Forest Service hopes to provide ‘alternative’ recreation at Mount St. Helens as surveys of South Coldwater Slide continue


The U.S. Forest Service is hoping, somehow, the travelers from across the world who come to visit Mount St. Helens this summer still get their views of the unique, eruption-severed north face, despite a huge landslide washing out an 85-foot bridge, damaging the roadway and severing power to the Johnston Ridge Observatory early last week, according to a Tuesday news release. 

“The USDA Forest Service is exploring alternative options for visitors who would like to visit the north side of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument this summer and developing a plan to manage the influx of visitors in a safe manner,” the agency stated.

After the landslide at milepost 49 of state Route 504, also called the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, on May 14 around 9 p.m. — which the U.S. Forest Service has dubbed the “South Coldwater Slide” — personnel were able to assess the disaster from the site for the first time on Monday.

Last Friday, a national incident management team — with the Army Corps of Engineers, USGS, Cowlitz and Skamania counties, the Mount St. Helens Institute and others — gathered to begin addressing “significant damage” caused by the slide, according to a joint news release from the U.S. Forest Service and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). 

On Monday, WSDOT engineering geologists began site reconnaissance of the slide area to collect ground data that will be used to cross reference with the LIDAR information (laser imaging, detection and ranging), according to the release. Staff are processing LIDAR data this week and will begin analysis work next week, the release read. 

This information will help inform cleanup and repair work timelines. U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Gala Miller told The Chronicle it could take weeks for the LIDAR data to be fully interpreted, and that travelers should expect the road to remain closed at least up to Johnston Ridge for the remainder of the summer. Right now, the road is closed from milepost 43 and beyond. But recreation opportunities remain, the release stated, even along the highway leading up to the closure, such as Elk Rock and Castle Lake.

There is currently no access to Coldwater Lake nor the Hummocks Trail, but openings and closures could take place throughout the season as the area becomes more or less safe, Miller said. 

The highway leads to the Johnston Ridge Observatory north of Mount St. Helens at the final, upper portion of the road. It is typically open to the public from May or June to October each year.

No one was injured from the incident, but 12 people were stranded on one side of it and stayed overnight at Johnston Ridge Observatory. They were safely flown out the following morning by the King County Sheriff’s Office.

The event followed a recent warming trend and significant snowmelt. While the exact cause is not yet known, agencies have theorized the high level of moisture destabilized the young volcanic soil, which has only been in place since Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, 43 years ago last week.

For safety, WSDOT and federal agencies strongly encourage people not to venture beyond the highway closure location due to the unstable hillside.

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