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Mount Saint Helens

From Portland Hikers Field Guide

Mount Saint Helens. A memorial commemorates the 57 people who died in the 1980 eruption (Jeff Statt)
This spine has grown from nothing to several thousand feet high since October of 2004 (Jeff Statt)
Climber at the edge of crater rim. Mount Adams in the background. (Jeff Statt)
Looking into the crater from the summit. The tree-filled Spirit Lake in the background. (Jeff Statt)
Mount St. Helens just prior to the 1980 eruption. Photo: USGS
USFS Map of the area

For hike information see the Mount Saint Helens Hike

Contents

Volcanic History

Mount St. Helens is the newbie on the northwest volcanic block. The mountain began erupting at least 40,000 years ago and has been active much of the time since. Nine separate eruptive cycles have been labeled, lasting from 100 years to 5,000 years in length. Dormant intervals existed between these major periods. The mountain is young and dynamic; the earlier Spirit Lake was only 3,500 years old and the entire surface of the mountain is less than 2,200 years in age.

A major eruption happened in about 1800 and the mountain was intermittently active from 1831 to 1857, when the Goat Rocks dome was emplaced high on the north face of the mountain. Reports of minor eruptions followed in 1898, 1903 and 1921, after which the mountain settled down and local people pretty much forgot it was a volcano.

All of that changed, of course in March of 1980, when the mountain awoke. Early earthquakes and steam eruptions opened a crater near the summit and covered the mountain snow with a layer of black ash. On May 18, the mountain erupted in one of the larger volcanic eruptions in the 20th century. The entire north face and summit area of the mountain slid north into the Toutle River Valley. A hot blast scoured the area north of mountain killing everything for miles. A mudflow swept down the North Fork of the Toutle River burying houses and roads. In eastern Washington, day turned to night as the ash cloud from the ongoing eruption blocked out the sun.

Today, the land is recovering from the devastation and even the mountain has begun to rebuild herself. A new series of lava domes began forming in the crater in late 2004. This ongoing eruption might be a more typical eruption than that of 1980, with rock quietly surfacing and crumbling down the sides into steep rocky slopes as the rock cools.

Human History

Native Americans called the mountain Louwala-Clough, appropriately enough translating to "Smoking Mountain". The name St. Helens like Baker, Rainier and Hood comes from Captain Vancouver in 1792. This time, however, rather than a British naval officer, the mountain was named for a personal friend, Alleyne Fitzherbert, known as Baron St. Helens.

Climbing information

Mount St. Helens is open for climbing, although the interior of the crater remains strictly off limits. The climb is a physical challenge, but requires no special skill and no equipment other than good boots, warm clothes, sunglasses and water. Permits are required to climb the mountain and the number of hikers is restricted to 100 each day. Permit reservations are available online at the Mount Saint Helens Institute website.

Hiking notes

Mount St. Helens isn't a dominant, inspiring view like the other major northwest volcanoes. The peak is too low to sustain year around snow and the mountain is too new to have the glacier carved crags that characterize mountains like Mount Hood and Mount Rainier. Still, St Helens is a major piece of the northwest hiking landscape. The 1980 eruption created a one-of-a-kind environment, particularly on the north side of the mountain. The area is naturally recovering, but it is still a land of open, raw views and summer wildflowers. The Loowit Trail circles the mountain, weaving in and out of areas devastated centuries ago and areas devastated mere decades ago.

Photo Gallery

See the Mount Saint Helens photo gallery

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Contributors

Portland Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.