An active stratovolcano in southwestern Washington, Mount Saint Helens is one of the most dangerous and most closely monitored volcanoes in the world. Its modern moniker was conferred in 1792 by British explorer George Vancouver. However, the peak’s indigenous name is Loowit, which translates to ‘smoking’ or ‘fire mountain.’ Loowit is derived from a variety of longer names given by native tribes that lived around the mountain and witnessed its power for millennia. Just four decades ago, millions more witnessed the might of the ’smoking mountain’ when it exploded with cataclysmic force in 1980.
Mount Saint Helens’ 1980 eruption was the most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history. The explosion killed 57 people and thousands of animals, decimated 230 square miles (600 km2) around the mountain, felled some ten million trees, and caused more than $1 billion in damage (more than $3 billion in today’s dollar). Given the intensity and aftermath of the blast, it’s kind of amazing to think the eruption was considered merely ‘middling’ on a geological scale.
Prior to its 1980 eruption, Mount Saint Helens had been dormant for more than a century. After rumbling to life in March of that year, seismic activity intensified over the next two months, with 10,000 earthquakes shaking the mountain. A series of steam blasts emanated from the cone, and a large bulge nearly a mile in diameter formed on the volcano’s north flank. When the volcano finally erupted on May 18th, the entire north side of the mountain collapsed, triggering the largest landslide in recorded history. Lahars raced down the slopes at 100 mph, and a plume of ash rocketed 15 miles high. In the hours and days after the eruption, 520 million tons of ash was blown eastward from the volcano, reaching the eastern U.S. within three days and circling the entire globe within two weeks.
Not only was the land around the cone decimated, but the mountain itself was irreversibly transformed. The lateral blast blew out the northern flank of the peak, creating a cavernous crater more than a mile wide and over 2,000 feet (600 m) deep. The ice-capped summit that once soared to an elevation of nearly 9,700 feet was reduced in height by 1,300 feet. Today, the highpoint of the horseshoe-shaped amphitheater stands at just 8,363 feet.
Whether you’re a fellow geology nerd or not, there’s something eerily captivating about this formidable mountain. Perhaps it’s that the catastrophic eruption remains a fairly recent memory for many. Perhaps it’s the constant curiosity of when the volcano will again roar to life. Whatever the case, Mount Saint Helens has to rank near the top of the country’s most fascinating features… at least it does for us.
Two years ago, Stephan and I got to gawk at the crater and collapsed northern flank when we hiked Harry’s Ridge – a scenic pleat in the landscape about four miles north of the mountain. While it was wildly cool to see the gaping volcano up close, standing atop the crater rim had remained in the backs of our minds since that first visit. This summer, we figured we’d finally make a summit trip happen.
Getting a permit
Summiting Mount Saint Helens requires a climbing permit. Permits can be purchased online from recreation.gov, the centralized site used for visiting permitted and lotteried federal lands. Permits are required for hiking above 4,800 feet in elevation from April 1 to October 31 each year, and permit numbers are limited. The daily limit is 350 hikers in early spring (April to mid-May), and 110 hikers in summer/fall (mid-May through October). Group sizes are also restricted to a maximum of 12 individuals. The BLM has instituted these quotas to prevent overcrowding and to protect fragile vegetation around the mountain.
Permits go on sale in one-month blocks at 7:00 a.m. Pacific Time on the first day of the preceding month (e.g. all permits for July are released on June 1). For the 2024 season, permits will cost $20 per person plus the non-refundable processing fee ($3/person in 2023). You must create a recreation.gov account before applying for a permit, so make sure you do this well in advance of the permit on-sale time. Permits do sell out very quickly, especially for summer weekend days.
If you don’t get a permit right away, keep an eye on the website. Permit holders can cancel their reservation up to 7 days before the climb date. Consequently, it’s not totally uncommon for an unneeded permit to be put back into the system for resale. If you’ve got flexibility in your schedule, you could end up scoring a last-minute reservation.
For permit information, fees & cancellations, rules & regulations, and a general overview of the hike, visit recreation.gov.
Hiking to Mount Saint Helen’s summit
The hike to the summit was, admittedly, more grueling than we’d anticipated. Clocking in at around 8.5 miles roundtrip with 4,700 feet of vertical, it wasn’t even approaching the threshold of day hikes we’ve taken on. However, the combination of rugged terrain and intense sun exposure makes for a more demanding hike than the distance suggests.
Because we hiked in mid-July we followed the Monitor Ridge Trail, the standard summer route that had opened for the season less than two weeks prior. Beginning along the Ptarmigan Trail from the Climbers Bivouac Trailhead, the track winds for two miles through shaded forests along the southern side of Mount Saint Helens. In summer, the landscape here is speckled with avalanche lilies and other wildflowers, and you can enjoy cooler temperatures and the sounds of birds in the canopy. The elevation gain is also quite moderate through this section, gaining just 1,000 feet of vertical.
After a deceptively easy ascent through the forest, the trail then gains 2,500 vertical feet in just 1.2 miles as it climbs Monitor Ridge. The ridgeline is comprised of large, volcanic boulders which slow the pace significantly. Wooden markers are placed strategically throughout the boulder field and, while they’re largely easy to spot and follow, you’ll still want to pay attention through here. As you make your way up the ridge, the views open up to the south and east. To the east, Mount Adams’ 12,281-foot summit makes a majestic appearance. And if it’s a clear day, you can make out Oregon’s Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson to the south.
Once you’ve cleared the boulder field, the landscape abruptly transitions to volcanic ash as you pass by the GPS station. From here, it’s another 1,000 vertical feet over a mile of ash that’s affectionately dubbed the ‘vertical beach.’ Here, the boot path passes between the remnants of two vanishing ice patches – Dryer Glacier and Swift Glacier. The ash section is pretty steep, and feels like even more of a slog given how deep the fine powder is.
Upon reaching the top, the views are incredible. Within the horseshoe-shaped crater, you can peer down on the central lava dome and surrounding glacier – both of which are growing in size. Just months after the 1980 eruption, smaller, intermittent eruptions began building this nascent lava dome within the center of the crater. Today, the dome stands at 1,000 feet high and continues to grow. If you watch the dome closely, you can see smoke emanating intermittently from the vent – a casual reminder that Mount Saint Helens is still very much alive.
Encircling the lava dome is North America’s youngest glacier and, surprisingly, one of the fastest-growing in the world. During the last major ice age 15,000 to 25,000 years ago, Mount Saint Helens was heavily glaciated. At the time of the 1980 eruption, 11 named glaciers still crowned the summit. However, the eruption destroyed most of the glaciers, wiping out 70% of the peak’s glacial mass. Despite this loss, the last eruption oddly led to the formation of the volcano’s burgeoning crater glacier.
Crater Glacier was first confirmed in 1996 (later named in 2006), and has been steadily advancing in the four decades since the 1980 eruption. Making it all the more unusual, Crater Glacier sits at an elevation of just 6,561 feet, significantly lower than any other found in the Cascades. A number of factors synergize here to create the perfect environment for glacier formation. Importantly, the glacier sits on the north side of the mountain and is shielded from the sun by the towering headwall to the south. The mountain also sees a heavy winter snowpack, and snow and debris avalanches regularly tumble from the crater rim, accumulating around the central lava dome. While most of the world’s glaciers are rapidly retreating due to climate change, it’s reassuring to see one that’s actually growing.
As you gaze across the glaciated amphitheater, you can admire views of Spirit Lake with Mt. Rainier’s massive summit rising just beyond. Looking closely at the lake, you can make out the log mat of pyrolyzed fir trees that still floats on the surface more than forty years after the eruption.
During the 1980 eruption, Spirit Lake received the full impact of the blast. Millions of trees were blown off the surrounding hillsides during the eruption, and many of those ended up in the lake. What is more, the eruption’s cataclysmic force also sent water from Spirit Lake surging in 600-foot-high waves up the ridge to the north, dragging hundreds of thousands more trees back down to the water. While many have sunk, the pyrolyzed logs still cover about twenty percent of the lake’s surface. What’s even more interesting is that the logs are dynamic, largely driven by winds, and can move significantly within a single day as well as seasonally. During spring and summer, the logs usually accumulate around the north side of the lake. As prevailing winds shift in the fall, the logs often migrate to the southern side. It was interesting to revisit our photos from 2021, taken from Harry’s Ridge, and examine how the log mat was positioned slightly differently between the two timepoints (tip: use peninsula as reference point).
While many hikers stop upon reaching the crater rim, you can choose to hike west (climber’s left) along the rim to Loowit’s true summit. To reach the highpoint, it’s about 0.4 miles (one-way) with just a few hundred feet of additional vertical gain. The views don’t change significantly, but we certainly weren’t going to leave without tagging the top and checking out the crater from any additional angle we could.
Once we finished soaking up the amazing summit views, we returned to the trailhead the way we came. On many trails, you can expect the descent to be much shorter. However, this is not necessarily the case on Mount Saint Helens. While zipping down the ash field is a breeze, clambering down the boulder field demands a bit of care as well as some visual route-finding. Personally, we found it much harder to spot the wooden markers on the descent. For comparison, our ascent took us three hours, while the descent took 2.5 hours – a difference of just thirty minutes.
While we were sad to bid farewell to the views, I can’t say the same for the boulders. There’s nothing technical or difficult, but the boulder hopping was, at times, unpleasant (more so on the descent). When we regained a well-groomed trail and traded the blazing sun for a shaded forest, I think we both let out a little woo-hoo. Overall, we thought it was a fantastic outing. Considering weather and mountain conditions are a total crapshoot when you reserve a permit six weeks out, we felt very fortunate for such a gorgeous day. Standing atop Mount Saint Helens certainly inspired every bit of awe we anticipated.
Hiking time and stats
We repeatedly read that the average roundtrip time to hike Mount Saint Helens was 8 to 12 hours, with 10 hours being about average. We read this on the US Forest Service website; we read it on trail reports; we read it on the Mount St. Helens Institute page. No matter how many times we read it, we wondered if it could possibly be accurate. We hike and scramble extensively, regularly taking on long (20+ miles) and aggressive day trips. We know our pace and we can usually predict exactly how long we’ll be on any given trail. To us, this prediction seemed absurdly long for an 8.5-mile hike. But guess what we learned? It does in fact take that long.
Stephan and I completed the entire trip in 7.5 hours, which included almost two hours of wandering around the rim snapping photos, tacking on another mile (roundtrip) to bag the true summit, and enjoying one of the most unreal picnic spots there is. We are pretty zippy hikers and were surprised it took us that amount of time. The lesson? Don’t underestimate this one. If you don’t hike regularly (even if you do), expect it to take every bit of the projected 8 to 12 hours. Nearly every hike report we read cited a total time of 10 to 11 hours. Additionally, we read that it’s pretty hard to maintain a moving speed above 1.5 mph – particularly along the boulder and ash fields – and that also proved to be spot on. While the forest and ash sections were pretty quick for us, we definitely lost time on the boulders. Conclusion: The terrain on Mount Saint Helens really does make all the difference.
Know before you go
- You must have your permit printed and on your person when hiking. Rangers do regularly stop hikers to check permits. All individuals listed on the permit must also carry a government-issued ID. Clear signage reminds hikers of the permit requirements, so don’t plan to just feign ignorance.
- Bring plenty of water and sun protection. There are no water sources along the trail or at the trailhead. Once you get above tree line, the trail is fully exposed to the sun and it is hot. The day we hiked, it was 70F at the base and 55F at the summit. It felt much hotter with the sun beating down, and we both recorded over 5L of sweat loss.
- Start early. If you want to avoid ascending during the hottest part of the day, you need to begin the hike early. Most people start between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. Additionally, if it takes you 10+ hours to hike (you can probably count on at least 8 hours even if you’re quick), you don’t want to be descending in the dark. Check sunrise and sunset times, and bring a headlamp or other illumination.
- Pack layers. While it can be brutally hot for much of the trail, it can also get really cold and windy atop the crater. Make sure you have something warm and something to break the wind. Mountain weather can also change quickly and unexpectedly, so it’s better to be overprepared.
- Take care around the summit. The rim is corniced, and you can see and hear rocks tumbling into the crater from the rim. The terrain is not particularly stable and rockfall is prevalent at any time of year, so stay well back from the edge.
- There is little to no cell service around Mount Saint Helens. Make sure you have GPS maps downloaded offline before hiking, let someone know where you’re going, and sign the register at the trailhead before setting out. Additionally, be aware of your abilities and limits.
- If you’re climbing early in the season, you will need to use the Worm Flows Route (winter route). This trail begins from Marble Mountain Sno-Park and is longer with slightly more elevation gain. There is typically snow here well into summer, so check conditions before climbing. Crampons, an ice axe, and avalanche awareness are likely requisite early in the season, so take your experience into consideration when making your reservation.
- If you want to hike when there is (most likely) no snow, you’ll want to plan your climb for mid-July through September. The summer route follows Monitor Ridge, which begins at the Climbers Bivouac Trailhead at the end of Forest Road 830. The road typically doesn’t open until late June or early July (this year it was July 3rd), so trail access will depend on this. When we visited, the road was paved and in good condition.
- You may want to bring gloves and/or gaiters for the hike (gloves for the boulders, gaiters for the ash). Many hikers recommended this, so we brought both. We ended up using neither. We found that with long pants and hiking socks, gaiters were completely unnecessary. Gloves may be a decent idea, though. While scrambling over the rocks, we didn’t find them particularly sharp. However, Stephan slipped once and cut his hand slightly when it grazed a boulder. Luckily, we always hike with first aid, so we had a bandage on hand.
- Leave no trace. Always remember to pack it in, pack it out and recreate responsibly. As with any wilderness area, you are a guest. Treat it with the reverence you would your own home. Additionally, Mount Saint Helens (Loowit) has been a sacred place for Native Americans for thousands of years. Please show respect for this special place when you visit.