my recommendations for local campgrounds.
- Mount St. Helens KOA – located just a few miles from the Silver Lake Visitor Centre, this campground provides a convenient base to explore the area.
- Seaquest State Park is located off Spirit Lake Highway across from Silver Lake and the Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center. An ideal location, so reservations are recommended.
- Lewis & Clark State Park is a beautiful 621-acre campground situated in one of the last major stands of old-growth forest in the state of Washington. Located nearby is the John R. Jackson House, which was the first American pioneer home built north of the Columbia River, and constructed in 1845 by the man for whom it is named. Although the original house deteriorated completely, a log cabin was built in its place by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The Jackson family donated some original pioneer artifacts, which are on display at the cabin. Campsites are first come, first serve.
Have you been to the Mount St. Helens National Monument? If not, do you have a desire to go now?
Let me know your thoughts below.
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