Forest Service Talks Slide at Spirit Lake Highway, Businesses Share Concerns, Ape Caves Open on Anniversary

43 Years After Eruption, Mount St. Helens Continues to ‘Reveal New Mysteries’


National Geographic states Earth first formed 4.5 billion years ago, and humans have been around for about 300,000 of those. 

That’s less than 0.007% of all the time on Earth. The single lifetime of even the oldest human is a nearly-incalculably small percentage of the planet’s history (unless you’re really good at math).

Being just a blip on the planetary timeline should be humbling, according to Nick Giovanni, a certified volcano naturalist and interpretive presenter for the Mount St. Helens’ Institute.

“Let’s just put it this way: If we, as humans, think we have any control over Mother Nature, forget about it,” Giovanni said on Thursday, the 43rd anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption. 

To the same point, after a catastrophic landslide washed out state Route 504, the “Spirit Lake Memorial Highway” which ends at Johnston Ridge Observatory last Sunday night, Gifford Pinchot National Forest spokesperson Gala Miller said, “it sounds corny, but the only constant is change.”

In her 24 years with the U.S. Forest Service, Miller has witnessed the ever-changing landscape of Mount St. Helens.

“Look at timelapse photography of how the landscape has changed and the research being done that documents how life returned and is returning, and how it changed the way we think about reforestation,” Miller said. “As St. Helens reveals new mysteries and surprises us, that seems par for the course.”


The Slide

There’s no official determination of the slide’s cause, but agencies’ current theory is the ground became unstable after the young, loose volcanic soil became unstable when oversaturated after winter’s large snowpack quickly melted in last weekend’s heatwave.

Before more information is known on the slide’s cause, it’s not even safe for workers to be on the site for repairs, let alone the public.

The United States Geological Survey, usually called USGS, was able to confirm the slide was not related to seismic or volcanic activity, Miller said. They did pick it up on seismometers, though. 

Light detecting and ranging (Lidar) equipment, which allows detailed surveys of land in hard-to-reach places, will be available to the Forest Service in the coming week or so. As Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is situated within the Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service is considered the lead agency on the slide response, Miller said. 

After that, it will be about three weeks before the data is interpreted and usable, she said. The state department of transportation and officials from Skamania and Cowlitz counties will be involved in the repair process, including seeking funding. Skamania County-based U.S. Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez also posted a video to Twitter this week sharing her office will be working hard to secure funding for the “vital thoroughfare.”

The data should give both a sense of the work necessary and a rough timeline, but Miller said residents should at least expect Johnston Ridge Observatory to remain closed for the summer.

After the slide, 12 people and a dog were forced to spend the night at Johnston Ridge. They were rescued by the King County Sheriff’s Office, but as for the fate of the seven vehicles — two of which are apparently rental cars — Miller said, “That’s the question of the hour. We really don’t know. … We have lots of ideas being thrown out.”

Currently, access to the Hummocks Trail and Coldwater Lake are cut off for visitors. But, access to various locations along state Route 504 could open and close throughout the summer as officials balance the public’s safety and desire to recreate, Miller said.

Windy Ridge via Randle is still set to be open in early summer, she said, and the Ape Caves and nearby trails are open as of Thursday. There are also still several viewpoints on the Spirit Lake Highway where drivers can see great views of the crater.

“We really need people to stay away from the slide area and respect the road closure for their safety and the safety of others,” Miller said. 

Whether other parts of the mountain will see similar effects from the early heatwave remains uncertain.

“Only nature can answer that,” she said. “We probably have another month of this snow melt situation going on, so, I suppose anything could happen. We have slides occur this time of year on forest roads. … They’re usually just smaller in scope.”

Either way, businesses in the area are preparing for losses this season. Gluesenkamp Perez said at least one of Spirit Lake Highway’s businesses saw 90% of their revenue in the months between the upper portion of the road opening in May or June and its closing in October.

One employee of Discover Your Northwest, a nonprofit partner that operates concessions near the volcanic monument, also shared concerns for the company. 


Don’t Give Up: Mount St. Helens Exploration Is Still Promising This Season

On the less eruption-affected south side of Mount St. Helens, the chances for recreation remain abundant and optimistic. The Ape Caves, Lewis River Falls, viewpoints, hiking trails and more are very likely to be accessible on normal schedules this summer. 

Nick Giovanni, the volcano naturalist, was manning the Ape Caves on Thursday, a system of lava-formed tubes on the southern end of the mountain, which were opened for exploration on May 18. Discovered in 1947 by a logger who nearly drove his tractor into one of the caves and then explored by a Boy Scout troop, the caves were named for the troop’s mascot: the Apes (a common nickname for the area’s loggers at the time).

Giovanni will be at the site every Saturday for the rest of the season sharing factoids on the area’s unique geology. A professor and history buff, he was trained by the Mount St. Helens Institute eight years ago and has never once gotten sick of the job, he said. However, his favorite people to talk to are the ones with memories from May 18, 1980.

“It’s just fascinating to talk to those people,” Giovanni said. 

Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t alive at the time to form any. Nonetheless, we chatted about the absolute might of the mountain and he shared some crazy facts. For example, the Lewis River was named for a “local pioneer,” not for Meriweather Lewis. Or, the Cascadia Subduction Zone last had a 9.0 earthquake (what we Pacific Northwesterners now anticipatorily call “The Big One”) on Jan. 24, 1700. 

“How do we know that?” Giovanni asked.

Native American history? No, he said. Perhaps those records could give researchers an estimate, but the exact date is known for the tsunami Japan saw nine hours after the quake. Later, researchers confirmed the year by finding the effects of salt water inundation in Oregon’s tree rings. 

The Ape Caves have “nothing to do” with the 1980 eruption, though, Giovanni said. They were formed by lava about 1900 years ago. Similar to what’s underway with Kīlauea in Hawai’i, hot lava, cooling from the top down, formed a sturdy tunnel that sits 50 feet underground.

I feel arrogant saying so, but on Thursday, my first visit to the cave, I thought this would be a touristy walk of sorts. It is not. The upper, 1.25 mile portion of the main, open-to-the-public cave is serious business. 

At an unchanging 42 degrees year-round, dripping constantly, echoey yet silent, it’s something I’ve only ever witnessed in movies. The cave provides darkness I’d previous not imagined, and coming out of it into bright snow gave me a better understanding of some philosophical allegory, (not to be cliche).

For the adventurous, I’d seriously, highly recommend visiting this spot. Unfortunately, it’s not accessible to all. The upper portion of the cave requires some climbing and stamina. The lower portion though, is a good walk for all who brought adequate light sources.

You may be lucky enough to spot a salamander, bat or the most spindly daddy long-legs you’ve ever seen. Giovanni has only seen one bat in his nine years, though it isn’t the most elusive of the creatures known to stalk the woods by Mount St. Helens.

“There are some urban legends that indicate the possible existence of a nocturnal primate-mammal creature that may or may not reside in this area,” Giovanni said, smiling.

With people coming from all over the world to visit the cave, there were huge lines and long waits in recent years. After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Forest Service implemented reservations, which cost $2 atop the Northwest Forest Pass or Day-Use Pass for parking at the site. 

To plan a trip to the caves, head to