Day trip to Mount St. Helens, Washington (USA)

October 28, 2013 By:

Summary of the trip:

Distance from Seattle to Johnston Ridge Observatory- 160 miles

Time taken: 3 hours one way from Seattle
Day trip- Yes
Best feature- Viewing the crater from Johnston Ridge Observatory; helicopter ride.
Explored- North face (with the best view of the crater).
Not explored- South face (Ape Caves) due to lack of time.
Useful website- http://www.mountsthelens.com/index.html

An amazing view of Helens from the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

An amazing view of Helens from the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Please also notice the solidified tracks of lava snaking all along.

A view of the crater from the helicopter.

A view of the crater from the helicopter.

I’ve always had a fascination for volcanoes. The sheer power exuded by nature in it’s form kept me awed and humbled whenever I watched volcanoes erupting on TV channels. Living in Seattle provided a wonderful opportunity to explore the volcanic mountains of the Pacific North West (like Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and Mount St. Helens). The most interesting amongst these is Mount St. Helens that last erupted in 1980 (5.1 on Richter scale), scooping off the head of the mountain in the process and making it “the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.”As quoted in the wikipedia, “The volcano is located in the Cascade Range and is part of the Cascade Volcanic Arc, a segment of the Pacific Ring of Fire that includes over 160 active volcanoes. This volcano is well known for its ash explosions and pyroclastic flows.”

You can visit either the north face of the Helens or the South face (you can’t do both in a day). I have been told that the north face has the best view of the crater (and is closer to Seattle as well). The southern face has interesting points like Ape Caves, but I am yet to visit it.

The soil is all barren ash that barely supports vegetation

The soil is all barren ash that barely supports vegetation

The bridge that was built after the eruption

The bridge that was built after the eruption

Some lake (possibly Coldwater Lake) as observed from the helicopter.

Some lake (possibly Coldwater Lake) as observed from the helicopter.

The directions are pretty straightforward. From Seattle (roughly exit 167 depending on where you are), you drive on I-5 S for about 117 miles (2 hours) till you reach exit 49 (Castle Rock/Toutle). Then you go on Spirit Lake Highway/504 for about 45 more miles. Overall, it’s a 160 miles journey taking about 3 hours each way.

Volcanoes destroy the geography of the earth and create new ones.

Volcanoes destroy the geography of the earth and create new ones.


Coldwater Lake didn’t exist before but was formed after the eruption when the lava cooled down.

Once you take the exit off Castle Rock, make a stop at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake/Seaquest located within 5 miles from I-5 S on exit 49. It’s worth a visit for $3. Pick up a map there. Take a look at the exhibits.

The Forest Learning Center is the next, and this is where you would board the helicopter if you took one. It has a gift shop too. I’d recommend doing it on the way back.

view of the helens while driving towards the Johnston Ridge Observatory

view of the helens while driving towards the Johnston Ridge Observatory

The last and undoubtedly the best one is the Johnston Ridge Observatory with the best view of the crater. Don’t forget to watch the short ~ 15 minute movie (free) with the history of the eruption. It can get quite windy and chilly depending on the weather (even on a sunny day), so be prepared to dress in layers.

Vegetation eventually grew again years after everything was destroyed by the lava.

Vegetation eventually grew again years after everything was destroyed by the lava.

Such is the resilience of nature

The helicopter ride is expensive (~ $160/person/30 minutes), but is totally worth it for a first timer interested in looking at the crater from a close quarter. Many people hike and climb Helens (I haven’t), but depending on weather conditions, you need prior permission. I was more than happy observing the crater at a distance from the Johnston Ridge Observatory and the helicopter and taking pictures.

The solidified path where lava flowed and destroyed everything in its wake

The solidified path where lava flowed and destroyed everything in its wake

The helicopter seats 4 people plus the pilot (1 at the front and 3 at the back). They will allocate seats depending on the body weight distribution so as to balance the weight on the helicopter. Sitting besides the pilot at the front is great. Sitting at the back (either left or right) is fine too as you can directly look through the window. The worst is sitting at the center, sandwiched in between two people at the back (the seat I got) because then you need to crane your neck and can neither see the sights well, nor can take good pictures from the air. Pray hard that you don’t get the back center seat.

Mount Rainier seen from Helens

Mount Rainier seen from Helens

Lava dome resurrecting itself slowly into a mountain head

Lava dome resurrecting itself slowly into a mountain head

Evidence of glaciers forming- the youngest glaciers in the world

Evidence of glaciers forming- the youngest glaciers in the world

Dead tree stumps still stand in place even after 30 years

Dead tree stumps still stand in place even after 30 years

Dead tree stumps floating in the lake

Dead tree stumps floating in the lake

I didn’t realize the importance of this picture till a geeky friend told me that this arrangement is called the nematic ordering of liquid crystalline phase. Whatever that meant

Close view of the crater from the helicopter.

Close view of the crater from the helicopter.

Another picture showing the path of lava flow Another picture showing the path of lava flow

Overall, exploring the northern face of the mountain is easily a 1 day trip from Seattle, and there are reasonable dining options and gas stations on the way. It’s going to be an amazing experience, very unique and one of its kind.

About Devasmita

Devasmita Chakraverty has written 48 posts at Ghumakkar.

There is no joy greater than the opportunity of packing your camera, grabbing your car keys, and venturing out on the road. That is what I do when I am not working as a post doctoral research associate. Having lived for more than seven years in the U.S., there has never been a dearth of great places to explore. Day trips, hikes, road trips, camping trips, I enjoy every bit of it. Planning trips and writing about them later is as much fun as the experience of traveling. I aspire to visit all the continents and every U.S. national park (and write about them) someday. Thank you Ghumakkar, for providing a wonderful platform to amalgamate my two stronger interests- writing and travel.

18 Responses to “Day trip to Mount St. Helens, Washington (USA)”


  1. Ram Dhall says:

    Welcome aboard Devasmita.

    What can one say about this brilliant post with absolutely vivid and lucid description. You have the prowess of taking the readers along with you. Your sense of photography is simply par excellence. The pictures say it all.

    I have seen your profile and with your vast travel experience, the ghumakkar family would be more than happy to await your next posts.

    And I wish you all the very best in your future endeavours at the east coast.

    Warm regards and God’s blessings.

  2. Devasmita says:

    Dear Ram,

    Thank you for the warm welcome. I’m very excited to share my next travel post soon :) This website is a great idea and I know I’ll have a fun time going through all the travel experiences and sharing mine :)

    Devasmita

  3. Devasmita,

    Its indeed very interesting visiting the volcanic mountains with you. Quite informative about the lake and glacier fromation. Is it the case that after eruption as Lava cools down the place become cold, colder than before.

    BTW “nematic ordering of liquid crystalline phase” generated interest to know what exactly it is. No doubt that the picture is beautiful in itself, but brief descriptions of it will enrich us as well :-)

    Looking forward to more travelogues from you.

  4. Devasmita says:

    Dear Manish,

    Thank you for the encouragement :) This is my first travel post, so I didn’t know how much to write about without it getting boring.

    If you look at picture 11 (lave dome resurrecting itself), lave materials have solidified over the 30 years to slowly build the head of the mountain. Of course there is a long long way to go, but as we saw, nature is already on it’s way to “repair” the headless mountain, that’s how I see it. Before eruption, Helens used to be a snow capped mountain. The intense lava heat made the snow and glacier disappear. As things have cooled down, glacier formation is on its way again, hence these are the youngest glaciers. That’s what the helicopter pilot explained (Pic 12).

    I’m not aware what nematic ordering means. I looked it up, but couldn’t understand much of it. I was amused because while I saw dead logs in the pics, my friend saw nematic ordering in it :)

    Thank you.

    • Thanks Devasmita for a quick update.

      You made me curious about nematic ordering and I looked at a simplified definition and reading it and looking at the para in nematic phase portion at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_crystal, I feel your friend is so right. We too are enriched reading about it.

      In a nematic phase, the calamitic or rod-shaped organic molecules have no positional order, but they self-align to have long-range directional order with their long axes roughly parallel

      Good to read more about Mt Helen. Thanks as now my doubts are clear.

      Well about the appropriate length of a travelogue, I can understand your dilemma.

      I find it difficult to remain within limits and is branded by Nandan as the one who breaks this limit quite often :-)

  5. Devasmita says:

    haha .. well said … hey thanks for the update on the nematic ordering and for explaining it. Frankly, I barely understood what I read about it initially, so gave up on it. It does make more sense to me now :)

  6. Hello Devasmita,

    Very nice writeup. I spent 5 years in Seattle, every year I use to go Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier. The best memory I have from 2005 when it was about to explode again and that was the time this new crater appeared.

    Nice pictures you have taken during helicopter ride, I never took that. Ape Caves are wonderful, I am not sure if you have visited Icaves.

    -Upanshu

  7. Onil Gandhi says:

    gr8 write up awesome pics and info

  8. travellers says:

    Hi Devasmita,

    Great post and pics . An interesting commentary indeed on Mt St Helens.

    Yep, volcanoes and accompanying lava, don’t they strangely signify us humans – the disquieting interior, veneered by sobering, life sustaining crusts – carefully sustained facades, lasting just about as long as the next eruption, jouncing its way across.

    Happy narrations.

    Auro.

  9. Devasmita says:

    Dear Upanshu, it’s great to meet a fellow Seattleites :) I wasn’t aware of the 2005 prediction. You are right, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens have been my favorite places too. I haven’t done Ape Caves yet, but hope to do it soon :)

    Dear Onil, thank you for the encouragement. Glad that you enjoyed it :)

    Dear travellers (Auro), very interesting and philosophical comment :) Yes you are right, and volcanoes also signify humans in their resilience and their ability to build themselves again and nurture life even after destructions.

  10. Smoke was already coming out in 2005 and went on / off till 2006.

  11. Devasmita says:

    Oh wow !!

  12. nandanjha says:

    Beautiful pics.

    I do not think we have similar sights in India but I do not know, just guessing.

    As I wrote on the other post, being so close to a bit city is such a huge draw, usually these places are off-beat, remote and being able to drive around (even fly over) makes it very convenient.

    And you are so right on the helicopter thing, I did one , guess a couple of years back and the flying experience was really much different. Some pics – http://www.nandanjha.com/2008/06/13/chopper-ride-a-memorable-experience/

    Thanks Devasmita.

  13. mjain1963 says:

    AMAZING PICS

  14. mjain1963 says:

    Why dont you share more pics ! pls

  15. Nandan Jha says:

    As part of DC’s ‘Featured Author’ celebration, we are republishing her first story at Ghumakkar.

  16. Prasad Np says:

    This is a beautiful post with wonderful pictures. I did not had much idea about the volcanoes in continental US. Now I want to go and see them.

  17. ashok sharma says:

    good post,great pics.



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