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Originally published Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Recreation at Mount St. Helens, 30 years after the blast

Here's a roundup of information for visitors eager to visit the Mount St. Helens volcano to mark the 30th summer after the 1980 volcanic blast.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Thirty years ago this May 18, Mount St. Helens blew her lovely stack in the most destructive volcanic eruption in modern times in the United States.

In just 12 hours, an enormous swath of Cascade landscape was transformed. The eruption killed 57 people and destroyed 230 square miles of forest.

Now, Mount St. Helens is the most studied volcano in the world and preserved within the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Scientists have been researching the blast and reassembly of the shattered ecosystem ever since.

Travelers visiting the mountain this year can get in on 30-year observances of the 1980 eruption, including hikes, lectures, field seminars and more. Among the possibilities:

Outdoor learning

Hook up with the Mount St. Helens Institute for outdoor science learning for all ages.

On Saturday, May 15, the institute offers "It's a Blast: Volcano Science in Your Backyard," from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, with talks, walks, and hands-on science discovery for all ages. Food will be available. Fee is $10 per person, but kids under 5 are free. Register online or get tickets at the door (if available) for "It's a Blast." (The observatory opens to the general public on May 16.)

The institute also offers a wide range of programs this summer, from trips to explore geology in the heart of the blast zone to stargazing. For details on instructors, locations and itineraries, see the Mount St. Helens Institute website: www.mshinstitute.org (click on Field Seminars) or phone 360-449-7883.

Climb it

The institute also offers guided climbs of the 8,365-foot volcano, with trained geologists and mountaineers to narrate the geology of the mountain and story of the eruption as you huff and puff up to the crater rim. Book in advance on the institute's website; space is limited (www.mshinstitute.org/index.php/climbing/guided_climbs).

Is this for you? Consider this description from the institute's website: "Participants must be in excellent physical condition because of the rigorous demands of the 12-hour climb. You will climb 4,500 vertical feet in 5 miles. It is roughly a six-hour, one-way climb to the crater rim. Technical mountain-climbing experience is not necessary but the ability to ascend and descend long, steep, rocky and ash-covered slopes is essential."

If you want to climb on your own, a permit is required (permits are included in guided climbs). Permits are $15 per person plus a $7 service fee from April 1-Oct. 31 and must be purchased in advance through the institute's website: http://mshinstitute.org/index.php/climbing/buy_your_permit. Permits are free and self-issued the rest of the year at the Climbers Register in the small town of Cougar.

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Visitor centers

There are two major visitor centers along Highway 504, the main access road on the west side of Mount St. Helens, plus a forest-learning center:

Johnston Ridge Observatory: This visitor center, at an elevation of 4,314 feet, is only 5 ½ miles from the crater and has the best views, directly into the crater. It's 52 miles to the observatory east along 504 from the turnoff at Interstate 5. Inside are volcano exhibits, and a gift shop focused on nature and geology.

The observatory, run by the U.S. Forest Service, is open May 16 through the end of October (it's closed in winter). On May 18, the anniversary of the eruption, admission is free. At 10 a.m. there will be a ribbon-cutting for new exhibits on the volcano; at 11 a.m. there will be a talk/slide show by National Geographic photographers whose work is featured in the May issue of the magazine.

Observatory hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Visitors to the Johnston Ridge Observatory and the nearby Coldwater Lake recreation area (the Coldwater visitor center is closed) need a Monument Pass. It costs $8 for those 16 and older. Also valid: an annual Northwest Forest Pass, some federal recreation "interagency" passes, and Golden Age passes. Children 15 and younger are free. Information: 360-274-2140 or www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm/

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center: This center focuses on the human/cultural history of the area as well as geology. Run by Washington State Parks, it's just a few miles east off I-5 (at Milepost 5 on Highway 504) at Silver Lake.

Beyond the indoor exhibits, there's a mile-long trail by Silver Lake, with boardwalks over wetlands.

The visitor center is open year-round. From May 1 to Sept. 30, it's open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the rest of the year it closes at 4 p.m. Fees are $3 for age 18 and older; $1 age 7-17; free for children under 6. There's a family rate of $8. Information: 360-274-0962 or www.parks.wa.gov/interp/mountsthelens/.

Forest Learning Center: The kid-friendly center includes a playground, exhibits and viewpoints for observing elk — bring your binoculars. The center, created by the Weyerhaeuser Co., tells the story of the eruption from the perspective of the logging industry; the blast flattened miles of forestland. The free exhibits open May 14 for the summer season, but are open only on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. A rest area and gift shop (and elk-viewing) are open daily. The Forest Learning Center is at Milepost 33 on Highway 504. Information: 360-274-7750 or www.mountsthelens.com/visitorcenters.html.

Hike it

The Mount St. Helens area has abundant hiking trails. For an excellent map, plus a visitor guide, see www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/04maps.

For a good stretch-your-legs hike, try the 2.5-mile Hummocks Trail, No. 229. Mostly level, this is an easy loop trail named for the hummocks — mounds of ash, mud and debris dumped by the volcanic explosion — that wind past ponds created by the volcano that today thrive with amphibians. The trailhead is off SR 504 near Johnston Ridge. For trail reports from hikers, see www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/hummocks.

More information

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument: The official website has general information, from visitor centers to driving times, plus advice for climbers, hikers and campers. There are links to a visitor guide; maps; a digital library of photos from before and after the eruption; and more: www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm/ or 360-449-7800.

MountStHelens.com: The website has visitor information including places to stay, maps and more: www.mountsthelens.com/visitorcenters.html

Interactive map: An excellent online map of the Mount St. Helens area that will help in trip-planning is at: http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Volcanoes/MSH/NatMonument/PointsInterest/map_msh_points_interest.html (The map was created in 1998, so a few things are outdated; for instance, the Coldwater Ridge visitor center has been closed for budget reasons).

Lynda Mapes: lmapes@seattletimes.com

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