Coldwater: Expanding Education and Access at Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is one of the most iconic landscapes and unique outdoor learning laboratories in the Pacific Northwest. Four decades after its historic eruption, the rebirth of this mountain spurs curiosity and wonder and invites endless education and recreation opportunities. 

About MSHI: For over 25 years, Mount St. Helens Institute (MSHI) has connected people of all ages and backgrounds to this awe-inspiring volcano through overnight youth experiences, guided family hikes, meaningful volunteer opportunities and more. MSHI supports the human connection to the land and advances understanding and stewardship of the Earth through science, education, and exploration. 

The Need: Despite all that we can learn from this unique landscape, compared to other national parks and monuments in our region, Mount St. Helens lacks the amenities—campgrounds, lodges, cabins and dining—to make it more than a day trip destination. Aging and ill-equipped facilities at the former Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, where MSHI has offered day and overnight outdoor learning programs for a decade, severely limit the number of youth who can access these experiences. Nearby communities are missing out on vital economic growth.  Without our investment, the visitor center would likely be shuttered or torn down and our region will lose an important opportunity to connect with Mount St. Helens.

Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity: MSHI has a unique opportunity to transform the Monument's aging and ill-equipped former Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center into a world-class campus where everyone can experience the wonder of the volcano. 

Together with our supporters and partners, MSHI will expand and develop the Coldwater campus into a place where recreation bolsters local economies; a place where K-12 public school students explore Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics careers in the outdoor classroom of an active volcano; and a place where people of all ages discover the scientific and cultural significance of this iconic landscape and recreate on its trails and lakes.

A three-phase process: To accomplish our goals of expanding educational opportunities, access, and economic development in the region, MSHI has broken the development process into three phases:

  • Phase 1: Expand overnight outdoor school by adding new student accommodations and staff housing, allowing MSHI to engage 5,500 additional youth in overnight experiences at Mount St. Helens. Begin pilot programs for kayak rental and primitive camping. 
  • Phase 2: Create a public campground with 40 RV/tent sites, expected to serve 5,000 visitors annually. Concurrently, we will improve the local hiking and mountain biking trail system that also provides access for fishing, boating and picnicking.
  • Phase 3: Remodel the Science and Learning Center to be more sustainable, efficient, and appropriately designed for outdoor education programs.

Through the generous support of partners and donors, MSHI aims to complete the first phase by the end of 2025. Future phases will continue to expand access through additional accommodations, food service, and recreation opportunities. 

Phase 1: Expanded Outdoor School

Phase 1 responds to the immediate need in the region for expanded outdoor school. As Washington State continues to prioritize high quality outdoor learning experiences for our youth, MSHI wants to build capacity as soon as possible to offer educational experiences at Mount St. Helens to as many students as we can. 

Mount St. Helens as an Outdoor Classroom: Overnight visits to the volcano are transformative educational, social and emotional experiences for kids. Hands-on learning in nature helps young people see how their classroom learning connects to their lives and futures, which increases student engagement in the classroom. MSHI’s youth education programs—including Volcano Outdoor School and GeoGirls—offer an authentic connection to natural history and science in their backyard and raise career awareness for thousands of youth annually, including low-income and marginalized K-12 students. Building student accommodations to house 120 participants increases the number of students participating in our overnight outdoor school from 500 to 6,000 annually, even as we continue to offer day programs for other students. 

Staff housing: An increase in participants requires enough staff to lead and feed those students! Our dedicated staff come from local towns and around the country to work in a unique environment, and our remote location requires on-site housing. Permanent, dedicated staff housing builds community amongst on-site staff while allowing them the privacy and personal space needed for work-life balance. 

Expanded recreational opportunities: Coldwater Lake is a hot spot in the summer for families who want to recreate on and near the water. MSHI plans to offer seasonal paddle sport rentals (single kayaks, tandem kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, canoes) at the lake. While MSHI acquires funding for the Phase 2 campground, we also anticipate offering primitive camping to the public at our field camp on Coldwater Ridge. This camping opportunity will open access to hundreds of folks who haven't had the experience of seeing Mount St. Helens under the stars. Student accommodations, when not in use for outdoor school, will open to the public for the first overnight rentals within the Monument since the 1980 eruption.

Phase 2: Public Campground and Trails

Phase 2 expands on our ability to bring wider economic development to the region.

Public Camping: A fully developed campground will allow visitors to stay with amenities inside the Monument for the first time since the 1980 eruption. Spaces for a variety of RV sizes with full hookups and space for tent camping complement a selection of more private walk-in sites. Visitors who come to stay in the Monument will also spend dollars in the towns below, contributing to the regional economy and bolstering Mount St. Helens as a centerpiece of Southwest Washington. 

Trail improvements and connections: While the Monument maintains miles of trails in the area that are easily accessible to Highway 504 at Coldwater Lake, the Hummocks, and Johnston Ridge Observatory, these trails are fragmented. MSHI aims to build trail connections from the Science and Learning Center to the Coldwater Lake boat launch, the Hummocks trailhead, and the South Coldwater Ridge trailhead. Trail connections allow more options for trips, safer street crossings, and enhanced experiences for visitors. 

Phase 3: A Sustainable Science and Learning Center

Phase 3 modernizes the Science and Learning Center and creates a sustainable education center ready to serve through the next century. 

MSHI has operated the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater as an education center since 2012. Its layout as a visitor's center served it well, but doesn't meet the needs of a modern learning center. The kitchen and dining areas were designed for a few dozen temporary visitors, not 100 or more overnight program participants. Office space is minimal, classroom space is nonexistent, storage is inconvenient, and muddy, wet students often slip on the outdated tile floors. The 30+ year old HVAC, plumbing and fire systems are woefully outdated and inefficient, and the entire facility suffers from millions of dollars' worth of deferred maintenance. 

Our solution? A remodel of the Science and Learning Center. A complete remodel of the building will bring it into the 21st century, providing safe and meaningful educational experiences for participants for years to come. MSHI will model sustainability and efficiency through new systems and update the layout to better accommodate student, teacher, and staff needs while preserving the overall structure of the building and maintaining the amazing views. 

MSHI's Vision for Coldwater

Once the first three phases are complete, MSHI isn't done! Future project phases will continue to work toward MSHI's Master Plan for Coldwater, adding supplemental overnight lodging, public dining opportunities, and new educational spaces. Once the full vision for Coldwater is realized, it will become a destination worthy of the location’s spectacular views, cultural significance and endless educational opportunities. More than 13,000 overnight guests will be welcomed annually. 

Additional Educational Infrastructure: Dedicated outdoor classroom spaces will provide further opportunities for day program participants to experience Mount St. Helens. An amphitheater will allow for large group activities in addition to other public events. Nature play spaces will inspire curiosity and play for both student program participants and public camp visitors. 

Public Overnight Experiences: Student accommodations offer a way for MSHI to quickly mobilize expansion of outdoor school. Future phases will add full service lodges with dining opportunities for both educational programs and public rental.

Expanding Outdoor Recreation: Creating a dedicated welcome center will open the volcano up to the public in a way that it never has been before. A cafe and gift shop with recreational supplies, snacks, souvenirs, and books will provide additional services to visitors. Boating, winter recreation and continued trail improvements will allow people of all ages and abilities to experience the volcano.  

Spurring Economic Development: Nearby communities are missing out on vital economic growth. Compared to other national parks and monuments in our region, Mount St. Helens is missing an opportunity for tourism to spark economic growth. As timber towns across the state look for ways to revitalize their economies, tourism has proven to be a promising solution to a prosperous future. The lack of amenities at the volcano hinders the potential for visitor dollars to come to surrounding communities. Economic analysis shows the new center will generate $125 million in increased regional spending over 15 years, and create 80+ local education, tourism and service sector jobs.

How Can I Get Involved? 

If you are as excited as we are, please let us know! For more information about the Coldwater project, please contact Alyssa Hoyt, MSHI Strategic Projects Director, via email or phone. To provide financial support, please contact Amanda Conroy, MSHI Development Director, via email or phone.

Our Partners: MSHI is the official non-profit partner of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The U.S. Forest Service has granted a 30-year lease permit for MSHI to manage the new center. Educational and recreational programs are offered in collaboration with a number of partners, including Cowlitz Indian Tribe; Gifford Pinchot National Forest; US Geological Survey; Washington State Parks; Pacific Northwest Research Station; Washington Trails Association; numerous school districts including Educational Service District 112; and youth-serving organizations throughout Cowlitz, Clark and Lewis counties.