I will never forget that day in 1980 when a mountain in Southwestern Washington suddenly exploded with the force of several nuclear bombs. The deadliest volcanic event in U.S. history laid waste to hundreds of square miles around Mt. St. Helens.
It sounds like an unlikely destination for a family vacation. But, in fact, the Mt. St. Helens Volcanic Monument in Washington is an amazing place to spend a day with kids. From areas of utter devastation to hidden hollows teeming with new life, a trip to Mt. St. Helens will be both fascinating and educational.
Located about 3 hours south of Seattle, and 90 minutes north of Portland, the monument is easy to reach via Interstate 5 and State Hwy 504 from the west. The first main visitor center after you leave I-5 is not worth stopping at unless someone needs a bathroom break. Instead, continue on another 25 miles or so to the Forest Learning Center, where you and your kids can begin your discovery of Mt. St. Helens.
The Forest Learning Center is free to enter, and will start you off with a better understanding of what the area was like before the volcano erupted, and just how much it changed after. Kids will love the wildlife and nature exhibits, and the eruption chamber will prepare them for the next leg of your visit. There’s also a playground at the Forest Learning Center, but you might want your kids to conserve their energy for the walking trails still ahead.
From there, you’ll want to drive straight to the end of the highway, where you’ll find yourself staring out at the stunning crater of the Mt. St. Helens volcano. My kids were initially disappointed not to find rivers of lava everywhere, but they soon discovered that the eruption left behind a wasteland of devastation that was just as amazing.
Johnston Ridge Observatory
There at the end of the road, on a bluff overlooking the crater just 5 miles away, is the Johnston Ridge Observatory. This will cost you an admission fee of $8 per person, but it’s well worth the price. First, go inside for the awesome and kid-friendly displays. Everything you need to know about volcanoes, earthquakes, geology, and that fateful day in 1980 is covered here. Kids will enjoy the widescreen multimedia presentation, which is followed by a little surprise that will take everyone’s breath away.
Armed with a new understanding of the history and geology of the area, you will all be ready to check it out up close on just a few of the nearly 200 miles of trails in and around the volcano. Yes, you can hike up to the rim of the crater. No, you don’t want to do it with young kids. It’s an exhausting 10-mile round trip, requiring special permits.
Instead, just outside the Johnston Ridge Observatory is the Eruption Trail, a paved 1-mile round trip hike that offers stunning views of the crater and surrounding blast zone. All along the way are educational kiosks, not to mention the remains of trees that were shattered like toothpicks by the blast wave from the 1980 eruption. Nothing else quite illustrates the power of the volcano than seeing and touching the jagged remains of what was once an old growth forest. It’s very humbling, to say the least.
Next, hop in your car and drive back along the Spirit Lake Highway about 5 miles to the Hummocks Trail #229. Here, you’ll find a small parking lot and the trailhead to a family-friendly 2.5-mile hike through the debris field left after the volcano’s massive sideways blast and avalanche. Hundreds of feet of mud, rock, and ash covered the thick, forested valley. Over the years, the resulting erosion has created an eerie place of conical mounds and wetlands.
Even 35 years later, there are places along the trail that look like the surface of the moon. But then, you round a corner to find a lush forest or a cool pond teeming with new life. In no other place around the volcano will you see all the different ecosystems that are returning to the area. My kids enjoyed this hike more than any other part of the Mt. St. Helens Monument. We took our time on the Hummocks Trail, stopping frequently to watch animals and insects, and to marvel at just how resilient nature can be.
With stops at the Forest Learning Center, Johnston Ridge Observatory, and the Hummocks Trail, you will have worn out your kids over the course of the day. There are over a dozen other trails all around Mt. St. Helens, with breathtaking views and stunning geology, but very few of them are appropriate for young children. You’ll just have to plan a return trip for when they’re older.
— Phil Corless
Phil Corless is an at-home dad of two living in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2004, he has been writing about fatherhood and family at the Idaho Dad blog. He believes the best way for kids to learn about the world is to travel through it.