A new vantage point to Mount St. Helens


On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in Washington state erupted in a violent explosion that devastated the surrounding landscape. The avalanche and lateral blast cloud felled trees like toothpicks. Ash-induced darkness caused streetlights to come on at noon in nearby towns. Fifty-seven people and countless wild animals were killed.

For commuters flying from Portland, Ore., to Seattle, the devastation is as clear as the topography below. South of the volcano, there are green pines as far as the eye can see; north of it are hundreds of square miles of moonscape.

For the earthbound curious, however, the spectacle hasn't been so easy to see. The upper stretch of the mountain highway, which once carried hikers and campers to Spirit Lake, was buried under chunks of mountain debris when the northwest face collapsed. With time, hiking trails were built on the east side, but these were a long drive from the interstate, and accessible only from June to October when the road was snow-free.

Now, that has changed. The Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (its upper stretch built on higher ground than the original road) opened last fall, giving motorists easy access to the blast zone and several turnouts with excellent views of the crater.

And Route 504 is just the beginning of what's in store for Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, a 110,000-acre region set aside in 1982 for science, education and public use. High above the visitor center already established near Castle Rock, two new ones are taking shape, each offering a different perspective on the volcano.

The Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, 47 miles up the highway, opened yesterday. The building will house exhibits and displays about the monument, and has a restaurant and gift shop.

"The theme will be the biological recovery of the monument," says Bonnie Lippitt, the center's manager.

Nearby, on the highway's Elk Point Lookout, tourists with binoculars can glimpse some of the 200 to 300 elk that have recolonized the Toutle River Valley since the eruption. Other animals, such as the pocket gopher, survived below ground, and plants such as huckleberries survived under the snowpack.

Eventually, the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center will have a number of hiking trails. Some of the shorter trails will be completed this spring and summer; others will be developed during the next few years, Ms. Lippitt said.

Above the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, another stretch of highway will lead to the Johnson Ridge observatory, which will be equipped with three working seismometers located either on the volcano or within a few miles of it. Exhibits will provide text, diagrams and videos relating to seismic activity at Mount St. Helens and volcanoes in general.

"The Forest Service has made it possible for us to have a working office at the facility so we can bring the data from the various seismic stations in the field into the visitors center at Johnson Ridge, then hard-wire that to their interpretive exhibits," said Steve Brantley, public information scientist for the Cascade Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash.

"It allows us to have a relay station, and allows visitors to see the kind of data that's being gathered and monitored," he said.

Since the 1980 eruption, scientists monitoring the volcano have been able to make a number of accurate predictions of minor disturbances, anywhere from a few hours to as far away as three weeks from eruption dates.

Tourists don't need a lot of fancy scientific equipment to figure out the volcano is still "alive." All they have to do is catch a whiff of sulfur gas wafting from the crater.

In 1986, the volcano belched out new lava onto the surface of the lava dome. From 1989 to 1991, a series of minor explosions generated relatively small ash plumes.

"Although these small explosions are hazardous to people who happen to be right in the center, or perhaps on the crater rim, they really don't pose a danger to people beyond the immediate volcano area," Mr. Brantley says.

Knocked down from its original height of 9,677 feet above sea level, the volcano now stands at 8,364 feet. Inside the crater, a lava dome continues to grow. Currently, it's about 1,150 feet above the north crater floor.

Will the volcano erupt again?

"Geologists have not made a prediction about when Mount St. Helens will erupt again in the near future," Mr. Brantley says. "All they can really say is that the volcano probably will be active over a period of decades."

IF YOU GO . . .

Directions: From Seattle, take Interstate 5 south about 125 miles to Castle Rock. Turn left at Exit 49 onto the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Visitor Center is located five miles from Castle Rock. Distant views of the volcano are visible on clear days.

The Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center is located 47 miles from Castle Rock. It is in the heart of the eruption blast zone.

Information: Write the Mount St. Helens Visitors Center, 3029 Spirit Lake Highway, Castle Rock, Wash. 98611; (206) 274-6644.

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