Perfect Mt St Helens day trip from Seattle or Portland
Posted On September 24, 2021
Are you a volcano lover? Nature lover? If so then you absolutely must do a Mt St Helens day trip if you are anywhere near Seattle or Portland. On May 18, 1980, Loowit (Mt St Helens) erupted with incredible force, enough to incinerate miles of forest, unleash an epic mudslide that took out part of Interstate 5 and send an ash cloud miles into the sky that blocked out the sun for much of the west and sent ash traveling around the entire globe multiple times.
Loowit (Mt St Helens) is a fascinating place to learn about the destruction of the 1980 volcanic eruption and how life returns. You can hike trails, explore epic views, and learn about the science of volcanoes and how ecosystems change and recover after such a disruptive event. It’s an incredible experience that you won’t find anywhere else in the world!
Loowit means “smoking mountain” and is the homeland of the Cowlitz People and the Klickitat People.
Passes Needed: Monument Pass (purchase at the Johnston Ridge Observatory) – $8 per adult (free if you have an annual federal lands pass)
Cell Service: None along the Spirit Lake Highway or in Mt St Helens National Monument.
Dog Friendly: Dogs are not allowed on trails in Mt St Helens National Monument. In addition there is no shade at the Johnston Ridge Observatory so it is not safe to leave your dog in the car either. I recommend NOT bringing your dog to Mt St Helens.
Accessibility: Johnston Ridge has a ADA accessible parking and an ADA accessible restroom as well as a short accessible hiking trail through the destruction of the blast zone. Seaquest State Park also has accessible restrooms, parking an an ADA accessible trail.
Services: Make sure you have a full take of gas and bring plenty of food and water with you. Once you leave I-5, there are no services.
Summer is the best time to visit Mt St Helens, since it really isn’t accessible in the winter. The Spirit Lake Highway which takes you from I-5 to Johnston Ridge is only open in the summer, generally mid-May through October.
I recommend going in July because that gives you the best chance of clear weather, no lingering snow and not too much haze yet. June, August and September are also excellent times to go. If you are not a fan of hot weather, I recommend September because it is a bit cooler than July.
July has stunning wildflowers at Johnston Ridge.
Much of Mt St Helens National Monument has no trees and no shade so it can be VERY hot. Make sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection!
How to get to Mt St Helens from Seattle
Mt St Helens is a long drive from Seattle and if you’re a camper, you might want to consider spending the weekend at Seaquest State Park. You can still do a Mt St Helens day trip from Seattle, no problem!
Head south on I-5 past Chehalis. South of Chehalis, take Exit 68 for US Highway 12. I recommend a short but worthwhile detour and leg stretch to Lewis and Clark State Park. This small state park has an impressive stand of old growth trees like the many that were leveled in the Mt St Helens 1980 eruption. When I did day trip tours to Mt St Helens from Seattle, we always stopped here so people could see the kinds of ancient forest that once existed in the volcanic landscape before the eruption.
There’s a short nature trail that gives you a chance to stretch your legs and use the restroom a couple hours into your trip which is a good time for a break. A Washington Discover Pass is needed to park here.
Once you exit I-5 on to Highway 12, look for Jackson Highway on the right in 4.5 miles. This will take you straight to Lewis and Clark State Park in just a couple miles.
When you leave Lewis and Clark State Park, continue south on Jackson Highway for five miles and then turn left onto State Highway 505. In 14 miles, turn left on State Highway 504, the Spirit Lake Highway. If you want to check out Silver Lake or Seaquest State Park, take a right here to back track about 12 miles. You can also return this way back to the freeway, although it’s slightly longer.
The Spirit Lake Highway takes you straight to the Johnston Ridge Observatory
Driving time from Seattle to Johnston Ridge Observatory (without stops) takes about 3 hours.
How to get to Mt St Helens from Portland
Mt St Helens is a shorter drive from Portland. To get there, take I-5 north into Washington and take exit 49 in Castle Rock. Turn right on State Highway 504, the Spirit Lake Highway. The Spirit Lake Highway dead ends at the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
Driving time from Portland to Johnston Ridge Observatory (without stops) takes about 2 hours.
Things to do on a Mt St Helens day trip
Johnston Ridge Observatory
Johnston Ridge Observatory is named for the late volcanologist David Johnston, who’s famous radio broadcast told alerted the scientific community that the expected eruption was happening, just moments before he died in the eruption. Once you arrive, it’s easy to see why this was the perfect place to observe the volcano as it became more active in early 1980.
Today, the observatory has exhibits as well as an excellent movie about the eruption and the way the ecosystem is recovering from the eruption. Make sure to stay all the way through the credits because at the end the curtain pulls up to show a dramatic view straight into the crater of Mt St Helens that you don’t want to miss!
There are also restrooms here, a couple of short nature trails as well as longer trails if you wish to head out deeper into the blast zone.
Stop at the Coldwater Lake recreation area and boat launch to see a gorgeous and huge lake that has only existed since 1980! Massive mud flows and landslides dammed up Coldwater Creek creating a new lake right before our eyes.
You can do a lovely hike along the lake here, or you can just head out to the boardwalk on the short Birth of a Lake trail to learn all about how the eruption created the lake.
Forest Learning Center
It’s easy to overlook this stop, but don’t do that! This is a great opportunity to learn about forestry, see a great view and possibly even some elk from the Elk Viewpoint.
The Forest Learning Center is operated by Weyerhauser, Washington’s big logging company. Keep that in mind as you explore the exhibits, but don’t dismiss it for that reason either. This is a really great place to learn all about forestry! There’s also a short paved trail here with some amazing views and a definitely chance to see elk in the valley below.
Buried A-frame and Bigfoot Statue
This is an absolute must stop for anyone who likes weird roadside attractions! This is one of the best ones in Washington.
An A-frame is a type of cabin that is common in the Pacific Northwest, usually made of roof with a very steep roof. Several hours after the 1980 eruption of Mt St Helens, a massive mud flow came down the Toutle River, destroying plenty of roads, bridges, cars and buildings. The A-frame here is a great place to see some of that destruction! You can see how the mud filled the cabin up to the second floor and you can peak inside this cabin that is frozen in time.
There is also a Bigfoot statue (28 feet high!) and a Bigfoot giftshop here.
Silver Lake Visitor Center and Seaquest State Park
If you’re coming from Portland, I highly recommend stopping here! If you’re coming from Seattle this is slightly out of your way, but still worth a stop. This is also the best camping situation near Mt St Helens and a great place to spend a weekend.
The visitor center has a seismograph showing the current volcanic activity on Mt St Helens as well as a step in volcano model which is pretty cool! Outside there is a boardwalk through a wetland with many birds and a view of Mt St Helens.
Seaquest State Park also offers swimming and hiking trails. They also have yurts you can reserve for a camping experience with no tent required!
Hiking at Mt St Helens
While the summit climb is awesome, it is also super hard and an all day adventure that takes plenty of preparation. There are many other wonderful hikes you can do on a Mt St Helens day trip that are much shorter and easier and give you plenty of opportunity to soak up big views, epic volcanic landscapes and scenes of nature recovering from the destruction of the 1980 eruption.
There is no cell service and no shade, so make sure to be prepared, especially with food, water and sun protection.
These are a few of my favorite hikes in Mt St Helens National Monument.
Location: Coldwater Lake
Distance: up to 9 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: up to 600 feet round trip
Special Features: Walk along the shore of a naturally created lake from the 1980 eruption! Epic views and cool breezes too.
Location: Coldwater Lake
Distance: 2.5 mile loop
Elevation Gain: 300 feet
Special Features: a unique and weird landscape of piles of avalanche debris from the 1980 eruption, some of which are several hundred feet high.
Location: Johnston Ridge
Distance: Up to 8 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: Up to 1000 feet
Special Features: This hike is harder than it looks on paper, because there is no shade whatsoever and it can be extremely dusty. It is still an incredible hike with astounding views the entire time. You’ll be in the heart of the blast zone with views of Mt St Helens and Spirit Lake. You do not need to go all the way to Harry’s Ridge to experience this awesome trail, you can turn around at any point.
Location: Johnston Ridge
Distance: Up to 10.4 miles
Elevation Gain: Up to 1100 feet
Special Features: This is the best trail for those who really want to get as far as possible into the blast zone! You’ll start the same way as Harry’s Ridge and then divert down into the pumice plain and towards the crater. Like Harry’s Ridge, you don’t need to be destination oriented here, you can follow the trail even a short distance to get a feel for this spectacular volcanic landscape.
Other interesting things to do at Mt St Helens
The list of things to do on a Mt St Helens day trip above are all along the Spirit Lake Highway between I-5 and the Johnston Ridge Observatory. This is the best place for visitors to go on a day trip, but there are some other really cool things to see and do in Mt St Helens National Monument. I think they are worth including here in case you have more time.
Located on the other side of Mt St Helens from the blast zone of the 1980 eruption, Ape Cave was created by Mt St Helens about 2000 years ago!
It is what’s known as a lava tube, where hardening lava creates a tube that provides some protection from colder air outside, allowing the lava to continue to flow liquid a longer distance. After everything cools, it creates a long, narrow cave.
You can go inside (make sure you have fresh headlamp batteries and a back up light!) and go up to a couple of miles inside the lava tube.
Ape Cave is on the south side of Mt St Helens near the town of Cougar. It’s a two and a half hour drive from Johnston Ridge, a three and a half hour drive from Seattle and an hour and a half drive from Portland.
Windy Ridge is on the northeast side of Mt St Helens National Monument and is harder and longer to get to. This is the best place for visitors who don’t like crowds!
It’s only open during the summer months and involves a lot of driving on forest service roads. There are quite a few forest service campgrounds near by.
Windy Ridge provides the same epic views of Mt St Helens and many wonderful hiking trails.
Climb Mt St Helens
Climbing to the summit of Mt St Helens and looking into the crater is one of the top three experiences of my life! I’ve done it several times and it’s absolutely incredible. It is a challenging, long, steep and exposed all day adventure that requires preparation.
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years. I've been a tour guide in both Alaska and Washington and I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best low key adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!
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