Mount St. Helens is a peak that should be on every life list. And because it is an active volcano, it is best not to put it off for too long. Climbing to the crater rim is an opportunity to see not only amazing views in every direction, but to see geology raw, unformed and in its making.
The hike is strenuous, but requires no technical climbing skills when snow is not present. The trailhead is known as the Climbers’ Bivouac. The first 2.1 miles, known as the Ptarmigan Trail, climbs 1000 feet through forests and open meadows to the Loowit Trail, which circuits the mountain. The Ptarmigan Trail makes a nice, moderately-graded half-day hike through cool second-growth forest. WTA crews have worked hard to improve it, making a smoother approach to the more challenging part of the summit approach. While it's fine as a standalone hike, you'll have plenty of company from people heading for the summit of St. Helens, or embarking on a backpacking trip on the Loowit.
Continuing much past the Loowit Trail requires a climber’s permit (details below). This is where the trail ascends to Monitor Ridge, and the way gets more difficult from here. The next 2500 vertical feet is through boulder fields – and not any ordinary boulder fields. These rocks are dusted with an ash pumice that can shred the skin in a fall. You’d be wise to bring garden gloves for this section! It can also be windy, so bring layers and a jacket as well.
The last section of trail climbs about 1000 vertical feet through ash and small rocks to the crater rim. It’s described by many as “two steps forward and one step back.” Gaiters and long pants are a good choice here. And to get your mind off of the slow slog, be sure to take in the views! You are going upward and before you know it you will be standing on the summit.
The scene at the top is almost surreal – the huge crater with a dome growing rapidly in size each year and the state’s newest glacier forming a horseshoe around it. And the incredible views to Mount Adams, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier floating above the blue-green undulating hills surrounding them. Be sure to stay well back from the rim while taking photos; this is a cornice and could easily break under your feet.
After enjoying the top, it is time to head down. Trekking poles are a big help for the knees. Depending upon the time of year, it is also possible to glissade down part of the mountain (but be cautious).
Climbing Permit Info
Permits are required to summit Mount St. Helens in order to protect the environment hikers pass through on their way to the top. Despite being a resilient landscape, it is a fragile one, and too many visitors in a small span of time can damage the landscape. Please respect the need for permits and do not climb the mountain if you don't have one.
In 2021, starting in March, permits will be released on the first of each month, so climbers can reserve them throughout the season. Permits are required to climb St. Helens between April 1 and October 31. Reserve yours at recreation.gov.
Winter climbers use the Worm Flows route, but can self-issue their permits at the Climber's Bivouac trailhead. No fee is required for permits between November 1 and March 31.
Whether you are climbing in winter or summer, please remember that you need a pass for your car, too. This is the Northwest Forest Pass or a Sno-Park Pass if you are visiting December 1 - March 30.