Oregon Road Trip: Pit Stop at Mount St. Helens

Crazy ideas are some of my favorite moments in life…usually. More often I love them in hindsight. My latest was deciding 2 weeks before the 4th of July that we were going on a road trip; our very first as a family. We drew up our route on a napkin while checking out a new Japanese restaurant with my friend Beth. She was an Oregon native and encouraged us to get out the door and explore her home state. How could we say no. 

The idea was simple. We would leave on the morning of July 4th, head to Mount St. Helens in southern Washington for the day before going to the Oregon Coast for 2 nights. After relaxing on the beach we would head inland to Portland to take in the city sights, something Mike and I haven’t gotten to do since we first moved to Seattle 6 years ago.

First Stop Mount Saint Helens

It’s not every day that you get to see an active volcano. OK, that’s not true. Every clear day in Seattle we see Mount Rainier, but that puppy hasn’t blown in over 100 years. Mount St. Helens has been an active lady, throwing quite the tantrum back in 1980. The effect of her wrath is still noticeable as the land is replanted and Mother Nature tries to move back in.

Mike had been dying to get down to southern Washington for a visit. We thought this would be a great pit stop on our journey to the Oregon coast. It would break up the time nicely and get the kids out of the car a few times as we checked out the visitor centers (yes, there are at least four) along the 52 mile stretch of road leading off of the main highway.

Of course we couldn’t take a road trip without at least one hiccup.

Google Map Strikes Again

Before we left I’d printed out directions from Google Maps. I also pulled up directions on one of the Mount St. Helens websites (of which there are several) just in case. But Google Maps had to be better than the people that actually lived and worked there. Not like it had ever steered me wrong before. Ummm….yeah…right.

As we cruised down I-5 towards the Oregon border I told Mike to be on the lookout for highway 503. This didn’t really sound right to me but that’s what the directions said. Surely there would be a few signs pointing us in the right direction.

Well there weren’t. And we didn’t want Highway 503, as Google Map suggested, we wanted highway 504, which would bring us to the visitor centers as the Mount St. Helens website told me. Yes, highway 503 could have taken us to Mount St. Helens, just not the part we wanted to get to that day.

It could have been worse. We turned around and got back on track quickly. Good thing too. Dek was starting to melt down.

Forest Learning Center

Just in time for a potty break we pulled up to the Forest Learning Center. God bless the architect who designed this spot. There was a playground just waiting for Dek to explore. Mike corralled Dek while I fed and changed Ty.

The odd thing about this place is that it is actually partially funded by the Weyerhaeuser Company. They make paper products and flooring; you know, the type of company that likes to take down forests. They were also instrumental in the salvaging of the timber that fell during the 1980 blast and have helped in the replanting of the forest for future generations.

The replanted sections of the forest are obvious. They take on an eye crossing uniformity. The pattern is so precise and intense that it reminded me an autostereogram poster; an image that lets you see a 3D image by focusing on the 2D pattern. I never did like those posters.

Inside the Forest Learning Center we walked through information stations describing the devastation the 1980 eruption caused, the salvage efforts and replanting strategy. Dek and Mike’s favorite exhibit was the Virtual Chopper Tour. They actually got to climb into a helicopter and pretend they were flying over part of the blast zone. Dek was hard pressed to go outside and actually look at the mountain we were there to see.

The kid exhibits were a bit beyond Dek. He just liked to push all of the buttons. There was one video about how a tree becomes lumber that captivated Dek’s attention. Big trucks and machines were involved. What kid wouldn’t want to stay there for hours?

Time was quickly passing us by so we hopped in the car and headed up to the Johnson Ridge Observatory. This was the spot where we would really see the side of the mountain that was blasted off. This is what Mike had been waiting for.

The drive up to the observatory wound through the landscape giving you a peak of the leading lady in our trip so far. Lakes reflected the brilliant sun as the road rose and fell with us along for the ride. So far our trip had actually been pretty quiet, but we would soon find out where all of the holiday crowds had congregated. 

Johnson Ridge Observatory

Pulling into the parking lot at the Johnson Ridge Observatory I was reminded that this was a major tourist attraction. Buses were pulling in with eager passengers ready to get out and stretch their legs. Families in minivans sat in the parking lot slathering on sunscreen and strapping toddlers into child carriers. I handed Dek a bagel to fuel up for his next round of running. This time we would be hiking up hill to check out the landscape that was still feeling the effects of the latest eruption.

Our $8 fee (the kids were still young enough to gain free admission) bought us a wristband that allowed us into the observatory and out onto the decks. The interior exhibition was too crowded for my taste. We poked around a bit, read a few of the survivor stories and then went outside. We were here to see the mountain after all.

Paved pathways ran along the outer perimeter of the center and up a hill so you could get a clear view of the mountain face. We were able to spot a pocket of methane gas creeping out of the surface. Could the lovely St. Helens be thinking of an encore? Who knows? She’ll belt another one out when she is good and ready.

The first leg of our crazy adventure was coming to an end. As the sun started to sink into the sky we packed it up and hit the road again. The ocean was calling my name and the kids had to get to bed. Mount St. Helens had been the perfect start to our trip but we still had a long way to go before we were home. Not that we were in any hurry to get back.

Know Before You Go

  • Mount Saint Helens, Spirit Lake Highway, Toutle, WA
    • Forest Learning Center, 33 miles from I-5 on Highway 504, open May 11 through September 3. Cost: FREE
    • Johnson Ridge Observatory, 52 miles from I-5 on Highway 504, Daily, 10 am – 6 pm mid-May through October. Cost: $8 per person
      • The cashier is in the observatory, not on the pathway as you walk up and view the mountain. Be sure to go in and pay your money. Yes, you could sneak a quick trip without paying, but the money goes to maintaining the facility and paying the hardworking rangers.
  • Strollers were easy to navigate at both visitor centers, but if you plan on doing any hiking a pack or baby carrier is a must
  • Don’t forget to pack water especially at the observatory. There is no shade as you walk around checking out the mountain from various angles.
  • Sunscreen is essential if you plan on spending anytime outside.
  • Walking shoes or sneakers are a must. Heels would be a killer as you try to  walk up the steep inclines.
  • Gift shops are located in each visitor center. Beware if your kids love to beg you to buy them something.

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Head over to Budget Travelers Sandbox for more photo adventures this week. 

written by Keryn Means

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12 comments

  1. Great pictures. I just returned from Washington but wasn’t able to stop at Mt. St. Helens. Looks like I missed out.

  2. Loved your Google Map story – we all have them, don’t we? I am still a fan of the old-fashioned paper map on the lap reference guide. And you certainly hit the right (non-cloudy) day to visit St. Helen’s. Nice photos.

  3. nicholl

    wow, that food looks amazing! Great photos!

    Drop by nichollvincent.blogspot.com and say hello! Have a wonderful day!

  4. Beautiful pics of Mt. St. Helens – I love a spontaneous road trip!

  5. Nice pics! I was at Mount Saint Helens twice, but didn’t have a camera the first time and had a disposable the second time. I Managed to get some good photos, but yours are much clearer. Definitely an interesting place to visit. Gives you an appreciation of nature’s power.

  6. Great pictures! Looks like a great place for a road trip. I’m fascinated by the fact that there is snow in July :)

  7. I like that you added all those practical tips for visitors. What a beautiful view and interesting place to visit. I was there a long time ago but don’t remember much.

  8. A spontaneous road trip doesn’t sound crazy idea to me! What fun you had. The view was certainly worth it- stunning!

  9. Sounds like a great trip out! Love that you took both boys and explored the area. Increible photos, and great tip about wearing shoes instead of heels!

  10. This looks like so much fun! I’m super happy that you linked up to the Mommy-Brain Mixer this week, friend! I hope to see you again next week! :)

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