Mount Saint Helens – Johnston Ridge Observatory 

 We reached the top of SR 504 at Johnston Ridge Observatory and saw what seemed to be an alien landscape. In the previous entries in this series, I talked about the surrounding forests and how the trees had been replanted. When you reach Johnston Ridge there aren’t any replanted forests. The National Forest Service opted to preserve the area closest to the volcano so that we could observe the natural march of life as the area recovers. As a result, you are surrounded not by forest, but by grasses and wildflowers. You see a lot of volcanic ash, and down below you will see where creeks have cut deeply to form new canyons.

You really want more than one day to fully enjoy the trip up Mount Saint Helens, stopping at each of the visitor centers. Johnston Ridge was not cooperating with us when we visited. There had been a power failure that closed the observatory, so we didn’t get to walk through what is said to be the finest exhibits on the mountain. We did, however, get to spend time photographing the view. At Johnston Ridge, you are within five miles on the crater and can easily see the dome that has been growing ever since the eruption in 1980.

The site is named for volcanologist David A. Johnston, who had camped on the site to observe Mount Saint Helens leading up to the eruption. He had been sending data and observations for the last few weeks before the mountain erupted. He was one of the people lost that morning, and his remains were never located. 

The observatory hosts videos of the eruption and the events that preceded, as well as a fine museum display for young and old to learn about how the eruption changed the landscape in moments. The parking area is much larger than at the other centers, so finding a space shouldn’t be a problem. Be prepared for a short walk up the hill from the parking lot to the observatory. On warm days, it’s not a bad idea to bring a bottle of water. There isn’t much shade (remember I said there were no forests there?) until you reach the main building.

Once you reach the top of the main path, you are presented with the best view of the mountain that you can get from the ground. You will definitely want to spend some time getting pictures of the mountain and the surrounding terrain. Off to your left, if you look carefully, you can see Spirit Lake. Once my brain started working again after taking in that view for a while, I found that there are paths taking off to climb higher up to a viewpoint overlooking the observatory and the valley. Another path runs along in front of the building and down to an amphitheater where you can listen to presentations by observatory staff during the peak season.

Johnston Ridge is open 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM daily from mid-May through October, but the opening date can be affected by the rate of snow melt. Check before you head up if you are in doubt.