Blast zone still main attraction as Mount St. Helens center reopens

There is plenty of snow on the ground; season starts Saturday

Staff writerMay 5, 2013 

Visitors look out of display windows at the Johnston Ridge Observatory at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

ELAINE THOMPSON/AP FILE, 2010

  • OPENING DAY ACTIVITIES

    To help mark the opening of the season at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, special programs will be held Saturday at the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center at Coldwater and at Johnston Ridge Observatory.

    Science and Learning Center

    10 a.m.- 6 p.m.: Tour the center and learn about the facilities and programs available to help support visiting education groups.

    11-11:30 a.m.: Monument scientist Peter Frenzen will give a presentation on “33 Years of Landscape Change and the Return of Life” in the theater.

    11:30 a.m.-noon: Bring your own lunch and chat with Frenzen.

    12:30 p.m.: Frenzen will lead a two-hour guided geology/ecology hike on the 2.3-mile Hummocks Trail. Meet at the Hummocks Trail parking lot, just south of Coldwater Lake on state Route 504. Be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes and dress for changing spring weather.

    Johnston Ridge Observatory

    10a.m.-6 p.m.: The Mount St. Helens Institute will operate the observatory for its annual “It’s a Blast” fundraiser. Admission fees collected will help support education and volunteer programs throughout the year. Event admission is $8 per person, but free for teachers, youth 15 years and younger, and federal recreation pass holders.

    The observatory will open for regular operations May 12.

The view of Mount St. Helens from Johnston Ridge Observatory will be as spectacular as ever when the center opens this weekend. The exhibits, movies, programs and hikes will be informative and entertaining.

Just count on a little snow. The snow banks along state Route 504 and walkways leading to the observatory are 10 feet high in spots.

“Spring has not sprung at the observatory,” said Peter Frenzen, scientist for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

But the visitor center will open Saturday with a special Mount St. Helens Institute event and begin regular operations May 12. The Science Learning Center at Coldwater will open Saturday, with its own special activities.

“It’s a Blast is a public outreach and fundraising event the Mount St. Helens Institute puts on to open Johnston Ridge Observatory every year,” said Travis Southworth-Neumeyer, executive director of the institute. “We work with the Forest Service to help staff the visitor centers all year; this is our opportunity to kick-off the season, and share all the exciting things Mount St. Helens has to offer.”

Visitors to Johnston Ridge should not see many changes this year. The observatory will still be the place to watch movies on the volcano and the post-1980 eruption recovery, view exhibits, join ranger-led programs and get information on hikes in the area.

“The center is really a place to start. It’s a place to gather the information and then go out and explore,” Frenzen said. “The best way to see the area is by getting out and hiking.

“Even though I have been there for decades, every time I go out on a hike, I’m amazed at how big the landscape is and how I see something I haven’t seen before,” Frenzen added.

He recommended hiking east from the observatory along the ridge top. It offers “a very stunning view” into the crater and perspective from the ridge. Another, low-altitude option is the Hummocks Trail, a 2.3 miles loop in the valley floor.

“It is amazing. You’re walking through forest, past beaver dams, along the flood plain,” Frenzen said. “Spring has arrived along the Hummocks Trail. The birds are singing, the frogs are croaking.”

One place where a lot of work will take place is at the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater. Formerly the Coldwater Visitor Center, the monument last year turned it into a science center for visiting schools and other groups.

Crews have been replacing the carpet where exhibits have been removed. They also have been working on the heating system. Also this year, the monument wants to add some small appliances in the former cafe, making it more practical for groups that use the center for overnight programs.

“We opened fairly late in the season last year and we didn’t have as many events as we hoped,” Frenzen said. “That’s continuing to build as we work with other community partners.”

The Mount St. Helens Institute will offer more programs at the center this year, including offerings for school groups, the scientist said.

As for the main attraction, the volcano remains in flux.

The crater glacier continues to move northward, but Frenzen said he was not sure people could notice when looking at the crater from the observatory.

Elsewhere, the changes are more obvious, he said.

“Each year there’s more and more flowers, more and more birds and more and more animals. The ecosystem in the blast zone is just booming with life.

“With all that what we call chaos, after the eruption, that complexity translates into habitat,” Frenzen said. “You take that really compelling landscape, and you superimpose all the flowers and animal life on it, it’s a really amazing place to visit.”

JOHNSTON RIDGE OBSERVATORY

Season: Saturday-Oct 27.

Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily

Location: The observatory is 54 miles east of Castle Rock, at the end of state Route 504.

Cost: $8 day-use fee. The monument also accepts annual and lifetime recreation passes. Children ages 15 and younger are admitted for free.

Services: Include a wide-screen theater presentation, interpretive exhibits, a staffed information desk and a book sales area. There is a food cart in the parking lot at Johnston Ridge during the summer season.

Pet policy: Pets are prohibited at all recreation sites and trails within the monument’s restricted area (see maps for details). Pets are permitted only in designated pet areas and must be on a leash. The lack of shade and hot summer temperatures can endanger pets left in cars. Monument officials recommend you leave your pet at home.

Information: Go to fs.usda.gov/main/mountsthelens. Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure

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