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Johnston Ridge Observatory: The Eruption Trail

TheĀ  last time I had visited Johnston Ridge Observatory, it was the summer of 2003 in July. Time slips by too fast when one gets busy with life. My oldest son was about the age of my youngest son then. It’s a long drive from most anywhere to get to Mt. St. Helens and it’s a lot longer for us now, having moved even farther North. We were coming back from Oregon though this weekend, and decided to get an early start out of Portland, and take the boys to see the mountain. Once you leave I-5, near the small town of Castle Rock, it is a bit over 50 miles in to the end of the road. It’s easy miles though, and the road is wide, with a lot to look at – and pull over for. And take the time to visit all the pullouts and easy trails. You never know if you will get back – or if the mountain will wait for you.

St. Helens sits so far back in the Cascade Mountains that seeing her from the highway is fleeting – especially in summer once much of her snow is melted. It is worth the drive though. The views only get more amazing of the mountain, Mt. Adams in the far distance and of the Toutle River Valley below.

I’ve talked about it before, but for me St. Helens was a life changing moment. I was 7 when the mountain exploded, and I watched it happen in my childhood town. It left me with an awe of our volcanoes, and that the saying “The mountain will be there” isn’t always true. Coming back though over the years and seeing how the mountain has come back to life in the past 38 years is nothing but shocking. The past 15 years has seen massive growth in the trees!

But if for nothing else: You get to walk on the edge of an active/sleeping volcano and feel the history.

After taking the boys to the visitor center (“The Bunker”) at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, and sitting through the movie (which had been updated), and checking out all the newer exhibits, the boys and I strolled the Eruption Trail. The Eruption Trail is wheelchair accessible, and very family friendly. It leaves from the observatory, to the left, by the water station. Yes, it climbs. But it isn’t long.

The views only get better as you walk up the paved trail.

The trail crests to the top, where a neat circle awaits, that shows what every peak in the area is named. The wildflowers in July bring a lot of Lupine and Paintbrush to enjoy.

The Boundary Trail, with Mt. Adams in the distance. You can also see Spirit Lake and look for the twinkling of cars way across, at the Windy Ridge parking lot. It looks so close, but it isn’t. It is 8 miles of brutal, hot and exposed trail – that you cannot backpack in, due to being in the blast zone.

In the end, we looped around, and took the trail downhill, with the ridge swallowing up our views of the mountain. We passed the monument to the souls taken in the explosion and we talked about it.

However, we got a sweet treat of wild blueberries in the last bit of trail.

This video is great on the accessible trails at St. Helens:

I hope to not take 15 years again to come back, but it will be interesting to watch the changes in coming years around the mountain. I hope my boys come back as old men and see a forest with their grandchildren, where I saw scoured grey mud as a child.


  • Be sure to bring your America the Beautiful pass to get in fee-free (it covers your family/group). Otherwise it is $8 an adult, kids are free. They don’t charge for parking, but rather access to the trails and exhibits.
  • Leave dogs at home. Dogs are not allowed, and the parking lot is brutally hot, with no shade at over 4,000 feet elevation.
  • Bring a lot of water, a large hat and if you like it, sunscreen. The sun burns up here like it does at altitude – the ground is light-colored due to the ash in the soil.
  • If you plan on doing other trails in the area, wear boots with long pants. Your feet will thank you. Volcanic soil is gritty and covers everything. Everything.
  • If you have asthma, take your meds with you. Volcanic ash is a really harsh trigger – and again: the trails are all dusty.
  • Tomorrow I will be posting about where to picnic after, where it’s a lot cooler – and shady.