The Eruption That Shook WA State

Last summer, I was determined to take the kids on a road trip to a place that would not only be education but unforgettable.  That place ended up being to Mt. St. Helens.  In all of the years I’ve lived in WA (and when I visited in the summers) I had never been either.  So it was the perfect spot!


We decided to visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which is within 5 miles of the north face of the volcano.  The center is set into the hillside and blends perfectly with the surroundings.

Photo courtesy of

The center has 10,000 square feet of space that hosts interactive displays, remembrance plaques of some people who perished during the eruption, a gift shop, a staffed information desk and a beautiful theater which shows a short movie about the eruption and ends with a glorious view of the volcano.

My family’s favorite part of the center?  The “Create An Earthquake” machine.

After going through the center and watching the movie, we headed outside for the Junior Rangers tour.  My kids went on a scavenger hunt with two Park Rangers and learned a lot of about the landscape and the history of the volcano and surrounding areas.

Did you know?

  • The eruption was the only significant one to occur in the contiguous 48 US states since the 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak in California.
  • It was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.
  • 57 people were killed; 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway were destroyed.
  • Mount St. Helens released 24 megatons of thermal energy, 7 of which was a direct result of the blast. This is equivalent to 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
  • State and federal agencies estimated that over 2.4 million cubic yards of ash, equivalent to about 900,000 tons in weight, were removed from highways and airports in Washington.
  • Within 3 minutes, the lateral blast, traveling at more than 300 miles per hour, blew down and scorched 230 square miles of forest.
  • The dense ash cloud turned daylight into darkness in eastern Washington, causing streetlights to turn on in Yakima and Ritzville.
  • The volcanic ash cloud drifted east across the United States in 3 days and encircled Earth in 15 days.
  • Noticeable ash fell in 11 states.

On this day 32 years ago, Washington state changed forever.  It was proven to us that nature can be tragic, heartbreaking, scary and interesting.  Scientists use this tragedy as a learning tool and hopefully, with the technology today, when it happens again – we will be better prepared.

Want to know more?  Visit the U.S. Geological Survey website or Mount St. Helens Institute website.

Were you affected by the Mt. St. Helens eruption?  What do you remember, where were you?  Tell us your story below!

Mt. St. Helens during eruptions. Photo courtesy of


170 thoughts on “The Eruption That Shook WA State

  1. All I remember way on the other side of the country was that it was expected, many people were waiting for it, and then it happened. The before and after pictures, that USGS scientist (Johnston, actually) who was killed when the thing went off, the old fellow named after Harry Truman who didn’t want to leave, pictures of Yakima digging out for weeks …

  2. I remember this. I was 11 and had traveled to Everett, Wa with my mother to visit her friend. The explosion woke us from our sleep. Everetts North of Seatle. We had to drive home as soon as they opened the roads and travel I-5 down to Oregon. I will never forget crossing the Toutle river and all the mud and debris. IT was very scary. Even in Sheridan Oregon the ground was covered in ash. I use to have jars of the stuff.

  3. My aunt and uncle lived in Yakima and told about the police stopping traffic and telling people to go home. Within hours it was dark out from the ash fall. Their yard, roof and pool had inches of ash on them. The farmers worried about the ash destroying their fields only to find that their crop grew better than ever the next year.
    I visited St. Helens about ten years ago and found it a wonderful and informative experience. They showed a movie on St. Helens. At the end of the movie the raise the screen and pull back the curtains and your look through the window in the 4th photograph at St. Helens. It was one of those moments when you forget to breathe.

  4. From our front porch and living-room window we watched this event unfold from the very first steam plume. We knew from the progression of events there was going to be an eruption but not how (lateral) or to what extent (devastating).

    Like Terri (above) we were up north the Sunday it gave way. (Must admit I was a little disappointed I wasn’t home to experience it.) We also had to return home that day taking the detour, driving beside the Toutle River eye level with roiling dirt filled water and log debris. Our boys, then 9 and 10 years, in the back seat, we watched as the force of the ash being released created it’s own electrical storm above the mountain.

    It is hard for me to believe that it has been 32 years.
    Thanks for the reminder of the power of nature and of my amazing memories.
    Hope your visit was full of memories also…

  5. I remember 83 year old Harry Truman, who refused to leave the area after being told to evacuate. His body was never found. I lived in the Seattle area at the time and I remember hearing the blast and looking towards to south and seeing the plume of ash heading towards eastern Washington. Amazing! Great post! Congrats!

  6. I lived in Seattle at the time. During the second eruption, which happened a week after the initial one, I was in Portland and had to drive back to Seattle. I got ashed on most of the way. Strange experience. I also learned that ash is very slippery when wet when I stepped on a spot where water had dripped onto the ash. I still have a container of ash from that.

  7. I remember being on a sailboat in Puget Sound with my dad. It was a fairly clear day, with white, puffy clouds around. Then, one big, dark, ugly cloud appeared. My dad’s friend got on the ham radio and got the word that the mountain erupted. It was surreal.

  8. That was an amazing place to visit. We went from the other side. It was an interesting fact that they thought the area wouldn’t come back to life for decades…they were very wrong fortunately.

    Also, the ash that dumped on Eastern Washington caused the schools in this area (we live near Spokane) to shut down and kids got an extra, extra long summer!

  9. Makes me think I might need to make a trip there. I can make it a homeschooling trip. I was there in the late 90’s when I was in high school, I have wanted to go see it since it had it’s most recent activity!

  10. I lived in Pullman WA at the time. We watched the dark cloud come ever closer for several hours before it engulfed us. Afternoon turned to evening as the skies darkened overhead. Under the streetlights ash fell looking much like dirty snow drifting down from the blackened sky. When it was over, we had an ash fall several inches deep. The town shut down for a week or so, all roads closed for fear of stirring up fallen ash.

  11. We lived in Washington at the time. I don’t remember exactly where. I was almost 6 at the time. I do remember ash on the site of the roads. I know we scooped some up and we probably still have it somewhere. If I remember right it seems to me people were buying up masks, and I know we had a couple ourselves. I don’t think we ever used them, but we had some. At any rate Mount St. Helen’s is a great place to visit.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this! We lived in Washington for three years but never got there either. Sounds like you all learned a lot, and it made me want to take my kids there too!

  13. I was a teenager at the time and not much into the news so I missed it. But I do remember seeing all the photos in National Geographic and whew! What a mess. I want to take a drive over there and see it for myself one of these days.

  14. This is such an amazing place to visit. My family lived in Sunnyside when this happened and I can remember it so vividly even though I was so little…the sky was so black, but it was day time – and everyone was covering all their windows and doors…. Great article, reblogged to

  15. Reblogged this on ecomom22 and commented:
    I remember this from when I was little, we lived in Sunnyside, it’s a great place to visit with tons to learn!

  16. Hi! What a wonderful experience for you and your family! I live close to the observatory and you’ve inspired me to make a point to visit. Thank you. I’d love to see you around my page sometime. All the best.

  17. I was stationed in central Illinois at the time and didn’t see any major effects, unless it was better sunsets. What I remember were the apples that started showing up in stores the following months. They were all deep red, perfectly shaped, looked like giant red molars. Amazing what a little extra fertilizer in the air could do for Washington’s apple crop.

    • Yellowstone is a supervolcano. It is very likely the largest but its expansive magma chambers beneath the surface make it difficult to know its actual size. It is gigantic though. Check out as the author recommends. Well worth it. -former MSH ranger

  18. wow, enjoyed the pics and to be honest – your post makes me a bit desperate. I have a whole 5 weeks off this summer an I have all these plans for an adventurous summer. Reading your post makes me wish my vacation would start today…..

  19. I looked at Mt. St. Helens from the top of Mt. Hood before the big change. It was during a full moon after a small snow storm in Sept. before that year. Across the Columbian River Gorge and beyond Mt. Adams Mt. St. Helens rose in the full moonlight. Looking north that year in the light of the moon of that night I stood frozen in the beauty of the moment. Soon after Mt. St. Helen did not exist. But I would not, ever. forget that moment.

  20. Can I just say what a aid to find somebody who truly knows what theyre speaking about on the internet. You positively know how you can convey a difficulty to gentle and make it important. More folks must read this and perceive this facet of the story. I cant believe youre not more common because you definitely have the gift.

  21. Congrats on being Fresh Pressed! I was in my 20’s when it happened, and I remember waiting for ash to arrive here in the northeast (id didn’t, noticibly!)….But we had *spectacular* sunsets and sunrises. I followed the story *avidly*…now you’ve made me want to go and visit. Maybe in a few years when my kids are older; would be a great homeschooling trip as another commenter noted.

    Thanks for the great post!


  22. I remember the sky being gray and dark and the weird taste in the air really a strong memory as usually Washington State has clean fresh air. This was indeed a very traumatic event for many living in the Evergreen State and death for a few.

  23. Thanks for the facts. I was in kindergarten in Montana when it erupted and I remember that school was canceled and my parents arguing because my dad wouldn’t wear the recommended mask when he was out hosing the ash off everything in sight. My mom still has a jar of it at home.

  24. I just like the valuable information you supply to your articles. I will bookmark your blog and check again here regularly. I’m relatively certain I’ll learn many new stuff proper here! Best of luck for the following!

  25. Amazing pics!!
    Mt. St. Helens is a beautiful place, I want to take my kids to there too….
    Thanks for sharing.

  26. I remember getting ready for church with the kids and hearing the tv give the emergency broadcast message and then it kept running. I looked out the front picture window and it was growing darker. My Mom and I looked at each other and I knew she was wondering like me, “is this the end of the world then?”.
    The kids ran outside because something was falling from the sky. It twinkled as it difted down and then my son was startled to feel it burn. This only added to the thought this was the end of the world.
    We went to the store to get supplies and all the shelves were bare. We weren’t the only ones thinking the same thing, I thought.
    But it wasn’t. By the end of the day we had heard about the mountain and talked about the modern perspective of volcanic eruptions, and then the old stories Indians have told for thousands of years. Mom collected some ash and filled any glass bottle she could find. I still have a salad dressing bottle filled with ash, one that she painted a replica of Mt St Helen before it blew.

  27. I remember hearing about it back in Germany. I saw it more in my mind than in real pictures. Later images in National Geographic added to my imagination. Then I traveled to the US and hiked up to the place, climbed on the remains of Mt. St. Helens and eventually stayed and settled in the area. Somehow this event shook me from far away, woke me up to pay attention and really live this life.

  28. I think this is among the most important information for me. And i’m glad studying your article. But should observation on few normal things, The site style is perfect, the articles is really excellent : D. Excellent job, cheers

  29. Thanks for the post and the memories. Somewhere in this house is a tiny tin of volcanic ash my Aunt posted to me not long after Mount St Helens erupted. She lived in Washington State, over in Walla Walla and some local entrepreneur had hit upon the brilliant idea of buy a shovel, some labels and a lot of small cans.
    I hope he made a million!

  30. I remember back in about third grade I had to do this ‘team’ project on Mt. Saint Hellens… I recall having to write the whole report, make the poster, and all the other little girl I was doing it with wanted to do was ‘help’ me make the volcano…she painted it.

  31. It was a quiet Sunday morning and I was in the garden with my father. The earth shook and I looked to the South to see a giant mushroom cloud towering in the sky. We had no idea it was the mountain everyone knew it was going to blow but we all expected it to look like Kilauea, with red hot lava oozing out of the mountain. Instead it looked like a nuclear disaster. Living near Seattle there were several options for nuclear explosions, so as I stood in the garden I was fairly certain I was experiencing an apocalyptic event. I asked my day what we should do and he very calmly replied. “Keep planting I think we may need these vegetables”.
    This single event in my childhood has taught me so much about what you can and can not control and that fear and panic are seldom productive reactions. Thanks for sharing and allowing others to share. There isn’t a year that goes by that on May 18th I don’t remember that morning in the garden with my father.

  32. I was 13 years old living in Utah when this happened. Even nearly a thousand miles away from the disaster, our weather was disrupted for weeks by the huge ash cloud. I recall eerie red-tinged skies each day, a distinct burnt smell in the air, and health warnings on the news not to spend time out-of-doors. That Christmas, my siblings and I each received a collectors bottle of “genuine Mt. St. Helen’s Ash” in our stockings!

  33. I was ten years old, living in White Rock, BC the day Mt. St. Helens erupted…my sister and I were outside playing and there was this tremendous rumble, I remember the sky turning dark in the middle of the day, then something was falling out of the sky and when it touched my skin it was hot, my sister and I were trying to figure out what was going on and then our brother came out and told us that Mt. St. Helens had erupted. After we got over our initial fear it turned out to be quite a cool, no pun intended, experience.

  34. I was a little girl when it erupted….I remember watching it from my back deck on Fox Island and my mom walked out and saw it said, “Oh my gosh, that is Mt. St. Helens.” I still remember it very well. I also remember the layer of ash that blanketed Western Washington!

  35. I was a little kid living in Spokane when Mount St. Helens blew. There was ash everywhere, people were wearing surgical masks when they went out. I bagged up some of the ash and brought it with me on a trip to visit relatives out here in Pa.. My uncle wanted to use it in his garden. I brought about three lbs. sealed in a bag in my backpack-he added it to the soil and said it was ten times better than any fertilizer he’d tried. So now, right up the street from me in his old garden is part of the eruption.

  36. My parents witnessed her erupt. They were engaged at the time and lived in Portland, OR. They were driving north on the freeway and suddenly Saint Helens erupted. Dad loves photography, so he stepped on the gas to get home, ran for his camera, and ran through the back yard up into the Portland Grotto to the bluff looking across to Washington. His photos of the eruption are amazing. Afterwards, they had to clean the backyard where they would be holding their wedding reception of all the ash. We have some bizarre photos of Dad washing the ash off the rhodys. He keeps some of the ash in a jar on his desk.

  37. My father was stationed in Portland, Oregon, and I remember as a teen visiting a week or two after (that part is vague memory but soon after the eruption) and fine ash was falling constantly out of the sky, onto us, the plants, the road…. It was quite exciting!

  38. We have visited Mt St Helens several times since the eruption as we have family in the area, plus friends of ours operate the Mt St Helens Creation Information Center and Seven Wonders Museum near Silverlake. Like the studies going on there by secular scientists, there are also Christian scientists doing studies. It is amazing how it affords the opportunity to watch geological changes occuring in rapid, short periods of time rather than over millenia.

  39. Another thing…my parents were living in the SE corner of the state at the time and had gone to the mountains there. While eating breakfast in their cabin they heard the blast and decided to go home. The ash drifted east so fast that it was so dark they had to turn on the headlights. They said it was so eerie! Birds settled on the ground because they couldn’t see the trees, and maybe were to weighted down as the ash fell on them. They had inches of ash to shovel, and yes, the crops did do well after that.

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  42. Looks like a fascinating place to visit! I was just fourteen when the eruption occurred. And I lived in Mobile, Alabama. So it was otherworldly to me, of course. I even bought a poster of it, and hung it on my bedroom wall.

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  44. grew better than ever the next year.
    I visited St. Helens about ten years ago and found it a wonderful and informative experience. They showed a movie on St. Helens. At the end of the movie the raise the screen and pull back the curtains and your look through the window in the 4th photograph at St. Helens. It was one of those moments when you forget to breathe.

  45. I was crossing the Freemont Bridge (if my memory serves me). I think it was mid morning and I was heading east. I looked over to my left and saw the volcano as she erupted. The column of smoke, even from as far away as Portland Oregon was wide, and seemed completely solid. I stopped my car, stopping all the traffic behind me, and walked across the median, and silently watched this wonder as it happened.

    It played havoc to the little human rituals we lived. Everyone was ‘inconvenienced’ some to the point of dying. But it reminded us all that we are small. Her cloud spread across the world to paint a warning in the sky to those who plunder the planet without thought of consequence.

    I think there was one old man, who lived on the side of the hill, who refused to move against all advise and pressure. He died.

    We all suffered the dust. And a week or so afterwards I drove up to Spokanne with my wife’s stockings stretched over the carburetor to stop the ash choking the engine. It was an eery scene, like life gone black and white. Ash drifts as high as houses in some places, and a fine coat of ash everywhere.

    Wow, that moment was thirty two years ago?

    Thanks for your article. Very interesting..

  46. My husband and I were supposed to be traveling that weekend from California up to Washington…and would have been right there had his work schedule not changed! We lived in the Seattle area for 25 years…and have been to Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center several times over the years. It’s been awesome to watch the reforestation of the area following such a huge disaster!

  47. Very interesting post, with a lot of good information. I learned a lot! It sounds like it was a great vacation, thanks for sharing the info and the pictures!
    God Bless,

  48. I’m really impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one these days..

  49. It was weird for a 5 year old to go into church on a sunny morning and come out and have it seem to be nighttime. It was extremely eerie. I didn’t fully know what it really meant. Was the world ending?? lol But when I found out we’d be okay, it was hard not to want to go outside and “play in the snow.” My mom had to remind us the ash was not a good thing to play with. You don’t want to breathe it. Looking back, and even today, people who wear those ash masks are kidding themselves.

  50. I remember watching the stories on TV news. I couldn’t get enough of it. We did see some effect of the dust creating some magnificent sunsets around Chicago, but that is all.

  51. Good write. I was actually a kid when the eruption happened and on that very day I was going with my family from Edmonton to Disneyland. The plane had to take a longer route in order to avoid getting in the way of the ash clouds. I still remember the pilot mentioning Mt St. Helens on the flight.

  52. I was a kid in Arizona, and don’t remember much. But in the early 90s, I visited — and it was like visiting the moon. Lots of dead trees standing like match sticks with no branches and no leaves. Acre after acre as we drove closer to the volcano, producing long, thin, shadows. A year before, scientists had discovered the first fish — life was regenerating! That was exciting. But all the standing, dead, trees were spooky.

  53. My aunt and uncle live in Ellensburg Wa. which is central washington. A straight east shot for the ash cloud. My aunt and uncle are very eccentric artists and they built a ‘viewing tower’ in their yard. I used to always think… what on earth are they wanting to view… It is flatter than heck out here and there is nothing to see! Boy was i wrong. The ash was so soft. So fine. It made EVERYTHING look like it was in black and white. It had what i call the pleasantville effect. I almost just accepted it as being in B&W until my bright red hankerchief caught my eye and the color zapped me back into reality. I do still have my jar of the super soft ash somewhere. What incredible timing i had that week.

  54. I live in New York State. I remember at sunset the sky was beautiful. It looked different than usual. We didn’t have rain for about two months afterwards which was attributed to Mount Saint Helens.

    I remember seeing on television a volcano watcher named Campbell, a feisty old man, who was told to evacuate but he refused to leave. He was never found after the eruption.

    Great post! Thank you for sharing.

  55. My husband lived in Washington State during this time and said it was filled with terror and excitement and of course he thrived because it felt like camping. He said the masked faces and grey colored ash gave him an experience he never wanted to relive. I lived across the country and it influenced my life due to being an asthmatic. Watching the news clips of this incredible event filled me with shock and awe. The power and force we forget about in our daily life.
    After we married…we moved back to Washington State and lived there for 11 years…I have a greater respect for earthquakes and volcanos.
    Peach State

  56. I remember waking up the morning after the eruption and a snowfall of ash had covered everything! I was little (4) and I remember my sister (5) and I rushing into the yard and scooping up the ash and pretending it was snow, drawing pictures in it on the hood of the car. We lived near Salem, Oregon at the time. Our ashfall wasn’t spectacular comparitively, but it was spectacular to me. Although I think my Mom must have told us what had happened it didn’t really register until we studied about it in school. But looking back, I do have that very distinct memory of that morning. I was there. Or at least near-enough-by.

  57. I went to the park about 7 years ago for the first time, it was one of the most surreal experiences in my life. The feeling of being that close to something so powerful and devastating was crazy.

  58. The eruption happened the year before I was born but my parents lived close enough (Salem, Oregon) to be have the ash falling on them. In high school my band teacher decided to have us play a song that was written about this eruption, it was a beautiful song. I have to take my kids there some day too. It looks like a great family trip.

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