The worst luck

How to Visit Mount St. Helens While the Visitor Center Is Closed

The volcano's observatory is off-limits thanks to—what else—a natural disaster.

By Allison Williams May 17, 2024

The classic view from Harry's Ridge trail is a lot harder to reach these days due to road closures.

Even 44 years after the big boom, the eruption of Mount St. Helens stands as one of Washington's most dramatic moments. But when this year's May 18 anniversary comes along, there will be little staring thoughtfully into the kilometers-wide crater. After a road washout in 2023, the volcano is more isolated than ever.

Johnston Ridge Observatory, located at the end of State Route 504—better known as Spirit Lake Highway—was named for the scientist who died there during the 1980 eruption. The visitor center includes exhibits, trailheads, and a dramatic window overlooking the blown-out mountain. But this year it has no actual visitors.

On May 14, 2023, a landslide three miles from the end-of-the-road observatory dumped 300,000 cubic yards of mud, rocks, and other natural material on State Route 504. The 85-foot bridge that spanned the outlet flow from Spirit Lake was damaged. Washington State Department of Transportation closed the road another few miles away, stranding the observatory.

A dozen visitors trapped up-road of the washout were helicoptered out, and their cars—two of them rental vehicles way past their return date—were retrieved via a temporary reroute two months later. WSDOT calls the incident "catastrophic" and currently estimates that access to Johnston Ridge will not be restored until 2026—the latter half of 2026.

The Spirit Lake Memorial Highway won't fully reopen until 2026—at least.

But you can't keep a good volcano down. Appreciation is still available at the Forest Service's Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake and Weyerhaeuser's Forest Learning Center. Both are on the same highway but before the closure.

And nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute runs a rentable Science and Learning Center, open to the public and available for group rentals, on the same route. The group also does guided trips around the dramatic landscape, including summit climbs, a skywatching overnight, and a trek into the crater itself. (What's that like? Well, we jumped on a trip with emeritus board member Bill Nye the Science Guy in 2020.)

Many hikes are still open, including the popular Hummocks Trail near the MSH Institute's building. Summit climbs still go from the south part of the mountain—find permit and other relevant information at the institute—and the less-visited east side is still reachable through unpaved roads. (Though construction on a forest road washout and infrastructure around Spirit Lake will close various parts of the east side on weekdays through 2027.) Views into the crater are available from above via a Kenmore Air volcano sightseeing flight.

And this 44th birthday is also a chance to learn more about our flat-top mountain. If you've ever wondered why in the heck Mount St. Helens isn't a national park, we know. We also tracked the area's natural highlights (and what's making a comeback) in the region, and we traced the wild history of a volcano that will not stay quiet.

Show Comments