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Cataclysm highway.

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.


For your second day, retrace some of my forest-oriented meanderings on Mount St. Helens' back roads, which you can reach from Randle, 47 miles east of Exit 68 on I-5. Be sure to secure detailed maps from the Forest Service, get local directions, and plan a full day.

Old-growth near Iron Creek. A small but choice stand of Douglas-fir old-growth (400 to 500 years old) on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Forest Route 24.

Old-growth at Quartz Creek. One-mile gravel road off Forest Route 26. Fine Doug-firs with diameters to about three feet. Limited campsites here.

Spirit Lake and forest blowdown. This is the heart of the blown-down forest. The lake, to which you can hike, is filled with floating logs. Take Forest Route 99 for this must-see attraction.

Clearwater Valley overlook. A sweeping view of the Forest Service's tree regeneration project where I camped, with splendid old-growth set-asides to the east. Forest Route 25 practically straddles the edge of the blast zone here.

Research forest at Cedar Flats. On Route 25, still on Gifford Pinchot National Forest, spend a half-hour on a delightful ancient-forest loop trail through a mixed stand of old-growth cedar and other species, which is being preserved for research purposes.

In case you haven't guessed, the lure of Mount St. Helens is not about to subside. Matter of fact, look for me there this summer--I can't stay away!

A Helping Hand from Weyerhaeuser

North Fork Ridge view point, a must-see stop at Mile 33, offers a startling story of forest recovery. Here on Weyerhaeuser's 441,000-acre Mount St. Helens Tree Farm, you'll see how the eruption sent avalanche and mud-flow debris 14 miles down the Toutle Valley, leaving some 3 billion cubic yards of material, some of it 400 feet deep.

You'll see where Weyerhaeuser, after salvaging 850 million board-feet of timber, planted 14.6 million seedlings (mostly Douglas-fir in the lower elevations and noble fir beginning at 2800 feet), often by digging through the ash to find soil in a costly, labor-intensive process whose outcome was a question mark.

Some of the Doug-firs have grown to 35 feet in the 12 years since they were planted, according to Ross Graham, a forester who heads the Weyerhaeuser interpretive effort here. (As it turned out, the ash acted as a marvelous mulch, trapping moisture in the soil below for use by the seedlings, which thrived.)

Look higher on Mount St. Helens where the National Monument boundary begins, and you'll see a clean line as Weyerhaeuser's plantation leaves off and, in an area being left as-is for scientific study, nature's slower reforestation begins. A stark sweep of gray ash, sparse trees, and struggling forbs characterizes this area.

Now look down at the "new" Toutle River valley, and you may spot part of a herd of some 350 elk that now live in the grass-planted valley. Their benefactors: Weyerhaeuser, Washington's Department of Wildlife, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Come back here next year, and you'll see a $3 million Weyerhaeuser-sponsored visitor center featuring a "Return of the Forest" theme, with special learning experiences for kids.

The author, whose work appears regularly in these pages, has helicoptered, driven, camped, and hiked on Mount St. Helens over the past several years.
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Title Annotation:Forest Health; includes related article; Spirit Lake Memorial Highway
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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