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Nature still returning to Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens is a mix of gray and green 16 years after its eruption. The landscape is otherworldly, like the surface of the moon peppered with baby fir trees and purple wildflowers.

It's a place of extremes, where steam rises from a snow-flanked crater and knolls of powdery avalanche debris sit beside a crystal-clear lake.

Visitors to this dozing volcano see nature rebuilding itself, sprouting traces of the scenery that made the mountain a popular recreation site before 1980.

The most popular route to the mountain is off Interstate 5 at Castle Rock. Highway 504 winds alongside the North Fork Toutle River, where debris from the volcano's massive avalanche raced at 60 mph.

Pick up a copy of Patrick Pringle's Roadside Geology of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Vicinity at the library before you go. The book identifies geological features by adjacent mile markers along Highway 504 and other routes to the mountain.

About 27 miles up the highway is the new Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, built by Cowlitz County and opened in May.

The alpine-style lodge has a restaurant and gift shop. The food is a bit pricey, but the gift shop makes the stop worthwhile. Brown-baggers can use the lodge's picnic area, which has great views of the Toutle Valley.

Visitors also can purchase helicopter tours at the visitor center. Starting at $69, the tours travel up the Toutle Valley to the crater and promise sightings of the mountain's elk herds along the way.

Before you leave, take time to view the collages of photos and short stories by the The Longview Daily News, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the eruption. The collages tell stories about people affected by the eruption, some who lost their lives.

Fifteen more miles up the highway is the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. At seven miles from the crater, it is the closest view of the mountain accessible by car. The center opened three years ago and now receives 1 million visitors a year.

The visitor center sits inside the blast zone and its glass atrium and outside deck offer views into the volcano's crater. Interpreters give daily 20-minute talks on the deck about the changes to the mountain's habitat.

Because the visitor center is within the national volcanic monument, the surrounding landscape is untouched by human help. Scientists are letting the land evolve on its own and studying what it does.

Inside, exhibits describe the eruption's effect on the mountain's wildlife. There also is a gift shop and fast-food restaurant.

The visitor center overlooks Coldwater Lake, the former site of Coldwater Creek. The lake is two miles from the visitor center on a paved road.

Avalanche debris dammed the Coldwater Creek and formed the lake, making it one of the newest lakes in the world.

It's also a good example of nature rebuilding itself. The eruption left a mess of organic material in the new lake, making it unable to support wildlife. Within a few years, bacteria cleared the lake and now visitors can see the lake bottom at depths of 12 feet.

A quarter-mile Birth of a Lake trail tells the story of the lake's formation and is accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. A boardwalk branches off from the paved trail and winds through grasses above the lake's surface.

Shoreline fishing is allowed from three designated areas. Anglers must have a state fishing license and the limit is one fish a day per person. Only artificial flies or lures with single, barbless hooks are allowed.

Hardier hikers can take the Lakes Trail which begins at the boat launch and paral lels the lake shoreline. It extends five miles until a washout from the winter floods forces hikers to turn around.

Take lots of sunscreen and water. The bare mountainside can be hot.

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