Volcano lodge and approved developed campground in Mount St. Helens National Monument

The US Forest Service has approved a plan to develop what would be the first overnight tourist facilities within the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, including a campsite, cabins and a lodge.

The lodge complex and outdoor school are the vision of the Mount St. Helens Institute, an educational nonprofit based in Clark County, Washington. Institute executive director Ray Yurkewycz said the idea of ​​overnight accommodation — and the demand for it — has been around for a long time.

“If you look at any other similar public land site in the Pacific Northwest, there are opportunities to stay longer and engage. And that’s a big thing,” Yurkewycz said in an interview. Thursday.

“You know, it’s one thing to come for a few hours and go to the visitor center, hike and come home. It’s another to spend the night – for the children in particular , but for all visitors,” he continued.

The Forest Service at the end of April signed a 30-year graduated license for the Mount St. Helens Institute to remodel the current Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center and add a trio of 10-bedroom lodges, a cluster of cabins, and a 40-berth campground. These would be laid out on and around Coldwater’s vast, nearly empty parking lot. The renovated visitor center would include a new cafe and bookstore, as well as meeting and classroom spaces.

“The infrastructure is already there,” Yurkewycz said. “This is not a new disturbance.”

Once the detailed design and engineering is complete, the Forest Service plans to do further environmental analysis. A spokesperson for Gifford Pinchot National Forest said the public will have an opportunity to provide input during this process.

The center of Coldwater Ridge is in the blast zone about seven miles as the crow flies from the crater of Mount St. Helens.

Yurkewycz says the estimated $35 million construction cost still needs to be raised from public and private sources. That means the grand opening is probably about five years away.

“Partnerships like this strengthen our conservation education programs while benefiting local communities,” Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Ranger Rebecca Hoffman said in a prepared statement. “The Forest’s decision to issue these 30-year operating permits to Mount St. Helens Institute is the result of our confidence in the Institute’s vision and due diligence.

Currently, there are many RV camping and lodging options available in gateway communities such as Castle Rock, Kelso, the Cowlitz River Valley, and Cougar, Washington. But from these locations, visitors to the volcano usually have to drive an hour to the main viewpoints and trailheads inside the national monument. Backcountry camping is available seasonally on the edge of the national monument.

At the end of March, the three Cowlitz County commissioners signed a letter of support for the lodge complex.

“Since its 1980 eruption, public access to Mount St. Helens has steadily declined; yet, within 40 miles away, visits to Mount Rainier are steadily increasing,” the commissioners’ letter said. “We believe MSHI’s Lodge & Education Center will provide expanded access to the Monument, tapping into a growing market for accommodations and amenities at places of interest. We believe outdoor recreational tourism is a important driver of economic diversification that will allow Cowlitz County to grow over the long term as the demand for outdoor recreation opportunities increases.”

The existing Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center was built in 1993, then closed by the Forest Service in 2007 due to high maintenance costs and a lack of staff. These days, most visitors head straight for Johnston Ridge Observatory, a day visitor center a short drive away at the end of the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. However, Johnston Ridge is closed about half of each year due to snow. Coldwater Ridge is accessible almost year-round.

Mount St. Helens Institute reopened the Coldwater Visitor Center in 2012 under a renewable lease to run science and outdoor education programs for young people – mostly day programs, but with limited school use overnight as well. Forest Service rangers sometimes call the facility on weekends to answer questions from visitors.

Yurkewycz said he anticipates shared and rotating occupancy of the future lodge complex by school groups and the general public during the spring and fall school outing seasons.

“We envision the facility being dedicated only (to the outdoor school) Monday night through Thursday night during those months, and then weekends could be available for other visitors,” Yurkewycz said.

Summer could be a mix of youth camps, school and general public bookings. The winter could be mainly open to tourists and recreation seekers, he said.