Family Road Trip: Columbia River and Mt St. Helens

This is part 4 of my two week, no RV, family road trip, travelogue. If you’ve missed any of the previous parts (part 1, part 2, part 3), you’ll want to read those first!

June 5, Tuesday

Yesterday was spent visiting relatives here in Oregon. But today my parents, brother, and I are up early to makes some miles, and mid-afternoon we check into our new hotel in Portland. Then we take a drive up the Columbia River.

It’s pretty, but doesn’t offer the ‘wow’ factor of some of our stops, likely another instance of wonder fatigue. If we’d seen it earlier in the trip we likely would have been more impressed. We cross into Washington then head east on 14. For much of the way trees block the view, but there are a few nice overlooks.

We have no specific destinations in mind, but stop when we feel like. One place we stop at is a fishing area with a good view of Bonneville dam. As the power lines in the below picture below suggests, it’s a hydroelectric dam. The combined rated capacity electrical output of the two power houses at Bonneville is 1.2 gigawatts. I’m not an electrical expert, but that sounds quite impressive to me!

We cross over the Dalles Bridge which does not have a toll, back to the Oregon side and take 84 west back to Portland. Along the way we stop at Bonneville Lock, and our timing is perfect. As we get out of the vehicle a volunteer informs us that a barge is currently coming through the lock, cool! There is no schedule for when ships come through, boat captains just inform the lock when they’re getting close.

The average lift for Bonneville lock is 60 feet, and it only takes 9 – 13 minutes to fill or empty, truly impressive to watch. There’s also a 60 foot fish ladder at Bonneville, and in June a person can expect to see Lamprey, American Shad, and Sockeye Salmon climbing the ladder.

June 6

Again we head north into Washington, this time continuing up I5 just past Castle Rock, then turning east onto 504. Today’s destination? Mt St. Helens.

There had been talk of seeing Mt Hood, but there’s still a lot of snow on the mountains this far north and we didn’t figure on being able to drive too far up them. But for Mt St. Helens, the visitor center is on a ridge to the north, viewing it from a distance. Before we even get that close though we find the Mt St. Helens Forest Learning center, managed by one of the local logging companies, that goes into how the Mt St. Helens area was reforested after the eruption. It’s a very educational and well-done place and worth a stop.

Trees were planted by hand in areas outside of the National Monument borders (which were left undisturbed for researchers and scientists to record how an area recovers naturally from such an event). Workers and volunteers had to dig holes below the ash level to plant the seedlings in actual dirt for the little trees to grow, it took years to complete the project and to this day there is still talk about if it was the right thing to do – the logging companies of course wanted to reforest their lands as soon as possible because their livelihoods depended on it.

There are several view points along 504 on the way up to the visitor center. The road starts west of the volcano, and ends up curving to the north of it, where the crater from the explosive 1980 eruption is most visible.

I’m sure older readers remember hearing about the eruption of Mt St. Helens in the news, but for younger people like me who might not know the full story, here are the basics:

At 8:32 am on May 18, 1980, an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale struck the region, causing a massive rock and ice avalanche on the north side of Mt St. Helens that plowed into Spirit Lake and continued down the Toutle river. The disturbance rapidly released pressurized gases that had built up in the volcano, resulting in a tremendous lateral explosion that swept out over the avalanche in a mighty gust of wind, carrying stone and debris before it and flattening or killing almost 150 square miles of forest.

Simultaneously a mushroom-shaped column of ash rose thousands of feet into the air and drifted downwind over eastern Washington and beyond, turning day into night. Wet, cement-like slurries of rock and mud scoured all sides of the volcano. Searing flows of pumice poured from the crater. The eruption lasted 9 hours.

Normally I can give or take the informational videos displayed at park visitor centers, but it’s hard not to be awed by the power of mother nature watching footage of the 1980 eruption and hearing first-hand accounts from survivors. Very potent stuff.

Today the volcano slumbers, the last eruption having occurred in 1986. Scars from the 1980 eruption still mar the landscape, but the vegetation is coming back as the land slowly heals itself. All in all, a very interesting and informative day.

June 7

The last day of vacation! Today is a more chill day, we drive up towards Mt St. Helens again, but this time turn off of I5 one road sooner, onto 503.

We’ve had amazing good luck with weather on this trip, a couple scattered sprinkles in Sequoia and Yosemite, and mostly sunny skies the rest of the time. Today though the sky is overcast and the clouds are low, we won’t be seeing much of the mountain. The two highlights of today are our lunch picnic spot beside a lake:

And our visit to Ape Cave. Ape Cave is a lava tube cave, similar to the one I toured in Mojave National Preserve earlier this year. Unlike the one at Mojave, there are no holes in the ceiling here for light to come though. But, the entrance to Ape Cave is very lush with moss growing on the rocks at the entrance, and it makes for a great photo.

Also near Ape Cave is a neat little walk on a boardwalk highlighting other volcanic rock features in the area. While Mt St. Helens tends towards volcanic ash and gas eruptions, it did in the past have a more traditional lava eruption, which is where all these features comes from. Along this trail are deep holes in the lava where it once flowed around the base of ancient trees. When the tree trunks rotted away, the holes remained, making the landscape quite eerie. There’s also a tiny tube on this trail that a person can crawl through, but given the wet and cooler conditions, I decided against it.

Thank you all for following along on my vacation, and I hope you enjoyed the stories and pictures! On the 8th, I flew out of the Portland airport back to Fresno, CA, where I picked up Cas and Bertha and started back on the road.

As one adventure ends, another begins.

For the companion travelogue video, click here.

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At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.


  1. Norm H. on July 1, 2018 at 6:13 am

    Thanks so much for sharing your family vacation with your IO “family.” For me it’s been wonderful to “see” places my DW and I have previously enjoyed, as well as some new sights.
    I do fall into the category of those who clearly remember the Mt. St. Helens explosions, though we were thousands of miles to the east at the time. It’s still on our bucket list of must-see places the next time we visit the PNW!
    Looking forward to your renewed summer travels.

    • Becky on July 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm

      You’re quite welcome Norm, thanks for following along! It sure took me long enough to get to the PNW, but it’s been worth the wait. 🙂

  2. Daniel Jones on June 29, 2018 at 3:43 am

    Thanks for sharing so much information. Ideas like these are so useful for a travel freak like me! Looking forward to going for this road trip soon! 🙂

    • Becky on July 4, 2018 at 5:59 pm

      Have a great time Daniel! There’s a lot to see in the Pacific Northwest, I can’t wait to explore more of it!

  3. Linda Sand on June 27, 2018 at 4:16 pm

    I’m having trouble believing that eruption was so long ago. It seems recent to me. Time looks different at age 70. 🙂

    • Becky on June 28, 2018 at 12:22 pm

      I can only imagine! Whereas for me it seems like ancient history since I hadn’t been born yet and it was old news by the time I was old enough to understand what had happened. I wonder what events happening now in the world will seem like that to me when I get older.

  4. Ron Stacy on June 27, 2018 at 11:53 am

    I have to repeat, you really missed some awesome views by not going to Mt. Hood. The drive up hwy 35 out if Hood River is gorgeous this time of year. Your hotel desk person should have been able to get you weather information for you. Mt. St. Helen’s is always a gamble, so you lucked out there. Safe travels.

    • Becky on June 28, 2018 at 12:19 pm

      That’s just a part of traveling that you rarely get to see everything there is to see in an area. I have no regrets with what we did. 🙂 This just means I’ll have more to explore next time I come back!

  5. Jeff Pierce on June 27, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Spent many days on Mt St Helen fishing at Spirit Lake, a beautiful spot reflecting the mountain. We were up visiting family in May 1908, but returned to San Diego just 2 days before the eruption, so fortunately missed the excitement! Family was all fine.
    The VC at the Ridge is a testament to the power of nature.

    • Becky on June 28, 2018 at 12:16 pm

      Wow, good timing Jeff, missing it by two days. Reminds me of the summer I work-camped in Zion and drove to Las Vegas to pick a friend up from the airport one day early in August. If her plane had come in 24 hours later we would have gotten stuck, there was a horrible storm the next day that closed the park (mudslides) and washed out I-15 in a couple places.

  6. Dave Rambeau on June 27, 2018 at 9:52 am

    Too bad you passed on Mt Hood. The road to Timberline Lodge (off the “Mountain Loop Highway” that runs from Hood River to Portland) is kept open year round. You missed some awsome views of Mt Hood. My wife and I are full timers and volunteer at Bonniville Lock and Dam in the spring and fall. You were lucky to catch a lock-thru as there are only 8-10 a day and many occur in the dead of night. Our “boondocking” spot is on the island to the right of the towboat/barges.

    • Becky on June 28, 2018 at 12:11 pm

      I’l keep your suggestion in mind next time I visit the area. 🙂 Also, how interesting that you’re volunteers at the exact same Lock, it really is such a small world! I bet that’s a neat job.

  7. Dennis on June 26, 2018 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks so much Becky for giving us the pics into your vacation! I remember Mt St Helens 1980 eruption well as i was 28 back then! All the physics and mother nature are awesome! 😀

    • Becky on June 28, 2018 at 12:07 pm

      Glad you enjoyed following along Dennis, you’re welcome!

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