Washington State has many amazing, beautiful places to visit, but none are quite as unique as Mount St. Helens. Before its eruption in 1980, Mount St. Helens stood tall and prominent in the western Washington sky. While not able to offer the same views today, Mount St. Helens still boasts extraordinary scenery and a landscape like none other.
Since moving to Washington in 2016, our family has visited Mount St. Helens three times. Once in January, once in July, and once in October. Each season brings different views and things to experience! Our kids have been going since they were five and nine years old and it’s still a place they love to explore.
Mount St. Helens Visitor Center
Traveling from Olympia, we take I-5 down to Exit 49 toward Castle Rock. A great first stop is the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center. There is so much information! It’s also a good place for a potty break if you are traveling with kids! In 2020, the Mount St. Helens Visitor’s Center closed temporarily due to Covid-19. Check current hours at the Visitor Center website.
After leaving the Visitor Center, continue along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. This road is an experience in itself! As you get closer to the eruption site, you can start to see the evidence left behind. In Kid Valley, there’s a place to take helicopter tours and see an A-Frame house that was partially buried in the eruption. Members of our family did the helicopter tour of the crater in 2018 and it was well worth it! At Milepost 33, there is the Forest Learning Center that has many exhibits and activities for kids. It’s also free!
One thing we always notice on Spirit Lake Memorial Highway is the trees. Planted after the eruption, these trees look almost pixelated! Our kids love this section of the road and we’ve even spotted elk wandering around!
After passing the Forest Learning Center, the mountain quickly comes into view. What a sight! Not only can you see the mountain from top to bottom, you can clearly see the crater and the path of the debris flow. There are several viewpoints to stretch your legs and snap some pictures.
Hike the Hummocks Trail
In the winter, Spirit Lake Memorial Highway closes right past Coldwater Lake. Luckily, access to the Hummocks Trail is right before the gate, on the right. A hummock is a knoll or mound. The Mount St. Helens hummocks were created by debris from its summit when it erupted. This is the perfect trail for kids! It’s only 2.4 miles and has 100 feet of elevation gain. It boasts amazing views of the mountain. Our kids love it! We have hiked this trail in both the summer and the winter and it’s a great trail no matter the season.
Visit Johnston Ridge Observatory
When the road is open (spring, summer, and fall), it’s also worth traveling on ahead to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Adults and children alike can learn all about the eruption with interactive exhibits. There’s also a video that we’ve watched twice on our visits. It keeps kids engaged and has a surprise finale! Outside the observatory, there are several different trails you can take. On a cloudless day, the mountain looks close enough to touch. In the summer, you will probably see wildflowers blooming. What you won’t have, though, are shade trees. Make sure to bring hats and plenty of sunscreen!
Although it’s a bit of a drive, Mount St. Helens is well worth a visit with kids of any age. There are so many educational opportunities and places to stop and move around. Pair your trip with either the book Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens by Patricia Lauber or I Survived: The Eruption of Mount St. Helens by Lauren Tarshis to add an extra element of learning and fun!
Since its eruption in 1980, the landscape surrounding Mount St. Helens has been constantly changing. So don’t just plan one trip. Take two or three! Each visit will bring something new and unique to see.