In 1982, the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument  was created, and the area has been gradually opened to visitors as roads, bridges, visitors centers, and trails are built. The government still keeps parts of it off-limits to serve as a natural laboratory for scientists. They have learned one basic fact so far: nature heals itself more quickly than anyone expected. Plant and animal life is returning quite rapidly considering the extent of the destruction.
The Forest Service has imposed stringent regulations on activity within the National Monument, both to protect visitors from potential hazards and to protect the area as a natural laboratory of ecological change. Visitors must stay away from certain areas and not venture off trails; a minimum $100 fine, stringently enforced, awaits those who travel off-trail.
Roads approach Mount St. Helens from the east and west sides, offering dramatic views into its center, while more adventurous visitors can climb to the summit from the south side. The vast majority of visitors arrive from the west, turning off I-5 and following Spirit Lake Highway 54 miles past a series of visitors centers and ending at Johnston Ridge, where you can peer into the volcano’s crater. Be sure to fill your gas tank before you start out on any of the Mount St. Helens access roads; gas stations are few and far between, especially on the east side. Specific access routes are described below from the east, south, and west. From the north side you are limited to distant views from a roadside pullout near Mossyrock Dam.
Visitors stopping in at Johnston’s Ridge will need to pay a monument fee of $8 per person. If you just want to drive around or go for a hike, all that’s required is a Northwest Forest Pass (800/270-7504, www.fs.fed.us/r6/passespermits/nwfp , $5 daily, $30 annual). Get passes from any of the local visitors centers.