Oregon

The Drama of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

Breathtaking Mount St. Helens, smothered in clouds
Elle’s gorgeous close-up of vibrant Indian Paintbrush.

When friends Mark and Elle passed through McMinnville on their way to Washington, I jumped at the chance to drive north with them. I was eager to see Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument again. The 8,366-foot volcano had erupted in 1980 at the end of my first year in college and the consequences of that explosion – and others that followed – dominated the news all that summer. I’d been there on a family trip but it was too hot to hike. There was a vertiginous ridge top hike still etched in my memory and I wanted another chance to walk it.

The volcanic blast snapped trees at their base and flattened forests.

We started at Johnston Ridge Observatory and wound up the hill opposite the volcano, past telltale tree stumps, alder shrubs and steep banks of wildflowers, then struck out on the ridge line with a sheer drop to the valley floor hundreds of feet below and a yawning space between us and the quiet volcano. Elle snapped pix of indian paintbrush flowers while Mark and I watched clouds roil, gather, and thin out in places, allowing bursts of sunlight that l brightened the valley’s green pastures and darkened its crevices.

That giant’s terrifying power made itself known on May 18, 1980. Pressure had collected inside the mountain until it bulged out the side. A 5.1 earthquake nudged the bulge until it gave way, creating the biggest landslide in US history. This in turn upset volatile gasses that exploded with molten lava and rock, obliterating everything in an eight mile radius, with a power of about 24 megatons. No volcanic explosion like it had ever happened in recorded history in this country.

Surveying the scoured valley, changed forever by the explosion. We were so high above the valley that the resident elk looked like tiny dots.

Fifty-seven people were killed, including the volcanologist David A. Johnston for whom the ridge and observatory are named. Their names are carved in stone on the trail. Inside the Johnston Observatory, panels tell the stories of harrowing escapes, near death, and lost companions and loved ones. Two movies explain what happened leading up to the explosion and show footage captured by one of the intrepid survivors.

Learning about the geology of the Northwest and places like Mount St. Helens helps me understand my new surroundings better, from the mundane – like, why my backyard is full of clay, argh! – to the spectacular, like the snow-covered mountains visible from the Willamette Valley. Revisiting Mount St. Helens deepened my appreciation of the powerful forces working underfoot every moment of every day.

When was the last time you visited a National Monument? Check out this map of all the National Monuments and start planning your trip today.

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