The Mount St. Helens earthquake on May 18, 1980, caused the entire north face to slide away. It was the goal of the U.S. Forest Service to produce a center for visitors to safely appreciate the spectacular view of the resulting crater, lava dome, pumice plain and landslide deposit. Visitors are also taught about the art and science of monitoring a volcano and predicting future eruptions.

The design for the Johnston Ridge Observatory began long before a building could be constructed. The damage from the eruption was still very fresh and the design team needed to be flown in by helicopter to survey the site. Ash deeply blanketed the site interrupted by acres of enormous splintered tree trunks piercing otherwise smooth flowing landscape.

Upon entering visitors are met by a large white-model topographical map embedded with fiber optic lighting to highlight the sequence of events. A sawtooth mural wall reveals the remarkable eyewitness survivor accounts culminating in a live-readings seismograph. An enormous splintered tree trunk is preserved to showcase the immense strength and damage produced by the pyroclastic blast. The main theater concludes with the dramatic lifting of the projection screen to reveal the live view of the Mount St. Helens crater.