Spirit Lake Memorial Highway to Mount St. Helens
Drive through the volcanic devastation of the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens
|Mileage||51 miles (82 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||2 hours|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||Spring, Summer, and Fall|
|Roadways||Washington Highway 504|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, hotels, pharmacies, etc.||Castle Rock, WA▼|
4.4 average from 9 votes
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Once the fifth highest mountain of the Cascade Mountains, Mount Saint Helens erupted the morning of May 18, 1980. Not only are the facts and stories of the eruption itself fascinating, there is nothing like driving through the area today and seeing how nature has progressed since the eruption.
This scenic drive through this area starts in Castle Rock and follows WA-504 east, mostly following the North Fork Toutle River to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. To reach Castle Rock, take exit 49 from I-5.
About five miles from Castle Rock, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Visitor Center (A1) is on your right and is well worth a stop to learn about the eruption and its effects on the surrounding area. Outside the center is a beautiful, short trail with access to Silver Lake and its wetlands.
A little over five miles from the Visitor Center, you will reach the Toutle River which the road parallels for the remainder of the drive. During the eruption, the river became a mud flow as lahars poured vast amounts of sediment into the Toutle. Today, there are few signs of this though once you reach the North Fork Toutle River, the river’s walls reveal some of the mud.
Much of the land in this area is privately owned by timber companies, as is evident by signs indicating the dates that the forests were planted and when they will be harvested. The 1980 eruption was devastating to the forests, however, many helped revive the area by planting trees.
The Army Corps of Engineers built the Sediment Retention Structure (H1) in 1989 to stop the sediments from flowing downstream. Just before the Toutle River Bridge, turn right on Stewart Dam Road to the viewpoint. The hikes in this area bring you up close to the mud flow debris.
You may have wondered why some of the hills have very little growth, even after all these years. Ash-covered land lacks nitrogen and prevents vegetation from growing, however, grasses and clover are natural nitrogen generating plants and these have been planted in such areas.
Around milepost 24, Mount Saint Helens becomes visible and it is a spectacular sight. The Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center (A6) is a great place to stop to look at the valley and Mount St Helens. Surprisingly, on cloudy or hazy days, you may not be able to see Mount St Helens at all. If you are lucky, you may see some wildlife, and as you continue the drive, keep an eye out for deer.
The Weyerhauser Forest Learning Center (A3) will enlighten you about the work that people are doing to help nature recover from the eruption. Right outside the center is a viewing area of the valley, complete with binoculars and telescopes. You have a good chance of spotting herds of elks here.
Approximately twelve miles after the Forest Learning Center is the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center (A5). Open year-round, this stop has stunning views of Mount St Helens and the thriving life around it.
Follow SR-504 to take a leisurely stroll or fish for rainbow trout on nearby Coldwater Lake. Located in the middle of the blast zone this lake was formed when debris dammed the Coldwater Creek Valley after the eruption.
Open May through October, the Johnston Ridge Observatory (A2) is at the end of the WA-540 and is your best view of the Mount Saint Helens. Here you can enjoy spectacular views of the lava dome, crater, pumice plain and landslide deposit. To this day, areas are strewn with the trees blown down thirty years ago during the eruption. Wide-screen theater presentation and interpretive displays depict the fascinating history of the eruption. There are a number of hikes for a variety of skills that leave from here.
On your way home, follow the road back the same way you came, stopping at turnouts and points of interest you may have missed to fully enjoy this beautiful, mountain scenic drive.