If you drive around Portland on a clear day you can get a good look at a number of Cascade peaks. Mt. Hood is omnipresent, of course. A few spots in town offer a glimpse of Mt. Adams. And under the right circumstances you can even see a large portion of Mt. Rainier. Then there’s Mt. St. Helens. The south side of St. Helens' summit is a common sight in Stumptown. But have you ever ventured up to the business end - the north side? This is the blast zone, and it is a whole other world from the tree-lined, glaciated face that you may have grown accustomed to. It is an area that is under the constant watchful eye of scientists of all sorts. Almost 35 years after its historic eruption, the recovery of flora and fauna is occurring at amazing speed. It is an utterly fascinating and inspiring place to learn about and explore, and the best place to do it is from the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
The Johnston Ridge Observatory (JRO) is just 5 ½ miles from the crater of the volcano, but it feels much closer. Perched on a precipice at the end of State Route 504, the observatory sits smack dab in the middle of the 1980 blast zone. The JRO isn’t all that large, but there are plenty of thoroughly engrossing and well laid out interpretive displays. There’s also a gift store, and a wide-screen theater. The theater alternates frequent showings of a pair of informative, awe-inspiring short films. The grand finale of each film is a stunner, especially if you visit on a clear day.
Some of what you’ll learn at the JRO is just how quickly life has returned to the blast zone. Perhaps the best way to check it out is to take a hike and see the changes in person. The .5-mile Eruption Trail is a paved, accessible path with interpretive displays that detail how the eruption shaped the landscape. However, if you really want to stretch your legs, take the Boundary Trail and hike out into the lunar landscape for as many miles as you see fit.
It doesn’t matter how many different places you’ve explored before, hiking in a blast zone is an entirely different ball of wax. Remnants of the eruption are everywhere, including downed trees strewn about like toothpicks and snags that still haunt the area all these years later. Simultaneously, life abounds. Fields of lupine and Indian paintbrush extend in every direction, and herds of elk roam freely. The Crater Glacier is the youngest and fastest growing glacier in the US and now produces Loowit Falls ; a 185-foot cascade that spills from the crater and can be seen from the Boundary Trail.
The north side of Mt St Helens is chock-full of hiking and mountain biking trails, lakes, viewpoints, and camping options. It’s eerily beautiful and begs to be explored. It offers an opportunity to witness firsthand Mother Nature’s rallying power. And the place to start your journey of discovery is the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
To get there take I-5 North to exit 49. Follow State Route 504 east for roughly 50 miles to its end and the parking area for JRO. The observatory is open daily from 10am to 6pm mid May to late October. There is an $8 per person Monument Pass fee and pets are not allowed.