Overlooks along Spirit Lake Highway
The most popular approach to St Helens is from the west up WA 504, the Spirit Lake Highway. Along the way are several overlooks and visitor centers that provide insights into various aspects of the history of the mountain and a series of views of the the peak and the valley of the North Fork of the Toutle River.
1. Silver Lake Visitor Center
(operated by the State of Washington)
Views to the mountain on clear days, exhibits, a film showing, restrooms and, in summer, espresso. Silver Lake itself was formed about 2500 years ago when lahars dammed Outlet Creek. Nearby is Seaquest State Park with camping and picnic facilities. The best access to the lake is at the State Park. They have a display of the volcano cam that will alert you to fogged in conditions at the peak.
2. Sediment Retention Structure Overlook
(constructed by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
The debris avalanche filled the valley with so much erodible material that the Toutle River is choked with sediment and threatens to overwhelm downstream communities on the Cowlitz River. To relieve some of this pressure, a sediment retention dam was built across the North Fork. The overlook is not particularly scenic and only shows the retention structure, but the story is an interesting one.
3. Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center
(operated by Cowlitz County)
Currently the last food service along the route, there are excellent restroom facilities. This is the principal jump-off point for helicopter tours. There is a nice exhibit of contemporary newspaper coverage of the eruption.
4. The Forest Learning Center
(constructed by Weyerhauser)
Excellent views up and down the valley. Exhibits tell the story of salvaging and replanting the forests leveled by the explosion.
5. Castle Lake Overlook
Don't yield to the temptation to pass this one up. This is the best spot to see the debris avalanche and its effects, including the debris-dammed Castle Lake across the valley. Landslide-dammed lakes are common and present a severe hazard of flash flooding when the dam is overtopped by rising lake waters, which cut through the loose dam material almost instantaneously, releasing all the lake water in a single surge. One of the urgent tasks after the eruption was to install drainage systems for the big lakes around the mountain.
Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center
While the center is closed, take advantage of the nearby Coldwater Lake picnic area (6) and its associated trails and the Hummocks Trail (7). Coldwater Lake is another body of water dammed off by the debris avalanche. It is a spectacular site in the early morning. The Hummocks trail is at the hear of the St Helens story and you can't appreciate what went on after the eruption, without walking through these deposits.