Obviously your kids weren’t born yet when Mt. St. Helens blew her top in 1980, but if you lived in the Northwest 30 years ago, you certainly remember when it happened! A trip to Mt. St. Helens is a perfect day or overnight trip for your family from either Seattle or Portland. Here is our guide to exploring this historic Northwest mountain!
Go: During the summer, once the weather has gotten warm and the snow has melted on the mountain. The roads typically open up in the middle of May and will shut back down in late fall.
Get there: From Seattle or Portland, take I-5 to exit 49 (in Washington) and head east on State Route 504. Driving from Seattle, it will take you just over two-hours and from Portland, just over an hour (minus potty breaks, of course!).
What to bring: If you’re planning a day-trip to explore Mt. St. Helens, you’ll want to pack extra clothes for the family, lots of snacks and bottled water to beat the heat. You’ll also want to bring any gear you need for hiking, if you’ll be doing any, a backpack to carry snacks and water at the very least. Don’t forget sunscreen and your camera, too!
How to dress: During the summer, the weather close to the mountain will be warm. Dress in those classic Northwest layers for keeping cool in the sun and bring an extra sweatshirt or fleece for when the wind gets chilly and the sun starts to set. Comfortable shoes made for exploring outside are a must for the entire family and hats to keep the sun off of little heads and faces would be a good idea too!
What to do: The Visitors Centers are a good place to get started! The Forest Mountain Center is the best for little ones, including a play area and cool helicopter that you can climb in for a virtual tour of the mountain. You’ll find it at milepost 33 on SR 504 and this center is free.
Continue along the highway toward the mountain to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, named after the volcanologist who stayed on the mountain as it erupted, transmitting the last words, “Vancouver. Vancouver. This is it.” This center has an awesome view of the mountain and fun exhibits to explore. Cost is $8 per adult.
If you’d like to do some explore closer to the mountain itself, pack up your gear and set off on a hike. There are multiple day hikes that are great for kids and that access the mountain in different ways, including stops at crystal clear lakes and fields of wildflowers that have flourished since the blast. Check out this list of kid-friendly hikes from The Washington Trail Association to find a hike that’s best for your family.
Feeling adventurous? You can book a helicopter tour of the crater for about $150 per person. The 30-minute ride will show you all the highlights of the mountain and explosion up close, including the crater itself and awesome views of animals that make their home on Mt. St. Helens. Only two-helicopters do this tour for the entire mountain – you can read more on their website for details.
Where to eat: For a bite before you head up to Mt. St. Helens, or on your way back down the mountain when going home, stop at family-friendly El Compadre Mexican Restaurant (1289 Mt. St. Helens Way NE at exit 49 on I-5).
Another popular place to have lunch is 19 Mile House (9440 Spirit Lake Hwy), at the 19 milepost on the way to the mountain on Highway 504. They are well known for their delicious berry pies and cobblers and yummy burgers – perfect for filling up little tummies after a morning of exploring!
Places to stay: Planning on making this a weekend trip? There are many options for staying overnight near Mt. St. Helens.
The most popular hotel in the area is the Guest House Inn & Suites – book a one-room suite so that you can put the little ones down in their own bedroom (they’ll be exhausted!).
Eco Park Resort is a super fun option for a family who is up for roughing it a bit. You can rent a cabin or yurt (a tent structure) that sleeps anywhere from 2-10 people. They don’t have electricity, in-cabin bathrooms or heat, but they are a cool adventure if you’re looking for a step up from tent-camping. Traditional tent camping is also available here.
Cost of the trip: To keep costs low, plan a day-trip and pack a cooler with lunch and snacks. There are fees to enter the National Parks – typically $5 per car so be sure to bring cash. Staying near Mt. St. Helens will cost you more, but the lodging options are reasonably priced.
Bonus: The Great Wolf Lodge is about an hour away from Mt. St. Helens (towards Seattle) if you’re looking for a family-friendly way to extend your trip!
— Katie Kavulla