May 12, 2015
Climbing America’s Most Famous Volcano
Story and Photos by Craig Romano
Photo at right: Washington hikers Aaron Theisen and Heather Romano negotiate a boulder field.
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While Mount Rainier is Washington’s iconic mountain, Mount St. Helens is the state’s most notorious mountain—and an American icon.
The May 18, 1980 blast was the only time that a major volcanic eruption occurred within the Continental United States. Before that historic day, you had to go back to 1917 for the last continental U.S. eruption, when another Cascades Volcano, northern California’s Lassen Peak, spewed lava and ash over the countryside.
I was living on the East Coast when Mount St. Helens became a household name across America. In the spring of 1980 I arrived in the Pacific Northwest as part of an around-the-country bike trip and from a hillside near Longview, Washington, I saw the smoking volcano for the first time. Five weeks later it erupted!
When I moved to Washington in 1989, I wasted no time heading to Mount St. Helens to see it up close. I had never seen nature’s force and power at such a magnitude. It looked as if an atom bomb had hit the mountain.
Today, 35 years later, I am still amazed at the impact of the blast. The resiliency of nature on such an incredible scale as what is occurring at Mount St. Helens is extraordinary. To see the sheer destruction of the eruption—and then to witness the rapidity of the landscape’s recovery and rejuvenation—is astounding.
One of the absolute best ways to experience St. Helens in all its glory is to climb it.
The climb is a steep, rocky, dusty, waterless, slog up boulder fields and pumiced slopes. But the views are spellbinding into the volcano’s crater and across the blast zone. On a clear day the view of four other Northwest volcanoes is equally impressive.
The Climb to the Summit
Last September, a group of us added our boot prints to the ash and pumice on St. Helens’ 8,365-foot summit.
Ironically, the two Cascades volcanoes that had major eruptions within the last century are two of the easiest in the chain to ascend. While St. Helens can be climbed without any technical concerns, it is still difficult and can be potentially dangerous.
Bring an ice axe in early season, and after the snow melts consider wearing gaiters for the deep pumice. Carry sufficient water, sunscreen and goggles to protect your eyes from the blowing dust. To preserve the mountain from overuse, a permit system has been established limiting the number of climbers each day during the warmer months.
The climb starts with a hike up the well-beaten Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. In a short two miles you’ll reach a junction with the round-the mountain Loowit Trail.
Head straight on the Monitor Ridge climbing route leaving the forest behind. The trail now becomes increasingly difficult as you ascend Monitor Ridge via jumbled rocks and patches of pumice. Keep an eye out for guiding posts.
The route continues up the rocky and increasingly steep ridge passing boulders and chunks of obsidian. Carefully navigate the dry and dusty ridge flanked by lingering snowfields on the left and the Swift Glacier on the right. Higher up, the path continues up steep sandy pumice-laden slopes. At 4.7 miles, rejoice as you crest the summit of the crater’s rim. You made it!
Enjoy Summit Views
Enjoy incredible views out to snowy volcanoes such as mounts Rainier, Adams and Oregon’s Hood and Jefferson. Marvel at St. Helens’ crater below (safely staying far back from the rim) where a glacier continues to grow–one of the few in the Cascades that is not receding.
Most hikers stop here, content on reaching the “summit.” But the volcano’s highest point lies just to the west. Experienced and equipped scramblers can seek it by hiking 0.4-mile along the ridge following a fairly defined scramble path. The trail descends a bit on ledge and loose rock to a saddle wedged between the Dryer Glacier and steep snowfields clinging to the crater rim where caution must be exercised. Beyond this sketchy section, it’s a straight shot up pumice to the summit.
Distance: 9.4 miles roundtrip with 4,465 feet of vertical elevation
Trailhead Directions: From Woodland, Washington follow SR 503 east to Cougar. Then continue east on SR 503 (which becomes FR 90) turning left onto FR 83. Continue 3.1 miles bearing left onto FR 81. After 1.7 miles, turn right onto FR 830 and follow for 2.7 miles to trailhead at Climbers Bivouac Camp.
Green Trails Maps: Green Trails Mount St. Helens 332S
Permits: Secure a required permit here: www.mshinstitute.org/index.php/climbing ($22)
Contacts: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument www.fs.usda.gov/main/mountsthelens
Bonus Video: Watch the four-minute video on History.com: www.history.com/topics/us-states/washington/videos/mount-st-helens-erupts
Craig Romano is the Trails Editor of Outdoors NW and is the author and co-author of 14 Northwest hiking guidebooks including the brand new Day Hiking Mount St. Helens (The Mountaineers Books), which includes detailed information on every trail within the national volcanic monument.