Description: The Mount St. Helens Summit is the hike of lifetime. Mount St. Helens is an active volcano (though well-monitored, so they don’t let people go up there when it’s about to blow). Because the area is ecologically sensitive, only 100 hikers are allowed up on any given day between April 1 and October 31 (in the winter, you can snowshoe up).
Although the Monitor Ridge Trail to the Mount St. Helens summit is very challenging in terms of endurance, it doesn’t require technical climbing skills. The trail provides incredible views of beautiful mountain ranges all the way up, and when you reach the top, you can stand on the rim of the crater and view an amazing lava-scoured landscape with steaming volcanic vents that looks like something you would find on Mars rather than Earth.
The round trip to the summit and back is approximately 16 kilometers (10 miles), with an elevation gain of 1,422 meters (4,665 feet), divided into three stretches. The first 3.4 km (2.1 miles) and 305 meters (1,000 feet) of elevation gain winds upward through pretty forests and meadows.
The next stretch, which starts at the tree line, goes on for miles and brings you up another 762 vertical meters (2,500 feet) through fields of boulders and volcanic ash. The quickest way up is to scramble over the boulders, keeping an eye out for the wooden poles that rise at intervals to let you know that you’re still on the right track. Many people choose to find little narrow paths between the boulders where possible, but this can be very time consuming. The boulders have rough surfaces, so it’s easy to get a good grip with your hands and feet.
The last section of the climb runs about 305 vertical meters (1,000 feet) through thick volcanic ash and small rocks to the crater rim. This stretch has been described as “two steps forward, one step back” because climbers tend to slide back a little with each step. This part of the trail is at high altitude, so the air is thin, which makes things even more challenging.
You reach the top suddenly, and the rim of the crater is only a few feet wide. Be sure to stay well-back from the edge while taking photos, because the cornice could break under your feet.
We ate part of our lunch on the crater’s rim, enjoying the views, but decided to head down to the boulder fields to have the rest of our food because there was a lot of volcanic dust blowing around at the top. Heading down the ash field was easy – with a mountaineering plunge step and a bit of sliding, we were at the boulder fields in no time.
There are plenty of flat spots in the boulder fields to eat your food and enjoy the mountain views, and it’s a good place to rest for a bit because the trip down is hard on the knees and quads, and it requires good upper body strength if you choose to scramble rather than look for paths between boulders (which takes ages). People have stacked rocks to make sculptures in the little valleys between boulders, and the place has a powerful, spiritual energy.
Time: Allowing 8 to 12 hours is recommended. We completed the round trip in around 7, with approximately half an hour for food stops and another half hour for photo stops, but we passed a large number of people along the way, so I don’t think 7 hours is a typical timeframe for completion.
Cost: Climber’s permits are $22. Visit the Mount St. Helens Institute webpage to search for available permit dates (looking for summer permits in the spring is recommended, as they sell out fast).
Difficulty: This is a very challenging hike. It requires endurance, cardio fitness, and strength to reach the summit. Unless you already have a relatively high fitness level, I recommend training for this. We ran into a number of people who didn’t make it all the way to the top because they hadn’t trained (though there are plenty of amazing open views to enjoy along the way, so even getting partway up is worthwhile). If you want to go with an experienced mountain guide, there are guided climbing options.
The basic supply list includes hiking boots, full-length pants made from synthetic fabric, enough water and food for the day, sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses, hat, rain jacket just in case, gaiters (to keep the ash and rocks out of your shoes), compass, map, gloves (so that you don’t cut your hands on the sharper rocks), first aid kit, headlamp or flashlight (in case you don’t make it down before dark), and multi-tool (Swiss army knife). Having waterproof pants and extra socks in your bag is also a good idea.
Many people bring hiking poles, which are helpful for the downhill stretches; however, for some parts of the climb, they will just get in the way and restrict your options for choosing paths (we found it far easier to scramble over the boulders than to make our way around them using poles). I recommend bringing retractable poles that you can store in your backpack so that you have the option of using or stashing them as needed,
- The views are breathtaking, and you get surround views all along the trail once you pass the tree line.
- It’s an opportunity to witness a completely unique landscape.
- You’ll get a fantastic workout.
- There’s a very positive atmosphere among the climbers – everyone we met was friendly and in a great mood, even those who weren’t able to make it to the top.
- The fact that it’s an active volcano makes it a particularly exciting hike (even though it’s highly unlikely to blow up on you).
- The difficulty of the hike means that many people won’t be able to do it.
- Coming down is hard on the knees, and you’ll probably experience delayed onset muscle soreness in your legs as well.
- Unpredictable weather makes this hike a bit of a gamble. You purchase your pass for a certain day and if it rains, you’re out of luck.
- Dress in layers – we found it quite warm on the uphill stretch due to the exertion required, but chilly when sitting at the top with the wind blowing.
- Buy your pass early in the season before they sell out.
- Train for the hike unless you’re unusually fit.
- Stay somewhere close by so that you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to drive to the mountain. You can camp at the Climber’s Bivouac or Marble Mountain Sno-Park or stay at the Lone Fir Resort or the Mount St. Helens Bed and Breakfast in Cougar, Washington. We stayed at the Lone Fir, which was rustic but clean and comfortable. If you stay there, try the pizza at their little restaurant – it’s wonderful.
- For more information about this hike, see the Mount St. Helens Institute FAQ page, the Washington Trails Association Mount St. Helens Summit – Monitor Ridge page, the USDA Forest Service’s Climbing Mount St. Helens page, and PortlandHikers.org Mount St. Helens Hike page.
For more Mount St. Helens photos, see the main Mount St. Helens Gallery page.
For more great Northwest U.S. hikes, see Harry’s Ridge and the Heather – Maple Pass Loop. For British Columbia hikes, see the Rainbow Trail to Rainbow Lake, the Lions Hike (Binkert Trail), Mt. Seymour Three Peaks, the Red Heather Trail, Al’s Habrich Ridge, and Flatiron Peak (via Needle Peak Trail).
*Conditions may have changed since the time of this writing.