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Thursday, November 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mount St. Helens: Fall colors and a frisky mountain

Special to The Seattle Times

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Visiting Mount St. Helens

A restless volcano

Mount St. Helens in recent weeks has continued to exhibit volcanic activity and remains unpredictable, though experts don't expect a cataclysm like 1980. Nonetheless, before you go, get the latest reports on the mountain. See the U.S. Forest Service's Web site for Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Visitor centers

Only two "official" visitor centers are open during fall and winter: the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake and the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. To enter either, you must have a pass. Single passes cost $3; multiple passes (good for both centers) are $5. Passes for kids (5-15), $1; $2 for the multiple pass. Kids under 4, free. Details:

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake, five miles east of Castle Rock off Highway 504. This center offers short films, a walk-in volcano exhibit and an outdoor wetlands trail. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Closed on Christmas Day. 360-274-0962.

Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center is as far as you can go on Highway 504. With your pass, watch a video-theater program, and view exhibits including the latest photos of the volcano and seismic activity. There's also a gift shop and a restaurant (limited menu in off-season). During cold-weather months, there are fewer organized programs but see the events calendar posted inside. Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday-Monday (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day). 360-274-2114.

There's also privately operated Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center 27 miles from I-5 on Highway 504. A chalet-type building includes a restaurant, gift shop, plus great views of the volcano and Toutle River Valley. No admission fee. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Helicopter tours of Mount St. Helens operate based on weather conditions, so call ahead. 360-274-7750 or www.mt-st-helens.com.

Restaurants/lodging

Accommodations and food are within easy driving distance of the volcano in Kelso, Longview, Castle Rock and Silver Lake. For more information, consult Cowlitz County Tourism, 360-577-3137.

Getting there

Take Interstate 5 to Exit 49 at Castle Rock. Drive Highway 504 to the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, about 45 miles. Highway 504 is easily navigated but check conditions before you head out. At just over 3,000 feet, the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center can get snow this time of year. For road conditions, check 800-695-7623 or Washington state's travel information site.

More information

The Forest Service also provides plentiful information on current conditions, plus a laundry list of closed trails, roads and viewing areas under the link "current conditions": www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm

MOUNT ST. HELENS — Tourist season is long gone, so how come the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center — eight miles from the smoking maw of Mount St. Helens — can still pack them in on a clear autumn weekend?

"I want to see a big blast, " laughed Tracy Boeholt, 38, who a few weeks ago drove from Olympia with her family to set up lawn chairs in the center's parking lot, waiting for the show to start.

The volcano, centerpiece of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, has come back to life this fall, so far promising excitement without the trauma of 1980's monumental explosion. It has attracted those who want to be there the next time it blows. Or even burps clouds of ash, as it has done in recent weeks.

The initial hoopla over St Helens' reawakening has quieted, so while crowds may still show up, they aren't what they were a month ago. If you can't resist a peek at the smoldering volcano in your own back yard, and a crisp and clear autumn day comes our way, here are some tips for a visit, including some sights along the way.

East of the mountain, the most popular vantage point is Windy Ridge, now closed for safety reasons. Your next-best view is found by driving south from Randle on Forest Road 99 to the Cascade Peaks Interpretive Center. The building is closed for the winter but you'll get a good look at the blast damage from 1980 as well as the eastern flanks of Mount St. Helens.

To approach the volcano's south side, exit Interstate 5 at Woodland and follow Highway 503 through Cougar. From there, Forest Roads 81 and 83 recently reopened between Kalama Horse Camp and Lava Canyon.

The best, most accessible views with the most services are on the northwest side of the volcano along Highway 504. From Seattle, it takes about three hours to get there, depending on the dawdling you do.

Small pause for big paws

Your first roadside attraction is just off the freeway's Exit 49, east of Castle Rock on the left — the privately owned Mount St. Helens Visitor Information Center. It's too late in the season to watch the center's famous eruption movie but it might be worth a gift-shop stop — volcano souvenirs plus a life-size Sasquatch on display. It's true the beast has nothing to do with volcanoes, but it is part of local lore. A photo with Bigfoot makes a uniquely Northwest Christmas card for friends and relatives. Or not. But this big guy, with soulful, brown glass eyes and glossy auburn hair, is irresistible.

Back on 504, note signs advertising opportunities to buy "chainsaw art" (this is timber country) but press on to the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake. It looks like a church with a cathedral-window entry, and the forested hush around it does suggest reverence. Inside is a volcano model you can walk through. Outside, stroll a mile-long boardwalk that winds through lush wetlands and keep an eye out: November is peak bird-watching season there.

On the road again, consider a small diversion: Take a right at Milepost 20 and follow signs to the "Buried A-Frame." This is a dramatic example of what happened to homes when mudflows rampaged down the Toutle River after the 1980 explosion. Also available for your viewing pleasure: an 18-foot Sasquatch statue made of ash and concrete.

Push on as Highway 504 gains altitude, winding gently through forests showing some remnants of their autumnal color change.

At Milepost 27, the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center offers the first full view of the volcano in the distance as well as the Toutle River Valley, with its devastating mudflows. If you're hungry, the full-service restaurant features "lava strips" (chicken) as well as a "deluxe volcano burger." The gift shop offers all manner of volcano-related kitsch — glassware made with ash, shirts that say things like "kick ash" and "Here we go again!" These make great holiday gifts for flatlanders back east, and won't they be surprised.

This time of year, helicopter tours that take off from the bluffs are usually suspended for the season, but it's possible, given volcanic activity and good weather, the rides may be offered well into November. It's certainly a thrill — flights to within five miles of the volcano's crater. There's a four-person minimum, $99 plus tax per ticket.

Up close — within reason

Crossing the 370-foot-high Hoffstadt Bridge marks the western edge of the "blast zone" from 1980, and while gray stumps of flattened trees are still visible, so much life has grown up in the past couple of decades, it's hard to remember the holocaust that came before.

Next up is the Forest Learning Center, closed for the season, although you might want to park and take in the now looming volcano. From there, it's a quick hop to the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. Since the Johnston Ridge Observatory closed down for safety, this is ground zero for "volcaniacs" who dearly hope to see some action. The wraparound overlook offers huge panoramas of the volcano, peering into the smoking dome. You also see Coldwater Lake and surrounding ridges. Binoculars are crucial, putting you in the crater, a witness to the absolute destruction that still remains after 24 years.

Take an easy walk along the quarter-mile Winds of Change Interpretive Trail, a welcome reprieve from crowds, and savor a little silence, a little solitude.

The parking lot has been busy this fall. On a recent weekday, one family sat comfortably in lawn chairs, sipping pop, eating chips and sandwiches. "We're waiting for dark," explained Jay Studer, 48, from Olympia. "They say you can see lava glow after nightfall."

Just in case, he had a telescope aimed at the lava dome, which sent up constant, tantalizing puffs of smoke. Tracy Boeholt, who wished to see "a big blast," sat next to Studer, along with her parents, Ruth and Jaens Boeholt of Aberdeen. "I was here planting grass for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation right after the 1980 eruption," remembered Jaens Boeholt. "We went in as soon as they let us, planting right in the ash."

They wouldn't mind seeing a little ash this time around, or something bigger. Said Jay Studer, waiting for sunset: "I'd like to see a long red river on the mountain — lava."

You never know.

Connie McDougall is a Seattle-based free-lance writer.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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