Summer is upon us. The kids are out of school, the days are longer, warmer, and occasionally even cloud-free. It’s the time of year when just traveling around town you’ll catch glimpses of Cascade peaks covered in snow. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll smile and say to yourself, “Soon”. You’ve no doubt seen the view of the south side of Mt. St. Helens from Portland, but have you ventured up to the business end? The north side of Mt. St. Helens is the blast side, and it is dramatic.
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 short films that everyone in the family should enjoy. And the grand finale of each film is stunning, 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. In my opinion the best way to check it out for yourself is via-trail. The .5 mile Eruption Trail is a paved, accessible trail 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. Hiking in the blast zone is fascinating and inspiring. It’s also a fun outing that provides stunning views and ample opportunity for the kids to learn about geology and native flora and fauna. Remnants of the blast are everywhere, including the downed trees and snags that haunt the area thirty-plus years later. In summer though, life abounds. Fields of lupine and Indian paintbrush extend in every direction, and herds of elk roam freely.
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.