Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 18, 2015

At the Scene of the Cataclysm

May 18, 1980 was the day of the cataclysm. Not a word to be tossed around lightly, except by politicians defeated soundly at the polls. That day Mount. St. Helens, a stratovolcano in the Cascade Range in southern Washington state exploded. A massive eruption blew off the top of the mountain, reducing its height from 9,677 ft (2,950 m) to 8,363 ft (2,549 m). The blast converted hundreds of square miles of forest wilderness to wasteland, triggered mudslides that flowed nearly 50 miles and killed an estimated 57 humans, in addition to thousands of wild creatures. It was, in one word, big, even as cataclysms go.

Mt. St. Helens is about 50 miles of straight-line distance northeast of Portland, Oregon. In our current series of blog posts we’re exploring Oregon. A day trip from Portland to see Mt. St. Helens is an option when you visit. We don’t mean to slight Oregon’s own spectacular Mt. Hood, 11,249 feet — also a stratovolcano — about 50 miles east-southeast of Portland and another reasonable day trip. It’s simply that we’ve been to Mt. St. Helens. We look forward to seeing Mt. Hood on another trip. Here’s Mt. Hood viewed from Hood River, about 25 miles to the north.

Mount Hood Brad Nixon 0054 (640x633)

This article describes an approach to the mountain from the northwest. There are other routes that approach from the east and the south (from which one accesses the climb to the peak). Start your planning at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument website.

From Portland, drive north in Interstate 5, then take Rt. 504 east. It’s about 70 miles of driving, 90 minutes or so if you don’t stop to look at anything en route, if that’s possible. Here is a vista of the mountain from a distance. That’s Mt. Adams peeking over the horizon on the left on a brilliantly clear late July day.

Mt St Helens Brad Nixon 2058 640

Gas, food and other amenities aren’t plentiful along the route. Take snacks and plenty of water.

One worthwhile stop is Coldwater Lake.

Coldwater Lake Brad Nixon 2082 640

Coldwater Lake Brad Nixon 2075 640

The easy walk around the shore is replete with flowers, insects, birds and, in the clear water, trout.

wildflowers Brad Nixon 2080 640

trout Brad Nixon 2088 640

The route climbs past views of the surrounding area and overlooks before reaching the Johnston Ridge Observatory. From there, you gaze nearly due south across a broad expanse of eroded land —  once forest — at the mountain and its crater.

Mt St Helens Brad Nixon 2097 640

It’s a memorable, sweeping landscape that needs the human eye to do it justice. Photo panoramas are poor substitutes.

St Helens pano Brad Nixon 640

Have your binoculars with you. The details of the blasted landscape and the changes wrought by 35 years of erosion and regrowth are endlessly fascinating.

Mt St Helens Brad Nixon 2110 640

Looking to the left and behind one are nearly-bare slopes covered with the remains of forest trees blown down by the immense blast of the eruption.

Mt St Helens Brad Nixon 2125 640

Life, as it will, is returning.

Indian Paintbrush Brad Nixon 2103 640

Be wary of wily scavengers on the lookout for unattended lunches.

chipmunk Marcy Vincent 2674 640

Note that on our summer 2014 visit, the then-new Observatory was extremely interesting, with more informative exhibits than we had time to appreciate fully, but it’s not a full-blown visitor center familiar to U.S. National Parks patrons, and food options were limited. Check updated information to determine current status for your visit. If you have helpful tips for our readers, please leave a comment.

Another unforgettable day under western skies. While there’s vastly more of Oregon to see, it’s time to head home to Los Angeles.

This is the final entry in of a series about traveling in Oregon. CLICK HERE to see the first. Use the navigation below to see earlier posts.

© Brad Nixon 2015, 2017. Ground squirrel photo © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.


  1. I have never been to Oregon, and knew little about the state until I read your blog entries. Thanks so much for your beautifully prepared travelogue, both the writing and the photos. It’s easy to see why you find the state so enchanting.


  2. I loved seeing the new landscape, and also the photos of the blown away dome! Such power of nature not seen in our lifetime. Thanks for such an informative account.


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