Guide to Mount St. Helens

Visiting the North Side of Mount St. Helens: Crater Crash Course

A road trip down a stunning highway leads to a well-appointed visitor center and easy hikes. Never been to the famous mountain? Start here.

By Allison Williams May 6, 2020

The iconic window view from Johnston Ridge Observatory.

► Wake up at the Blue Heron Chateau in Castle Rock, one of the few bed and breakfasts (or any sort of hotel) within view of the mountain. Expect few fellow guests and no dining options near this seven-room manse across from Silver Lake, only a few miles off the freeway.  

► The last seven miles of the scenic Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (aka State Route 504, that links the volcano to I-5) close in winter, but they almost always reopen before the May 18 anniversary. Pack snacks and fill the tank; there are no services past Toutle.

► Stop at Coldwater Lake, a body of water that didn’t exist pre-1980, and hike the flat 2.4-mile Hummocks Trail. The odd little hills here are actually chunks of the mountain that slid 14 miles from the summit.

► End the drive at Johnston Ridge Observatory, built near where its namesake volcanologist died in the blast. The blocky visitor center blends into the hillside, letting the open mouth of the crater hold center court. Even the education-averse should sit through the interpretive video—it ends with a theatrical reveal. 

A family hikes Harry's Ridge Trail.

► Pick your hiking poison: The mile-long, paved Eruption Trail loop from the observatory includes a memorial to those who died in the blast and naturalist informational signs. Harry’s Ridge winds eight miles round trip, wanders through summertime wildflower fields, and has views of Spirit Lake.

► Replenish at Fire Mountain Grill in Toutle on the drive back; the restaurant with river views may not have much—or any—competition, but it doesn’t skimp on the menu. Consume the Bigfoot Burger (three patties, pulled pork, turkey, ham) within 30 minutes and score a discount and swag; the various huckleberry, blueberry, and blackberry cobblers seem downright healthful in comparison. 

The statewide Covid-19 response has affected planned Mount St. Helens anniversary events, temporarily closed businesses, and prohibited access to some roads, trailheads, visitor centers, and more. Be sure to check online or by phone for the latest updates before making plans. 

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