Mount St Helens

Trip Planning

Mount St. Helens

We recently spent an amazing 25 days exploring the Pacific Northwest, and the single most surprising thing was how much we enjoyed our stop in the Mount St. Helens region.

To be completely honest, we pretty much expected a cool photo op and not much more.  Look kids…a really big volcano. Smile!

Well. It was in fact an amazing photo op. But it was also so much more.

Mount St. Helens ended up being one of our very favorite experiences, and we all wished we had more time to explore the area. In fact, we are already planning a return trip when the boys are old enough to do the 10-mile round trip hike up to the summit.

So, what is there to do at Mount St. Helens besides look at a big volcano? Here are our top recommendations for your visit.

The West Side: Exploring Route 504 from Silver Lake to Johnston Ridge Observatory

1. Start at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake.

Get your map and chat with a ranger about your plans for the day. Even though we usually have a game plan before we arrive at a national or state park, it’s great to get some feedback from the experts. You will also find a chronological timeline of events leading up to the explosion, an educational movie, and a step-in model of the volcano.

2. Drive to the Forest Learning Center.

This awesome place is on your way up Route 504 to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Whatever you do, DON’T skip stopping here. The Learning Center is run by the Wyerhaeuser Logging Company and is chock full of hands-on exhibits and jaw-dropping news footage of the time immediately before and after the volcanic eruption. The children’s area was particularly impressive, and we pretty much had to drag our boys away from the wildlife displays and interactive learning experiences.

3. Hike the Hummocks Trail.

This 2.5-mile loop trail is located in between the Forest Learning Center and the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The relatively flat trail offers beautiful views of Mount St. Helens as it meanders through fields of debris left from the 1980 eruption and mudslide. Then it continues through the recuperating alder forests, ponds and wetlands.

4. Visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Even though this monument is run by the National Forest Service, your annual national parks pass is honored for admission. You do not want to miss the excellent 16-minute movie with a show-stopping ending (no spoilers from us!).  There are also options for short ridge hikes and lots of daily ranger programs.

5. Eat at the Fire Mountain Grill

We packed a lunch in our cooler, but at the end of a very busy day the Fire Mountain Grill hit the spot for a yummy dinner. The porch out back has a pretty water view, and the menu offers plenty of hearty fare like chicken and dumplings, steak, burgers, and coconut prawns. We also rewarded ourselves with the mountain berry cobbler and chocolate lava cake for dessert.

The South Side: Forest Road 83 to Ape Canyon

1. Explore the Ape Cave Lava Tube

If you ask our boys what their favorite experience this summer was, they’d tell you that the Ape Cave was the coolest thing ever. Make sure you dress warm since the underground temperature is a chilly 42 degrees, and bring a flashlight or headlamp for everyone in the family.  You can also rent lanterns at the entrance of the cave. There are two hiking options: the lower cave is an easy 1.5 miles round trip, and the upper cave is also 1.5 miles but more challenging with rock scrambles and tight squeezes. Choose wisely and have fun!

2. Hike the Trail of Two Forests or the June Lake Trail

The Trail of Two Forests is a short interpretive trail that takes you through an old growth forest entombed by a 1,900-year-old lava flow. If you are up for more of a challenge, the June Lake trail is a little over three miles and runs along a rushing stream before reaching the lake.

3. Swim at Lake Merwin, Yale Reservoir, or Swift Reservoir

One of our great disappointments was that we did not bring our swimsuits when we visited the south side of Mount St. Helens. There are many day use areas along Forest Road 83 that offer great places for an afternoon dip. Next time we will follow up our hikes with a nice swim in one of these reservoirs.

4. Eat at the Lone Fir Café

We didn’t expect very much from this little dive in the town of Cougar, but we were all quite pleased with our meals. The older boys gobbled up a BLT and club sandwich, while our little guy devoured the pizza. The service was friendly and the beer selection was impressive.

Back at Basecamp

During our trip to the Mount St. Helens region, we stayed at the Silver Cove RV Resort in Silver Lake. We couldn’t have been happier with this beautiful campground, which offered the perfect basecamp where we could unwind and relax after our adventurous and action-packed days. During our stay there we loved renting paddleboards and kayaks on-site to paddle around in the lake.  The staff was also warm and welcoming…and the freshly brewed coffee in the camp store was free.

Our four-day visit to this area went way too fast, and we were all a bit sad to leave. However, we will surely be back in the future, since now we know that a trip to Mount St. Helens is so much more than a photo op…it really is an epic RV destination.

Jeremy Puglisi

The RV Atlas

Jeremy and Stephanie Puglisi are the co-hosts of the weekly RV Atlas and Campground of the Week podcasts and the RV Atlas blog. They are also the authors of See You at the Campground: A Guide to Discovering Community, Connection, and a Happier Family in the Great Outdoors, and Where Should We Camp Next: A 50 State Guide to Amazing Campgrounds and other Unique Outdoor Accommodations, and the Acadia National Park Adventure Guide. After buying their very first pop-up camper more than 10 years ago, Jeremy and Stephanie caught the RV bug in a big way, and now spend over 70 nights a year in their travel trailer with their three sons, Theo, Max, and Wes, and sweet Maggie the pup. You can follow along on their adventures (and misadventures) over at RV Atlas.