Visiting Mount Saint Helens - Our Day Trip
Last July we went on a family camping trip in Washington about an hour from Mount Saint Helens. It was the absolute best vacation we’ve ever done this close to Portland. Although the campground was gorgeous on its own (the trees!!!), the best part was the hour drive we took up highway 504 to see Mount Saint Helens up close, stopping at all the viewpoints along the way (on the north side) and finally making it to the last stop. It was incredible, and if you haven’t done this day trip then it needs to be next on your list.
If you know me, you know I love exploring the beautiful PNW landscape and am frequently going to the Columbia River Gorge, but we decided to venture out a bit farther this time and it was worth it!
Day Trip to the North Side of Mount Saint Helens
I’ll start by saying that you’ll see photos I took with my phone scattered throughout this post (I didn't bring my professional camera on this trip, so iPhone photos will have to do!), but none of it will do it justice. Go see it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed!
It’s just so amazing to see such a large expanse of undeveloped area. The huge valleys and large hills and mountains feel overwhelming in a way, but create this sense of awe.
Our first stop was the visitors center across from our campground. You couldn't go inside (because of COVID), but you can get a map and information about the different stops along the way to Mt. Saint Helens. There were staff outside ready to answer questions. There's also a really great trail that takes you through a 2 mile loop around a marshland where you can see birds, insects, and maybe even some other small animals if you look close enough.
Then we started the drive and happened along a gorgeous bridge viewpoint, where you get a view of a really interesting bridge. It's called Hoffstadt Bridge, don't miss the viewpoint before you go across!
Next, we found the Mt St Helens Forest Learning Center with our first really great view of the volcano. It looked huge at that point, but later we would find out that it gets even better. They have a small gift shop there, so if you need snacks and water, this is the place to get it.
There’s a trail around the side of the building that goes up to a higher viewpoint and you can sometimes see elk down in the valley. We didn’t see any but it was still worth the short walk up.
The rest of the drive was nothing short of amazing. Wildflowers everywhere, trees that look like they were computer generated because they were so perfect and uniform, valleys and rivers... it definitely didn’t feel like an entire hour.
Taking in the Views at Johnston Ridge Observatory
We finally got to our main destination, which was Johnston Ridge Observatory. Walking around that corner from the parking lot to see the massive mount Saint Helens was an awesome experience. There’s a trail to walk up and see it from even higher, and the more you walk up, the more the view changes and you see different things down in the valley. Lakes, rivers, etc.
We walked up and sat on a bench there while we ate our snacks and water. Sitting on top the high peak and looking out over the valley with a perfect view of Mount Saint Helens was so calming but at the same time a little overwhelming. There are signs all along the trails with history about the eruption, which is really interesting to see. One sign showed photos of what it looked like just before it erupted, and the kids enjoyed comparing the two to see how much had changed.
“This is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen” -My son Ethan about Mount St. Helens
More Viewpoints on the Drive Back
On the drive back, we visited a couple more places that we passed on the way there because we just were too excited to get to the last stop. But I’d actually suggest stopping at all the viewpoints along the way because it gets more exciting the closer you get. So on the way back, it’s a little less awesome.
Four Ducks and a Deer
We stopped at the Cold Water Creek trail and did a small hike to see if we could find the water and at one point we stopped to look at a mossy, green lake with 4 ducks swimming toward us. Then as we were about to leave, I noticed a deer about 15 feet away from me just staring. We stared at each other for a good 30 seconds before I had to move on because the boys had already left and totally missed it. The trails were lined with greenery, daisies and other wildflowers and the air was cooler because of the nearby water. We only did about a half mile before we turned around but it was beautiful.
Our last stop was the Castle Lake Viewpoint ( I think), which had another gorgeous view of Mt. Saint Helens. We didn’t stay very long because the kids were pretty tired but we did get out and look.
Basically it was one of the most beautiful drives ever. And only 2 hours from Portland, so it would make a great day trip if you didn’t want to do the camping part. We were lucky enough to go on a day that had amazing, fluffy clouds, and none of them were covering our view. But just as we left the last viewpoint, the clouds started to roll over the mountain and cover part of it.
When to Visit Mount Saint Helens
You're going to want to visit the volcano when the sky is mostly clear. If it's really cloudy, those clouds are going to block your view and ruin the experience. So nice weather is a must!
I went in the beginning of July and there were wildflowers everywhere, so that's when I'd personally recommend going. It was so beautiful with all those colors.
What to Bring on Your Day Trip
You're going to want to pack a lunch, snacks, and water. As mentioned above, there is a small gift shop with limited snacks at the Forest Center, but other than that, we didn't see anywhere to get food.
Definitely bring a camera or charged phone with a camera! You're going to want photos of this! But keep in mind that you most likely won't have cell phone signal most of the drive. It's way out there!
Hiking shoes are a good idea if you want to hike some of the trails like we did. There were plenty of opportunities for hiking there!
Where to Stay
If you decide not to make it a day trip, and you want to stay the night somewhere, a great option is where we stayed at Seaquest State Park. There may be a few other options on that North side that are closer but not by much. This campground was so beautiful! There are hiking trails throughout the campground that are full of tall, skinny trees and it's just gorgeous. Plus, you can walk to the visitors center I told you about. And I know it seems early, but this is the time to book your summer camping trips before they get all booked up.
More Family Vacation Adventures in Washington State
If you're looking for more ideas for fun family vacations close to Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington, I wrote a blog about visiting Leavenworth during the holidays!
Hopefully this has helped you plan your day trip to Mount Saint Helens this year! If you do go or if you've already been, I'd love to hear what you thought! We loved it so much, we are thinking of visiting the other side next time. I'll let you know how it goes!
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