Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

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While I was home in Washington a couple weeks ago, we took a day trip to Mt. St. Helens. I had been there several times before, but the last was when I was in elementary school, so I was due to return. Mt. St. Helens is a National Volcanic Monument, which was established in 1982.

The volcano last erupted in 1980, just a few years before I was born, and the exact time my family was moving to Western Washington. One of my first memories, which my mom estimates to be around 1988, was visiting the devastation zone and seeing an abandoned house that was still full of ash. That memory has always haunted me.

In elementary school, we took a trip to visit the Windy Ridge area of Mt. St. Helens and another to explore the Ape Caves, where you can crawl and walk through lava tubes. Most of what I know about Mt. St. Helens dates back to childhood, so it was interesting to revisit the area to learn more about it.

For this trip we visited the Johnston Ridge area of the park, where I’d never been before. It opened in 1993, around the time I last visited Mt. St. Helens. My experiences in this National Volcanic Monument, which is only a little older than I am, have been so different from any I’ve had in a National Park because of how significantly it has changed in my lifetime. The top of the mountain is still missing, but the area around it has come back to life.

One of the most significant facts I had wrong about Mt. St. Helens was that I thought the 1980 eruption had only killed one person. There is a famous story of a man named Harry Truman, who had spent almost his entire life on the mountain and refused to leave despite many warnings. The story about Harry is true, but there were many people in the eruption zone on May 18, 1980. Some of them have miraculous survival stories, but a total of 57 people died, including residents, campers, scientists, loggers, and a reporter.

The hardest thing for me to understand when I was a kid was that lava did not spew from Mt. St. Helens. It was rock, hot ash, and gas. There were a number of factors that contributed to the devastation, including ash that carried for hundreds of miles, a landslide, and melted snow from the heat of the eruption that flooded rivers full of debris.

The first visitor center we stopped at seemed to be largely supported by Weyerhaeuser, a famous timber company with a long history in Washington and on Mt. St. Helens. So many of the exhibits focused on their work in aiding regrowth by planting new trees shortly after the eruption. It made me grateful that the National Volcanic Monument was created to preserve sections of Mt. St. Helens, so that volcanologists, a job I’d consider for the title alone, could study the effects of a volcano in a way they had not had the opportunity to do in modern times.

We continued up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, stopping a few times for views of Mt. St. Helens. The film they show about eruption now feels quite dated, but at the end they raise the projection screen and the curtains so that you are looking directly at the volcano and it still makes a huge impact. The exhibits at Johnston Ridge focus largely on hypotheses scientists had about volcanoes that were tested when they studied Mt. St. Helens. Since the 1980 eruption, the volcano has remained quite active and continues to be studied closely.

On our way back from Johnston Ridge, we stopped at Clearwater Lake. Though Mt. St. Helens has changed so much in my lifetime, I felt connected to its much longer history when we were sitting by the lake, which was created by the 1980 eruption, and I read that every lake on Mt. St. Helens had been created by an eruption, even the famous Spirit Lake where Harry Truman died. 1980 is only the most recent eruption, of course.

Mt. St. Helens is part of a series of volcanoes in the Cascades. It is easy to compare it to several volcanoes very close, including Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. I kept thinking of Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, which I visited a couple years ago. Lassen last erupted in 1915. Then I thought about Crater Lake, which is all that is left of Mount Mazama, a volcano that collapsed almost 8,000 years ago.

I didn’t have time on this trip to do any hiking while I was at Mt. St. Helens, but I’m looking forward to going back. Maybe I’ll even make it to the summit one day.

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