Mount St. Helens

July 23-24, 2001

These are photos and brief comments from my trip with my wife Julie to Mt. St. Helens in the state of Washington (USA). I'm not a professional photographer, these are "snap and go" photos taken in standard tourist style. They are primarily posted for family and friends, although everyone is welcome to look them over and even comment if you want. All the color photos were taken by myself (Jess Stryker) and you can use them if you want for student projects or whatever. To the best of my knowledge the copyright for the historic black and white photo has expired, but you should credit the book if you use it.

You'll probably want to adjust your browser window to full screen to view the photos. Click on the small thumbnail photos in the boxes for a larger version of the same photo.

"St. Helens, in most respects, is a typical volcano (extinct) and it affords an excellent opportunity to see and study vulcanism. It is visible from many points between the southern part of Puget Sound and the Columbia River. Most visitors leave the train at Castle Rock and go to a camp at Spirit Lake, at the foot of the mountain on the north side. The mountain is 10,000 feet high. It was named by Vancouver for Lord St. Helens, of England."

From "Puget Sound and Western Washington", Robert A. Reid, Publisher, Seattle, Washington, 1912.

The photo and caption above are from a tourism book I found in the collection of Julie's grandmother, Johanna Green.

Mount St. Helens proved herself not extinct, and began erupting in March, 1980. A large bulge developed on the north side of the mountain as internal pressure inside the mountain built up, but was not able to escape, much like a balloon inflating. On May 18, 1980, the "balloon popped" and a huge lateral (sideways) blast occurred, blowing the middle of the mountain away on the north side (the area facing you, at the center of the mountain, in the photo above). The force of the blast leveled 150,000 acres of forest (everything visible in the photo), and left a huge hole in the side of the mountain. The entire top 1300 feet of the mountain disappeared in a few minutes as it collapsed into the hole. Snow on the mountain melted from the heat, and much of the rock that had been the top of the mountain liquefied, creating a huge mud flow of rock, ash, mud and poisonous gas, which poured down the side of the mountain, then down the Toutle River Valley (which is on the right side of the photo above.) 53 people who were in the area lost their lives in the blast and mud flow. Spirit Lake, shown in the photo above, disappeared as it was buried in mud and ash. The place where the photo above was taken is now buried under 300 feet of mud and rock. Over the next few weeks a new and much larger "new" Spirit Lake formed behind a natural dam of rock and mud, roughly in the same location as the old one.

Mt. St. Helens photographed from the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. About 8 miles from the mountain. The center band of clouds hung around all day when we were there, obscuring the crater and new lava dome.

Another picture from Coldwater Ridge. You can see part of Coldwater Lake in the bottom left. Coldwater Lake was created when the debris from the eruption blocked the outlet of Coldwater Canyon forming a natural dam. Coldwater Lake did not exist prior to the 1980 eruption.

View from Johnson Ridge Visitor Center. About 3 miles from the mountain, this is the closest you can get without obtaining a special permit. The side of the mountain facing you blew out sideways straight at where this photo was taken. The top then collapsed into a huge landslide that roared down into the valley between this ridge and the mountain, crossed the valley and came up and over the ridge where this picture was taken. Compare the mountain in this photo to the old photo at the top of the page.

Johnson ridge is the first ridge out from the mountain, and is perpendicular to the mountain. The side of the ridge facing the mountain was scrubbed of all it's soil right down to the bedrock by the force of the blast and landslide. The exposed bedrock has grooves cut into it from the bottom to the top, made by huge boulders scrapping against the bedrock as they were propelled up and over the top of the ridge. Most of the bulk of the landslide flowed off to the right side of the photo above, down the Toutle River Valley. Spirit Lake is directly to the left of where I took this photo, at the top of the valley. Unfortunately I didn't get time to go over to Spirit Lake, there isn't a direct road to it from Johnson Ridge. Maybe next trip I'll make it. I understand that area is actually better for visiting, although it is somewhat remote and hard to get to. The rangers tell me it is worth the time and effort if you go.

South Side of Mt. St. Helens

The 1980 eruption was on the north side of the mountain and so the damage on the south side was minimal by comparison. A lot of ash and rock fell, but the forests were not leveled and mud flows were smaller. Most of the features on this side resulted from ancient eruptions of the mountain.

Lava Canyon

Lava Canyon is off Highway 503, on Forest Road 83. It is much less visited than the other side of the mountain, which makes it more pleasant. Even at the height of the tourist season the area was not crowded. The short hike into Lava Canyon is well worth the effort. The canyon is lightly forested with small trees (the big ones were taken out by mud flows during the 1980 eruption) and features a series of cascades and water fall. It is well worth the visit, I enjoyed it more than the crowded Visitors Centers on the other side of the mountain. It takes about an hour to get to Lava Canyon from Woodland, Washington.

  This photo was taken from the south side of Mt. St. Helens, on the opposite side of the mountain from where the photos above were taken. The dip in the rim of the mountain in this photo can also be seen in the photos above. This photo was taken the day after the ones above, from the Lahar Viewpoint. A mud flow covered this area during the 1980 eruption, hence no large vegetation. Lahar Viewpoint is near Lava Canyon.

This is one of many waterfalls on the Muddy River as it flows through Lava Canyon. The river drops 1400 feet through the canyon. An easy paved trail leads into the canyon. At the end of the paved trail, a second loop trail begins, which is more difficult but worth the effort. The loop trail descends into the heart of the canyon.


  At the far end of the loop trail is a swinging bridge. You can see it crossing the canyon in this photo, about 1/4 way down from the top. The trail crosses the bridge then climbs back out of the canyon on the opposite side of the canyon where it meets back up with the paved trail. A third trail leads farther down into the canyon from the swinging bridge. This photo was taken about 1/8 mile downstream of the bridge from that trail. 

This is the waterfall below the swinging bridge, and is the largest, and prettiest, of the falls. The trail to the point where this photo was taken is very narrow, with loose rocks, and 100'+ drop-offs. It is not suitable for kids or inexperienced hikers! But if you're up to it, a short 1/4 mile hike down this trail rewards you with spectacular views!  

  This is Julie crossing a section of trail below the swinging bridge where a spring comes out of the side of the mountain. there is a cable to hang onto when crossing. Just outside the picture on the right it drops 100' over a cliff! The rock is extremely slippery, we would not have crossed it without that cable! 

This is the swinging bridge over Lava Canyon on the loop trail. It is one of the best swinging bridges I have ever crossed. Nice and high, it swings pretty good in the wind (or if some joker is jumping up and down on it.) Despite that, it is a pretty safe bridge with good rails and chain link on either side so there is no real danger of going over the edge! Worth the hike for the bridge alone. That's my wife Julie waving from the bridge.  

  The boards on the bottom of the swinging bridge are spaced wide apart to give you a nice view down! You can see the stream below the bridge in this photo.

One of several cascades in Lava Canyon.  

  View of the canyon and swinging bridge from upstream. A lady is crossing the bridge with her dog. The dog did NOT want to cross that bridge!

Julie standing next to a small waterfall at the top of Lava Canyon.  

Here's a great website on Lava Canyon with good descriptions of the trail and features.

Here's a website that tells how they built the suspension bridge with lots of photos.

Ape Cave Area

Ape Cave is a lava tube left from an ancient eruption of Mt. St. Helens over 2000 years ago. Lava tubes are formed when the surface of a lava flow hardens and the hot liquid lava drains out from the center, leaving a tunnel or tube. Ape Cave is a very tall lava tube compared to most I have been in. After forming, subsequent eruptions and lava flows came through the tube, with each flow melting away some of the tube floor, until the tube became oval shaped with narrow sides and a high ceiling. The name Ape Cave does not result from monkeys in the area or even a rock or other feature that looks like a monkey. The cave was discovered by a logger, who told a local group of young outdoor recreation enthusiasts known as "the Mt. St. Helen's Apes" about it. The group explored it and gave it the name Ape Cave. Ape Cave is the longest continuos lava tube in the continental US. I don't have any good photos of Ape Cave as my flash isn't powerful enough to get a good picture in the cave. Ranger-lead tours go into the cave, or you can explore it on your own.

Trail of Two Forests

Trail of Two Forests, near Ape Cave, is an elevated boardwalk trail over an ancient lava flow. The lava flowed over a mature forest in this area, surrounding and covering the trees to a depth of 8'. When the lava encountered a tree it flowed around it and hardened on contact with the cool wood. This created casts shaped like the tree. The trees caught fire from the hot lava, and burned out. This left hollow "molds" in the lava where the trees had been. Where fallen trees were covered by the lava and burned out it left "tunnels" through the lava shaped like the trees.

This is Julie crawling through a "tree tunnel" created when the lava flowed over a fallen tree. It was pitch black where I took this photo (we didn't have a flash light handy), I told her to look toward my voice and smile! You crawl through using your hands to feel the way.  If a bear is inside sleeping you get eaten. Julie had me go first.  

   This is Julie coming out of the tree tube that the picture above was taken in. Kids will love this area, so be sure to stop and let them crawl through the tube! There aren't really any bears in there, too many people are crawling through!

Here's a link to a good website on Ape Cave with a photo tour inside the cave.

East Side of Mt. St. Helens

Bummer, we ran out of time. Hopefully we will get back to Mt. St. Helens to see the East Side of the mountain, where the old growth forests were blown down.


West Side, State Highway 504

All the facilities below have good rest rooms and gift shops. Those noted charge a fee, a $6.00 per person per day pass gets you into all of them.

Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center is the first visitor center after leaving I-5. It has extensive exhibits, interpretive talks, hiking trails, and a movie. "Cool feature" is a model of Mt. St. Helens with a walk-through center that allows you to see what is happening inside the mountain. Operated by the State of Washington. Fee.

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center is next down the road. It has minimal exhibits, periodic special events, and helicopter rides. "Cool feature" is that the building is the largest timber structure ever built (or so they claim, I'm not sure how they measure that, it didn't seem that large to me). Cafe with table service (we ate lunch here and the food was good).

Forest Learning Center. Sponsored by Weyerhaeuser, the Washington State Transportation Department, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. This learning center presents the lumber industry perspective on the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and a fair amount of lumber industry propaganda. Worth the stop, even for a "tree-hugger." Exhibits cover the tree salvage operations and replanting after the eruption (much of the property destroyed by the eruption was part of Weyerhaeuser's huge tree farm). Also videos on how wood is processed into lumber. "Cool feature" is the multi-media theater with surround sound, that is built to look like you're sitting in a mud-flow devastated canyon, complete with overturned vehicles. A hands on exhibit room where you can touch and play with the exhibits is great. The kids can try out a chain saw (no, not really). But they can pick up and check out all kinds of other logging equipment, seeds, animal furs, wood, etc. I really enjoyed it!

Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. Extensive exhibits, movie, and a good view of the mountain and Coldwater Lake. A snack bar serves primarily snack and lunch items. Coldwater Ridge is within the blast zone, the area most devastated by the eruption. See if you can spot the burned out logging equipment on the next ridge (toward the mountain) that was destroyed in the eruption. "Cool feature" is the "Winds of Change Interpretive Trail" where you can see the fast recovering landscape. Fee.

Johnson Ridge Observatory. Extensive interactive exhibits, seismographs, a wide-screen theater, and a collection of first hand accounts from people who survived the eruption. "Cool feature" is the mountain! The "Eruption Trail" is a short interpretive trail that leads from the observatory to the top of the ridge, then back to the parking lot. Fee.

All other roadside exhibits and trails. Fee.

Lodging available in the towns of Castle Rock, Kelso, and Longview on Interstate 5.

Campgrounds are available near Toutle and in Kid Valley area on State Route 504.

No lodging or camping is available in the park.

South Side, State Highway 503, Forest Road 90 & 83:

NO WATER is available on the south side except in Cougar.

Jack's Restaurant. Located at intersection of State Route 503 and the 503 spur that goes off to Cougar.

Cougar. Very small town with a restaurant, store, gas, public rest area with nice rest rooms, and private campgrounds. No food or gas is available beyond Cougar. We purchased the makings for a picnic lunch at the store. The store sells packaged sandwiches.

Ape's Headquarters at Ape Cave. Ranger station, book sales, lantern rentals (for exploring the cave on your own). Cave tours take about 45 minutes and lanterns are provided free for the tours. Pit toilets, no water available. Fee $3.00 per person. One person gets in free if you have a forest service vehicle pass (see below).

Trail of Two Forests. Picnic area with tables, pit toilets, no water available. Fee $5.00 per car per day*.

Lava Canyon. Picnic area with nice, private tables, pit toilets, no water available. Fee $5.00 per car per day*.

*Stopping anywhere along the Forest Service Roads requires a $5.00 per car fee. One fee covers all Forest Service areas for one full day. PurchaseForest Service passes at Ape's Headquarters or at the store in Cougar. Pay fees for Apes Cave at the Ape's Headquarters. The fees get confusing, just figure that to see everythingon the South Side it's $5.00 for the first person and $3.00 for each additional person. If you want to continue on to the other Park Service facilities on the East or West sides, add an additional $3.00 per person (provided you go there the same day). Fees are subject to change, of course!

Lodging is available in the towns of Kalama and Woodland on Interstate 5.

Campgrounds are available near Cougar on State Route 503, and on the shores of Swift Reservoir on Forest Road 90.

No food, lodging or camping are available in the National Monument.


Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Gifford Pinchot Forest's official website for Mt. St. Helens. Also has lots of links to other Mount St. Helens information on the web, plus phone numbers and addresses for more information.

Charles W. Bingham Forest Learning Center At Mount St. Helens (Weyerhauser Forest Learning Center)

Mt. St. Helens Visitors Center State of Washington's Visitor Center at Silver Lake

The USGS website for Mount St. Helens. "Volcano cam" and lots of volcano information.