Magazine article American Forests

Cataclysm Highway

Magazine article American Forests

Cataclysm Highway

Article excerpt

A new road, new facilities, and this guide can give you an unforgettable experience of the volcanic event of the century.

"This is it!"

So shouted geologist David Johnston over his radio on May 18, 1980. Then, within moments, Johnston, together with his jeep, trailer, and monitoring equipment, instantly disappeared from a ridge opposite Washington's Mount St. Helens.

It was North America's volcanic event of the century, and the stats are legendary: the 9,600-foot mountain quaking, erupting, then dropping 1,300 feet of its height in the biggest avalanche in recorded history; some 540 million tons of ash raining over a 22,000 square-mile area; 150,000 acres of prime timber instantly destroyed.

Thirteen years later, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, the crown jewel in the Forest Service's interpretive program, is making news again. This past May the spectacular $165-million Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, constructed by Washington State, began bringing motorists 47 miles up-mountain from Interstate 5 to a vantage point that looks right into the volcano's throat--still steaming.

But as I discovered several summers ago when the Forest Service allowed me to camp in the blast zone, that fateful explosion is only part of the story. The forests of Mount St. Helens, I found, were startling knowledgeable observers with the speed of their recovery, thanks largely to a huge man-helps-nature effort by Weyerhaeuser and the Forest Service.

A mere 10 years after Johnston's last utterance, I was camping in Clearwater Valley, in a lush stand of 15-foot-tall planted conifers, as 41 contented Roosevelt elk ambled by my campsite. And I munched on ripe berries and watched a blue heron swoop to catch breakfast in a trout-laden stream.

All this, mind you, on a site that had been utterly blasted, burned, then buried under sterile volcanic ash, and which was now replanted with some 9 million trees put in the ground by the Forest Service.

With completion of the Memorial Highway to Coldwater Ridge, the destructive force of the volcano and Mount St. Helens' surprising forest regeneration can now be read right from the highway.

Here, tailored especially for American Forests readers, is a guide to the "new" Mount St. Helens, including the major interpretive attractions, plus some special forest experiences that few know about.

Beginning on I-5 at Castle Rock exit (49 miles north of Portland, Oregon), turn onto State Route 504, the Spirit Lake Memorial High-way. Plan a full day on this 48-mile route, and add an additional day if you want to visit the remote places I'll recommend.

MILE 5: The Forest Service's main visitor center offers fine eruption exhibits, complete with a volcano walk-through. Local volunteer interpreters offer a personal touch.

MILE 33: North Fork Ridge, Weyerhaeuser's forest regeneration showplace.

MILE 37: Elk Rock viewpoint, where the Monument begins and nature is recovering at her own pace, provides the best view of the Toutle River avalanche and mud flow, and, far below, the scattered "bones" of the blown-down forest.

MILE 42: Castle Lake overlook, an overview of a lake created immediately following the eruption, and the lushly forested Mt. Margaret backcountry.

MILE 47: Newly opened Coldwater Ridge Visiter Center provides a galaxy of interactive exhibits and multi-media presentations--and the closest highway view into the crater. Meals are available here. And beginning July 15, anglers (with permit) can descend a new trail to Coldwater Lake for some highly promising fishing. …

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