Creating a theme for a touring adventure can easily be done out west. For example, an ancient pueblo tour would involve plotting native heritage destinations on a map and following the dotted line till as many ancient pueblos are experienced as possible in the time frame. A long paleontology theme vacation can easily be planned in northeastern Utah, while doing a volcano tour of the west would cover much more ground and there would be more travel time involved.
When planning a volcano tour of the west, there are a few of these geological wonders that are world famous and they simply must be logged in the travel plan. Mount St Helens definitely is a volcano that is at the top of the charts and because of the recent eruptions, a level of danger does exist that will naturally get the adrenaline flowing. Volcanoes are very intimidating places to be and knowing that Mount St Helens is still showing signs of being a major threat will cause many people to have second thoughts about visiting this majestic place.
Highway 504 is the pathway for touring the southern and western ends of Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument. This long road goes past several scenic overlooks on the way up to the crater observation facility at the end of the line. The best way to get a tour of Highway 504 underway is to first go to the Mount St Helens Visitor Center next to Silver Lake and Seaquest State Park. This Washington State Park was mentioned in a previous article and it is a good spot for setting up a basecamp.
Upon starting the journey up the mountain, the lower elevations are deeply forested and very little evidence of the disastrous pyroclastic flow that occurred back in 1980 can be noticed this far away. Businesses that cater to Mount St Helens tourism can be seen along the road during the first part of the drive. There are plenty of lodges and outdoor outfitters to choose from in this area. Volcano helicopter tours are available too. Best of all, this is the home of Bigfoot and some really cool memorabilia is available in the gift shops!
As the road steadily goes uphill, the signs of civilization start to disappear in the rearview mirror. The deep woods become thicker and darker, which adds to the mystery of what to expect up ahead. One of the first landmarks along the way is the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge and it is well worth checking out this historic site. There are several information placards at the bridge overlook area that explain everything from the local flora and fauna to details about the 1980 Mount St Helens eruption. In fact, one of the signs lets visitors know that this is the edge of the pyroclastic blast zone. When looking at the forest near the bridge, the thin sapling pine trees can be noticed sprouting up where the old growth trees were knocked down by volcanic ash a few decades ago.
Driving slow to take in the sights is part of the program when continuing uphill to the crater observation area. Stopping at each of the scenic overlooks is the best way to witness the changes that occurred after Mount St Helens blew its top. More and more pine tree saplings can be seen filling the forests and many more burnt gigantic logs can be seen laying on the ground when gradually heading uphill.
One of the first scenic areas along the road to the top is the Castle Lake Viewpoint. The valley down below now looks lush and green, but when gazing east toward the crater, the outlines of the massive thick flow of volcanic ash can be seen. The terrain becomes much rougher on the way uphill from this point and this is one of that last peaceful views to be experienced along the way.
On a heavy overcast day, like during my visit, not being able to see the mountain peaks or the crater rim adds even more to the mystery. The only clues are the fresh pine saplings and the thick pyroclastic flow that covers the valley floor. The pensive feeling that is experienced when near a volcano does become more intense when not being able to see how far away the source of danger is. The Castle Valley Viewpoint definitely is where the cold reality of Mount St Helens first sets in, especially on an overcast day!
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