While Mount Saint Helens was once thought of as the Mount Fuji of the USA due to its perfect conical shape, thanks to its famous eruption in 1980 the Cascade peak now has an almost equally well-known flat top that can viewed from dozens of miles away (on a clear day at least).
Today, Mount Saint Helens and the surrounding national volcanic monument is a popular destination for hiking, climbing, biking and backpacking. But maybe the most famous adventure is climbing up to the crater rim of the ubiquitous mountain itself.
Mount Saint Helens (or Loowit — the indigenous name given by the Klickitat tribe) is considered to be a non-technical mountain. And in truth, as long as you have the physical fitness, the ability to do a bit of rock scrambling and the gumption, you can make it to the top. There are two trails available depending on the time of year you plan to visit: the Ptarmigan Trail is more commonly used in the summer (this is the route I took), while the Worm Flows Trail is more commonly taken in the winter (though you can obviously take it in the summer too).
This adventure guide mostly covers the Ptarmigan and Monitor Ridge route — though most of the information, especially on what time of year to hike, what to bring with you on the trail and what to expect along the way — can easily be followed for either hike.
If you are thinking of climbing Mount St Helens but have a few lingering questions, then this in-depth guide is for you!
\\ How to Get to the Mount Saint Helens Trailhead
When planning to summit Mount Saint Helens you will want to drive and park (and likely camp) at the Climbers Bivouac Trailhead, located on the boundary of Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument and near the town of Cougar, Washington.
For the most part, the drive to the trailhead will be on a well-maintained paved road. Only the last couple of miles are dirt and gravel. but even this section isn’t too bad and easily doable for nearly all types of vehicles.
Below are basic driving directions from the nearby major cities of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington:
FROM PORTLAND, OR
If starting from Portland or the surrounding area, the drive to the trailhead should take roughly 1.5 hours. To start, head up Interstate 5 and into Washington. Then turn onto Highway 503 in the town of Woodland (there is a couple of gas stations, restaurants and a large grocery store here if you need some last-minute supplies). Then drive for a little over 30 miles, past the town of Cougar until you see a sign and the turn for NF 81. Drive up this paved road until you enter the national monument (there is a sign and information board). Along the way, you will see the turn for Ape Cave, a popular destination in the area.
Soon you will see a sign for 830 Road and Climbers Bivouac Trailhead. Turn right here and follow it until the end. The trailhead parking lot is quite large and includes multiple pit toilets, an information station, picnic tables and campsites.
Total Distance: 74 miles // 1 hour and 35 minutes
FROM SEATTLE, WA
If you are coming from Seattle, you will follow a similar route as above but instead of heading north on Interstate 5 you will be coming from the south. The drive from Seattle to the Mount Saint Helens trailhead takes just under 3.5 hours (on average). You will take the same exit in Woodland and drive up through Cougar before reaching the national monument boundary and the turn for the Climbers Bivouac Trailhead.
Total Distance: 186 miles // 3 hours and 20 minutes
CAMPING AT THE MOUNT SAINT HELENS TRAILHEAD
It is perfectly acceptable to camp at the Mount Saint Helens Trailhead, which is especially nice if you are planning an early summit climb. The parking lot is quiet, dark and has the standard amenities like pit toilet bathrooms, an information station, picnic tables, trash bins, fire pits (check for fire regulations beforehand) and plenty of flat and clear spots for tents. Though I do not remember if there was potable water available 😶
I camped the night before in my car and had zero issues. However I would recommend getting to the trailhead relatively early (I arrived around 6:30 PM on a weeknight) since it does fill up rather quickly — especially in the summer. Also, note that there really is no phone service available at the trailhead, so make sure to download your offline map and let your family and friends know where you are at before heading up.
\\ The Best Time to Hike Mount Saint Helens
The best time of year to climb Mount Saint Helens depends solely on how you want to actually travel: in the winter skis or snowmobiles are necessary, while in the summer hiking boots (and even trail runners) will do the trick. Likewise, you will also want to decide what kind of weather you want to experience. In the winter you can expect snow and icy, cold wind and a lower chance of visibility. While in the summer the temperatures can be quite hot and the sun can be strong when hiking outside of the forest (nearly half of the hike).
I summited Mount Saint Helens in the middle of summer (early August) and found the weather to be quite nice. While it was windy and somewhat chilly at the top, it was nice to have an early sunrise, blue skies (for the most part), balmy temperatures, and a clear trail. But, with that being said, the scree section at the end can be really tough (aka slick) in the summer.
❔GOOD TO KNOW: Mount Saint Helens is a popular place for backcountry skiing in the winter due to its short approach and open mountainside. If you are fine dealing with the cold, skiing up and down could be a fantastic way to explore the mountain.
\\ What to Bring With You to Hike Mount Saint Helens
What gear you bring with you to climb Mount Saint Helens totally depends on the time of year you are planning to go. I did the hike in early August and found the trail to be almost completely clear of snow. Because of this, I chose to wear trail running shoes instead of hiking and mountaineering boots. Likewise, I didn’t feel the need to bring as many layers as I would of if I was doing it in the winter and/or during the chillier shoulder seasons.
But, with that being said, because of the warmer temperatures and the overall lack of shade for a good part of the hike, I did make sure to pack plenty of water and sun protection. Below is a brief outline of what I brought with me to climb Mount Saint Helens:
| Shoes: I wore trail running shoes but really the main thing to keep in mind is wearing footwear that has good grip (there is a lot of loose sand and scree as well as boulder hopping along the route) and that are comfortable for both uphill and downhill travel. These are the trail runners that I wore.
| Backpack: make sure to wear a comfortable backpack that can carry all of your necessities like water (see more on this below), snacks, an extra layer or two, a first aid kit and a headlamp. I wore my trusty 30L bag but only filled it about halfway with gear.
| Sun Protection: there isn’t too much shade along the trail so be prepared for plenty of sun, especially if you are hiking during the middle of the day. I made sure to bring a sun hat, sun shirt (with a hood), sunscreen, sunglasses and lip balm with SPF.
| Wind Protection: the wind can be fierce once you get within a mile or so of the summit. And I mean howling, push-you-back-down-the-mountain fierce. Because of this, it would be smart to pack a buff to help protect your face and neck from the blowing sand, glasses (or even goggles) to help shield your eyes, and a windbreaker for extra warmth.
Other pieces of gear that would be helpful on Mount Saint Helens are gloves with good grip (great for rock scrambling) and some warmer layers for up at the summit — especially a beanie or headband.
💬INSIDER TIP: because of the lack of shade along the route you will want to bring enough water up with you. I brought a full 3L CamelBak bladder and had plenty for the whole ~9-mile hike. But, with that being said, if you are someone who tends to drink lots of water while out hiking or is planning to start during the heat of the day, then I would highly suggest packing a full water bladder and an extra water bottle too. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a place to filter water along the trail so you will have to carry all water with you from the start.
\\ Mount Saint Helens Hiking Permits
A climbing permit is REQUIRED for hiking up Mount Saint Helens year-round. But there are more regulations in place between April 1 and October 31st (the more popular time to climb). During that season there is a quota system in place to help reduce overcrowding and protect the area's natural resources.
During the quota season (April 1 and October 31st) you will need to secure a permit ahead of time. Permits are released in one month increments on the first day of the preceding month. So for example, if you want to climb Mount Saint Helens in August, you will need to get online and reserve your permit on July 1st. To reserve your permit, head to recreation.gov and search for Mount St. Helens climbing permit (check it out now).
❔GOOD TO KNOW: permits can go quickly, especially during the busy summer months (June, July and August) so make sure to get online early to reserve the day you want. All permits become available at 7AM PST on the 1st.
Other important things to know about permits for Mount Saint Helens are that you will need to print your permit before hiking (you can do this up to 14 days in advance), once the permit is printed no changes can be made to your reservation, and the max group size is 12 people.
The permit costs $15 per person (per day). There is also a $6 transaction fee added to each reservation made. So for example, if you are purchasing a permit for 3 people it will cost $51 ($15 x 3 people + $6). If you are climbing with others, you will need to add all members information when making the reservation (mainly their names). Finally, whoever purchases the permit becomes the permit holder and MUST be on the climb.
➳ Learn more about permits for Mount Saint Helens here.
\\ Extra Tips to Know About Hiking Mount Saint Helens
While summiting Mount Saint Helens isn’t considered to be very technical, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to have a more enjoyable climbing experience.
1 | It is super easy to find your way along the trail, even when the trail somewhat disappears on the boulder fields. When in the trees (the first ~2 miles of trail) you will want to follow the blue markers (some can be quite high up on tree trunks). Then once you are out of the forest and heading up the rocks, make sure to follow the tall wooden poles. The weather can change quickly on the mountain and fog/clouds are somewhat common, but as long as you always can see the wooden poles you should be fine.
But with that all being said, it is also not a bad idea to download an offline map beforehand. I have been using Gaia GPS for years and love it.
2 | It can be suuuuuper windy during the last mile or so of the summit push (really once you pass the obvious weather station). This is also when the trail gets quite sandy (wind + sand = uncomfortable eyes). Make sure to pack a buff that can be used to shield your mouth and neck from the blowing wind and sand, as well as some eye protection like sunglasses and/or goggles.
3 | In the rocky section (mainly the large boulder field) you will need to be prepared for some scrambling. This can include having to use both hands to pull yourself up and over some large boulders. Always take your time and make sure all rocks are stable before putting all of your weight on it. Likewise, when climbing up or down, always keep an eye on your surroundings in case someone else is in the vicinity who may either knock a rock down on you or who you may knock a rock down on.
💬INSIDER TIP: while I do love rock scrambling, I also found the sandy trails that run along the lower sides of the ridge to be quite nice too. If the upper trail (the one with the wooden poles) is crowded with people going up or down, then I highly recommend heading for one of the other established routes. These should be quite obvious once you are out of the forest.
4 | Let’s talk a little bit about the difficulty of this mountain. I personally didn’t find it to be too challenging. BUT I am also a very fit 20-something who finds joy in running 20+ miles. So definitely take my view with a grain of salt. With that being said though, this hike is not very long (between 8.5 and 9.5 miles round-trip) and while it does climb a decent amount (4,655 feet), it isn’t technical and really just requires the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Some tips to help make it a more enjoyable hike would be to start early (like around 4AM) in order to beat the heat of the day if you are planning to do it in the summer, hydrating regularly — including the night before you hike, bringing electrolytes (I love electrolyte gummies) as well as plenty of snacks with you, wearing shoes that have good grip (I saw a group that were wearing standard looking boat shoes and they were really struggling on the rocky section), and finally, if this is your first bigger mountain, try to do some training beforehand, including going for long hikes or walks that include some longer hills.
HIKING MOUNT SAINT HELENS | THE ADVENTURE BREAKDOWN
TOTAL DISTANCE: 8.5 miles
ELEVATION PROFILE: 4,655 feet // 1,418 meters; the highest point is the summit at 8,363 feet or 2,549 meters
TIME NEEDED: 5–10 hours depending on your fitness level
TRAIL CONDITIONS: first two miles are in the forest on a very easy-to-follow trail, then it is mostly in the open on a boulder field and/or loose sandy scree; there is a somewhat false summit so be aware of that
CHECK OUT THE ALLTRAILS GUIDE
START | You will begin the climb up Mount Saint Helens from the Climber’s Bivouac Trailhead. Before starting, make sure to add your name to the registration book and either pay for parking ($5) or display your Northwest Forest Pass.
1 | The first two miles or so are in the forest. The trail is easy to follow, especially once all of the snow has melted. If the trail is somewhat covered (likely by lingering snow) then simply follow the blue arrows that are posted regularly on the trees.
❔GOOD TO KNOW: you actually enter Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument after 0.3 miles of hiking, before that you are in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
2 | After nearly 2 miles, you will come to a junction with the Loowit Trail. This route actually circumnavigates the entire mountain and is open to bikers. Next to this junction is a restroom (though it was closed when I did the hike in August of 2023). This is your last chance to use the bathroom (with some privacy) before the trail leaves the forest and heads out into the wide open boulder fields.
❔GOOD TO KNOW: after the trail junction, the trail name actually changes from being the Ptarmigan Trail to the Monitor Ridge Trail.
3 | Soon after you leave the forest you will see a sign stating that you cannot go any further without a climbing permit (see above for more information). If you do not have a permit, please follow the rules and turn around here. If you do, keep heading up through the rocky landscape. Above you you will be able to see the prominent Green Knoll. Look for the white wooden posts to help guide your way.
4 | From the start of the boulder field the grade gets a lot steeper. Be prepared for some loose rock and rocks that you will very likely need to start climbing up and over. While the trail isn’t nearly as obvious as it was in the forest, it is still easy to find your way by always looking for the posts (and/or using an offline map if you have one — I recommend it no matter the hike — and also just heading straight up the hill).
5 | At nearly the 3-mile mark, the rocks get a bit bigger and you will have to do some scrambling. If you are not used to climbing over rocks this section can be quite slow. But always take your time (the mountain isn’t going anywhere so why rush it?), check that a rock is secure before putting all of your weight on it, and keep an eye out for other climbers heading up or down.
6 | Once you see the weather tower (a sizeable metal device with a small information sign), know that the boulder field is nearly over. This is a good spot to take a quick snack break and look around at the surrounding area (plus you can read more about how scientists monitor the volcanoes in the area).
7 | After the weather tower the rocks give way to ash, sand, and scree. From here you can clearly see the crater rim hovering above you. Just keep heading up, though be prepared for slightly slicker conditions. This part can feel quite long, especially if the wind is really raging.
8 | Once you make it to the rim, you will be rewarded with amazing views of the area and the volcanic crater itself. While it might not look very big, the crater can actually hold 300 football fields. It also has the only growing glacier in North America (both facts are from the wonderful Mount St Helen’s volunteer I met on my hike back down).
9 | While you might think you’ve done all the climbing you need to do, if you are someone who needs to finish something 100% then you will need to head to the left and climb around the crater to reach the actual peak/highest point.
10 | From where the trail meets the crater rim to the highest point it is roughly 0.4 miles. There is a clear trail along the rim, but make sure to stay vigilant for any falling rock (quite common) on your hike around. Similarly, this part of the trail is all loose sand and scree so it can be a bit slippery. Take your time, especially on some of the downclimbs.
11 | Make it to the actual summit! Woo you did it. From the highest point — which sits at 8,363 feet (2,549 meters) — you will be able to see Mount Adams to the east, Mount Rainier to the north, and Mount Hood to the south (on a clear day of course).
12 | Once you get your fill of the summit, simply retrace your steps and head back down the exact way you came up. Do note that the section between the crater rim and the boulder field is quite slippery so take your time and watch your footing.
13 | It is likely that if you started your hike nice and early (I started at 5:30AM) you will see a lot more people coming up on your way down. Etiquette states that uphill travelers get the right of way and this is very true in this case (especially on the boulder field). Obviously, some people will likely move aside while you head down but don’t expect this from everyone.
💬INSIDER TIP: on the way down, it might be faster and safer to instead stick to one of the sandy trails instead of along the rocky ridge. When going down rocky sections always stay vigilant with who might be below you in case a rock does fall.
14 | Once you make it back to the trees you have just two miles to go. The whole way back down is downhill (I don’t think there is a single uphill section once you leave the crater rim) so you should be able to catch your breath and move a bit quicker.
Congratulations — you just climbed Mount Saint Helens!
Climbing Mount Saint Helens is a fantastic adventure. While the mountain isn’t technical, it is a lot of fun nonetheless and definitely worth seeking out. The views from the top and the ability to look into a still quite active volcano are tough to beat.
Hopefully, this adventure guide helps you plan your own epic climb up Mount Saint Helens. But if you have any further questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below or reach out to me directly.
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