It is now over thirty years since Mount St. Helens had its cataclysmic eruption. I grew up in the Portland area, and since I was born in 1979, the site of an abruptly flat mountain on the northern horizon has been something I grew up with. Sometimes I reflect on what someone who had been in a coma for thirty-five years would think upon awakening and seeing a large piece of mountain missing: it is perhaps more jarring of a sight than local residents consider it to be.
But Mount St. Helens, after its major eruption, has been mostly quiet, although the crater of the volcano still tremors, shakes, releases smoke and ash and builds up the small dome inside that will one day become the new peak of the mountain. When people in Oregon and Washington think of natural disasters, they think of a subduction earthquake, or an eruption on Mount Rainier triggering a lahar, and Mount St. Helens occasional bouts of coughing are seen as mostly a curiosity.
But what a curiosity it is! Because a half-exploded volcano is quite a sight, in the past thirty years, Mount St. Helens, now officially a national monument, has turned into something of a cottage industry. Everyone from serious students of biology and geology to casual gawkers who want to see a big exploded thing want to come and see what has happened on the mountain after the eruption.
There are a number of ways to approach the monument. The fastest way is to go east off of Interstate 5 at the small towns of Woodland or Castle Rock, and to follow the highways that curl around the flanks of the mountain. It is also possible to come up from State Highway 14 in the South, a longer (but very scenic) route. Mount St. Helens is in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and there are also a host of state parks around the mountain, so even before reaching the mountain itself, there are many places to stop and view the mountain. The accommodations range from places with amenities and gift shops to more wilderness-style camping. To protect the still-recovering ecosystem, much of the area in the immediate blast zone of the volcano has restricted usage. Climbing the mountain all the way up to the rim of the crater is allowed, and is a common enough activity. However, anyone wishing to descend into the crater should probably find a graduate program in geology, since such activities are prohibited to the general public.
A chance to see the aftermath of a volcanic eruption is obviously a fairly unique opportunity. And one that I, as an actual resident of the area, have managed to mostly avoid doing for the past three decades. Don't make my mistake!
The official homepage of the Mount St. Helens National Monument.
The official map, showing the different routes and camp sites around the mountain.