June 2020 Update: Climber’s Bivouac is open for the season!
Where to even begin?! Mount St. Helens in summer has it all… thousands of feet of hiking across dirt, boulders and rocks, epic views, an even more epic summit and it’s all doable in a day!
Technically known as the Monitor Ridge trail, the “summer route” up to Mount St. Helens’ crater rim is an approximately 9.5 mile round-trip hike attempted by thousands of eager adventurers every year. While the hike is not even a half marathon in distance, the challenge of Helens is not how far you go forward but how much you go up (nearly 4,700′) and over what terrain (think rocks and boulders and more!) But for the view at the end it is all worth it.
Note: Climber’s Bivouac generally opens near the end of May if not early June depending on snow conditions. Even then, snow may still cover much of the mountain and makes for its own amazing adventure, for more on that route or snow climbing, see my climbing Helens in Winter guide.
What to expect for your climb
If you’re an avid hiker / runner / just generally fit (and use to scaling step terrain with a decent sized pack on), the climb up Helens may strike you as little more than a long adventure though even regular hikers can often find a new challenge whether from the boulder fields, snow hiking in early summer, or loose ash sections of the mountain. On the other hand, if you don’t hike all that often, Helens is a great place to start climbing major mountains or a once in a lifetime accomplishment though start training up, the sooner, the better!
Either way you can expect an incredible day with a variety of conditions and views from start to end. In early season, Helens may offer up the chance for snow hiking and some glissading (butt sliding) down while later in the year the mountain has more boulders and more ash exposed. Both times feature views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams on the way up as well as Mount Rainier, Spirit Lake and much more from the crater rim, provided that you get clear weather that is.
Warning: Mountain climbing is inherently dangerous. From rock fall to falling, unexpected storms to heat exhaustion, do not underestimate the mountain no matter how straight forward it sounds. Know the conditions, bring adequate food, water, layers, and properly train before attempting any climb. Always inform someone of your plans before you head out and check with The Forest Service for more details.
FAQ: How do I train for the climb?
Making it to the top of Mount St. Helens is a combination of physical readiness, mental willingness, and route / gear preparedness with a little dose of weather luck to top it all off.
To get ready nothing beats hiking (with a pack.) For those living in the Pacific Northwest, common prep hikes might be Dog Mountain (climb 2,800′) outside Portland or Mount Si (climb 3,150′) near Seattle. If you want a good test on a similar length, Mount Defiance is spot on offering a little more elevation gain (4,850′) but without any boulders or other obstacles to overcome. While many people will push to their max to reach the Helens summit, it’s obviously a far more enjoyable day if you’re “over trained” for the hike.
I know this can feel like a daunting task but in reality it is the challenge of the elevation and terrain that makes Helens such a rewarding adventure; not just standing at the top. If you could drive up it wouldn’t be nearly a cool!
FAQ: What permits will I need?
As it turns out, a lot of people want to climb Mount St. Helens every year, so many so that a strict permit system has been put in place for the peak spring, summer and early fall months. This means that from April 1st – October 31st, you will need to purchase a permit for each hiker in advance of your climb (i.e. you can’t just show up at the trailhead*.)
Permits are limited to 500 climbers a day from April 1st – May 15th and 100 a day for the rest of the paid season and run $22 a person. Naturally many of the weekends and peak weekdays sell out within days if not hours of permits going on sale (usually mid February) but you may be able to find unwanted / extra permits even for peak times for sale at face value on purmit.com.* For the brave, it’s pretty common for larger, weekend groups to end up with an unused permit or two so if you want to risk the drive, you can always head up to the trailhead and look for a last minute spot as well.
Finally, you’ll also need a Recreation Pass for each car you bring to into the National Monument Park. Your Northwest Forest Pass or NPS Annual Pass works for this or you can buy a day permit for $5 (exact cash or check) at the trailhead, just look for the tall metal box next to the map on the left side of of the trail info area. In April, you can leave the recreation pass at home as you’ll need a sno-park pass for your car instead ($20 / day which you can buy in the down of Cougar on your way up to the mountain.)
FAQ: What do I need to bring for the climb?
One of the hardest things to predict when talking about a Mount St. Helens climb is conditions. Writing this in March of 2017, the mountain is covered in massive piles of snow down to the winter trailhead and yet just a few years ago, the trail was dirt for thousands more feet. Even when the summer route opens, it is completely possible that your climb may call for an ice axe and crampons. On the other hand, by the time mid summer rolls around, the mountain, which has absolutely no shade from 4,800′ and up, can become rather hot and water becomes the big equipment necessity. It’s essential to know conditions at elevation before your climb to really decide on gear.
All of that said, the Mount St. Helens institute has put together an overview of the gear you may need and the Forest Service has their own list as well. I suggest going through both to compile a list of the items you’ll want to secure for your hike.
As you pack up, what’s important to understand that while the hike may not that big, you will be on a remote mountain for an extended time. It’s easy to vastly underestimate the mountain and run out of food or water, end up freezing cold or unable to ascend a final stretch of snow. Hypothermia and heat exhaustion are both real issues on the mountain with conditions changing rapidly so bring plenty of gear for what you could run into, not just what the forecast says.
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, lodging, trail facilities
So obviously there’s some headaches in permits and preparation but the good news is that once you have the advance stuff sorted out, Mount St. Helens is actually one of the easiest mountains to get to and deal with in the Northwest.
The trailhead you’ll be starting from is located about 40 miles east of highway 5, a distance which you can cover in just over an hour most days. The last major town on the drive is right Woodland which is located at the highway and has several gas stations, fast food & sit down dining options, a Safeway and a few other grocery / multi-purpose stores. If you need to make bigger purchases like camping supplies it’s a good idea to do so here.
After passing through Woodland, you’ll take the 503 / Lewis River Road east all the way right up to Mount St. Helens National Monument (use the signs for Ape Cave to stay on track at this point.) There are a few small stops along the road but mostly it’s a quiet and scenic 45 minutes until you reach the town of Cougar. There you will find two gas stations with attached mini-markets (both offer a good selection of snacks, beverages and camping necessities but close fairly early), a small motel, RV park, rest area and a couple sit down places to eat. This is your last chance for supplies of any sort and the best place to fill up on water before you enter the park.
Departing Cougar, you’ll continue on Lewis River Road for a few more miles until you reach a junction with NF-83 on your left (again, just follow the signs for Ape Cave.) You’ll take that for about 5 miles, passing the Ape Cave turn off and continuing until just before the road turns to dirt. At the small junction, turn right onto 830 (you will see a few information sign posts) which you’ll take all the way until it ends in about 2.5 miles. This last stretch of road is dirt, gravel, sometimes a little snow and it can be a mighty rough so go at whatever pace you’re comfortable with; there are a few pullouts along the way to let more equipped cars go around you.
Climber’s Bivouac doesn’t have much in the way of facilities but it’s far nicer than the dirt road suggests. A fully paved loop with parking for dozens of cars, the area has 3 vault style toilets, an information hut where you’ll find the climb register to sign in and out of, an emergency phone (don’t expect your cell to work). There are a handful of well built campsites (free with your recreation pass) complete with firepits to spend the night before your climb at as well. That said, there’s no water at the Bivouac or on the trail so plan ahead!
Rather than driving up early in the morning, I strongly suggest staying near the mountain before your climb so you can get some rest before making an early start. If you want a room with 4 walls, a sink and a a power outlet, Cougar is your best bet but if you want to camp, just head to the Bivouac.
The trailhead is on the left side of the loop as you pull into the lot, just beyond the information signs.
And now it’s time to climb!
As I said at the start of this post, success on Helens comes from a combination of preparation and a smart plan is almost as important as being a strong hiker. This generally means being ready for an early start to beat the heat with plenty of supplies to get through the day comfortably.
How early depends on the conditions and your group’s readiness but I’m usually on the trail between 6 and 7. According to the forest service, the typical climb is anywhere from 7 – 12 hours door to door though I’d say most casual, first time climbers are far more likely to be on the longer end of that range (figure 5-6 up, 3-4 down depending on experience.)
Faster groups have a tendency to want to sleep in and start later in the morning but the sun is relentless on the upper mountain and I’d rather be standing up top mid morning than baking in the mid day rays though that’s just me and I’ve started past 8 as well. Earlier in the season when there’s lots of snow out, I usually go even earlier to ascend before it starts to soften up and become a real pain (* if you’re climbing the winter route you should be thinking of an alpine start obviously.) Some people go in the dead of night for a sunrise climb or just to give themselves all day, to each their own.
Hiking through the Forest
Heading out from Climber’s Bivouac and onto the summer trail in the dark doesn’t feel anything like the rocky (or snow) mountain climb you’ve read all about. That’s because the first section of the day is quite literally a walk in the forest as you start on Ptarmigan Trail #216A under the cover of thick trees and hike on comfortable dirt for a little over 2 miles!
While these miles are nothing like the steep upper sections of the mountain ahead, they certainly are not flat and you’ll scale roughly 1,100′ in total before breaking out of treeline and onto the mountain route. Along the way, you may be treated to a sunrise view of Mount Hood and / or Mount Adams in the distance but mostly it’s just long switchbacks leading up the hill. This section is also the only real place where you’ll see a fork in the trail as you pass by the Loowit junction; just ignore it and continue on straight.
I was taught to take a few substantial (10-15 minute) breaks over the course of a climb and far prefer that to constantly stopping for a little adjustment or snack without ever getting to actually rest. As such, I suggest breaking every 1,000 vertical-feet or so, giving you 4 breaks before the summit the first of which is just before you break out of the treeline at the last chance bathroom. This vault toilet is a rare find on a trail and the last of its kind for the day. Dropping your pack along the trail, this is a good place to sit down for a moment and force yourself to eat a little bit and drink up now that you’ve fully warmed up. It’s also a good point to adjust layers, apply sunblock, fix hot spots, and take care of any other gear issues while you’re still in a shaded, rock-free zone.
Hiking Up the First Boulders
After hiking the last hundred or so vertical feet from the bathroom to the end of the treeline, you’ll be faced with the first real sign of the challenges to come looming right over you. To your right is Monitor Peak which stands a good thousand feet above, though not to worry, you’re not going that way. Your destination is through the boulders to your left where you should see a number of larger, wooden posts sticking out of the rocks every few dozen yards — get use to these as they’ll be with you most of the day.
Making your way towards the boulders along the well beaten, dirt path will lead you to the typical approach up. While there are many ways up the mountain from here, the posts reflect a relatively straight forward route and are well worth following or at least keeping in close view for as long as they last. The posts will get you almost to the top and all the way back to the woods so remember them for the day.
This first stretch of boulders can be either super fun or a total mind trip. While it’s not a long climb, these rocks can be pretty steep depending on your exact path and are a radical departure from the switchback, dirt hiking most people are use to. In the early season, these rocks are also often covered by snow if not ice making them especially important to pay attention to.
As you climb up, be sure to look for the posts regularly and especially to your left as the route abruptly turns that way taking you back, behind the high ridge you have been looking at. After making the turn you’ll find one more permit warning sign and then the sign post marking your start on Monitor Ridge!
Hiking Above Monitor Peak
The end of the first stretch of boulders is another good spot to assess yourself and check in with your group. While it’s technically not one of my break spots, there’s plenty more rock to come so if you have any issues, best to handle them now and it’s always a good idea to sip a little more water (hydration = drinking early & often!)
Depending on the time of year and the activity of previous climbers, there are two main ways to proceed up the next section which will bring you above Monitor Peak. To the right is the posts and the official trail which is a combination of boulders and small stretches of dirt. This is not nearly as aggressive as what you just climbed but it is still rocky. This is my usual way up for it’s straight forward approach.
To the left you may find a dirt trail which continues under the ridge until it’s forced up the mountain a ways ahead of you. While this means you get to skip some boulders, the loose, ashy soil is it’s own sort of challenge and you will have to aggressively climb up to rejoin the trail at some point. Regardless of which way you go up, I strongly suggest the dirt trail on the way back down.
In keeping to equal section breaks, my usual stop is right below the boulder climb that starts at the top of the ridge. This is right around 6,000′ up on the mountain and about half way!
Hiking to the End of the Boulders
In early season you can avoid almost all of the boulders on the upper mountain by climbing in the snow which is reason #422 why snow rules (the first 421 reasons being that snow is awesome and the next 50 or so being glissading down.) As things melt out, the snow can of course become tricky as you have to navigate around boulders and risk taking a deep “post-holing” steps but it’s still a nice alternative to climbing over the rocks for hours.
By mid summer, the snow is gone and the boulders are the only game in town for about a third of the climb. Unlike the first section of rock, the ones on the middle of the mountain are much more of a choose your own adventure deal as the wooden posts guide you up in a general path but how exactly you climb between them becomes a function of what works best for you. Even within your group it’s a good idea to select for yourself less you find that you’re trying to replicate the moves made by someone 10″ taller than you.
This experience can be an absolute blast if you’re into rock scrambling or an absolute pain if you’re not a fan of heights (you won’t actually be all that high but you may feel like you are) or are just starting to feel the impact of climbing for thousands of feet. Going through the boulders well hydrated and with some sugar in your system will seriously help as will putting on a pair of proper gloves. I don’t mean $3 garden gloves either; head to your local hardware store and get some contractor gloves that are comfortable, padded and fit your hands properly so you can navigate with precision but without fear of cutting a finger up grabbing onto a rock; I promise they will have a dramatic benefit for your climb.
Beyond that, the boulders really just are a process of slow but steady work. Pay careful attention to what’s ahead and you should spot some decent dirt paths to lead you around portions of the rocks here and there as well as to just get you to easier climbing spots. Remembering how things are on the way up will also greatly help you route find on your way back.
After two or three major sections of boulders, you’ll run into the GPS station seen in the photo above. While this is not quite the end of the rocks, it is an ideal spot for a third break of the day and usually the longest one (other than the summit though that’s not a guarantee as I’ll explain when we get there.) There are some relatively private spots behind the GPS station to use the restroom as you won’t get much more cover throughout the day!
Once you’ve hydrated back up, applied some more sunblock, proceed over the last few smaller sections of rocks until the only thing ahead of you is dirt!
Hiking the Final (“Ash”) Stretch
The boulders are certainly the biggest obstacle of the day but the part of the climb people tend to actually struggle with the most is the last thousand or so feet through loose rock and then deep ash. You’re tired from over 3,500′ and many miles of hiking, the sun is wearing down and suddenly what’s under your feet slides back as you move. It’s not fun but with a few tricks you can make it much, much easier!
First off, pause to grab another swig of water, take off your gloves, take out you trekking poles and put on gaiters if you brought them. Next study the route ahead; there will almost certainly be a few ways up through each portion of the ash and you’re looking for fairly direct path with consistent terrain rather than the totally loose stuff. Finally, the softer the ground gets, the more your steps matter. Walking up like you’re on packed dirt does not work well so instead try to kick step into it, rest step on it and carefully follow your group up in sequence. It may not hold together like snow but you can actually build a decent boot path to aid in your progress.
Of course if you’re climbing a earlier in the year you may find that you have to crampon over ice here, kick step into soft snow or you may just luck out and get some half frozen dirt that you can just walk right on up to the top, it all depends on the day.
Whatever the terrain, this is the home run stretch, it’s ok to be tired but get to that crater rim!
Success! You’ve reached the Crater Rim!
You’ve reached the top when you can see the bottom. Seriously, if there’s one thing I want you to remember from reading this post for your climb it’s that you go don’t go anywhere near the edge without figuring out what that edge means first.
In the early season, you’re likely to have a cornice which is a fancy way of saying that the edge of the snow is hanging over the air with nothing to support it and this can go on for many, many feet.
In the middle of summer, the snow may melt down and sort of create a second layer beyond the walls of the crater rim and is poorly secured to the loose rock of the mountain. And in late, late summer, there is no snow and the edge of the walls are just waiting to fall apart under any weight which is why you keep hearing rocks falling all around the mountain. In short, stay back.
Scary stuff aside, if you’re lucky enough to summit on a nice day, take a seat and take it in. The best views are just up the little hills to either side of you, both of which have a lot of fairly flat room sit down on. Unfortunately many days are freezing or totally windy so sometimes all you get is a quick photo before running down to break lower on the mountain, such is the outdoors.
Now obviously the crater rim you arrived is not actually the top of the mountain but for most people, it’s enough, I mean, you’re at the rim! If you do want to go for the true summit, look out to your (climber’s) left for the high point and then start traversing over. When the crater is snow covered it can be extremely sketchy to get over there but by late summer there is usually a defined trail though the trek to it is not for the height adverse. If you don’t go to that point, whatever, your climb will count just as much if you ask me.
In any event, reaching the top is only the half way point. Ideally you’re up and done with your rest, photos and celebration by about 1PM to leave plenty of daylight to climb back down to your car. I won’t bore you with all the details of the return (hint: it’s the same as up except in reverse) other than to say to pay attention to the route and to yourself. Run down the ash, take it all slowly, whatever works for you but when you’re done, have signed out of the register, driven back home, have had a shower and a beer, be sure to leave a comment here with your own experience and your tips!
Quick facts about the trail:
- Official Rating: Difficult
- Start point: Climber’s Bivouac
- Distance: ~9.5 miles roundtrip as an out & back
- Duration: 7 – 12 hours
- Climb: 4,500′ – 4,660′
- Crowds: Moderate
- Recommended time: Late spring, early fall with an early AM start!
- Facilities: Vault toilets at the TH and one on the trail
- Water: No water at the TH!
- Parking: Road side, paved
- Fees: Recreation Pass / NPS Pass or $5 / day per car
- Permits: Climbing permit ($22) purchased in advance