What you Need to Know Before Summiting the Notorious Mount St. Helens

What You Need to Know Before Summiting the Notorious Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens is located in Skamania County, southwest of Washington. It lies in the Cascade Range and is among the top 5 notorious volcanoes among the Ring of Fire (the Cascade Volcanic Arc). It is approximately 80km northeast of Portland in Oregon. Mount St. Helens is an active stratovolcano consisting of lava combined with pumice, ash and other rock deposits. It is only 40,000 years old. Streams that flow from this mountain enter into three rivers namely the Toutle River, the Kalama River and the Lewis River.

Geology and eruption

Mount St. Helens is famous for its explosive eruption that occurred in 1980 which was recorded as the most economically destructive and fatal volcanic incident in the history of the United States of America. 57 people lost their lives, 250 homes and 47 bridges were destroyed. Additionally, 24km of railways and 298km of the road were affected and destroyed. An earthquake that measured 5.1 on the Richter Scale triggered a massive avalanche of debris causing the eruption. The blast emitted at a high-velocity super-heated gas, ash, and rock which had a temperature of about 350 °C moving at a speed of almost 500km per hour. Mudflows and pyroclastic flow followed soon afterward. There was complete darkness in Spokane which is located about 400km from the volcano.
Mount St. Helens Volcanic eruption
Mount St. Helens Volcanic eruption
The northern face of the mountain collapsed and mixed with snow and water to form lahars that destroyed bridges and vegetation. It has continually experienced nearly 130 small tremors and a frequency of about 40 localized earthquakes in a week. The sleeping giant is predicted to awake at some point but not in the near future. The mountain summit was reduced to an elevation of 2,549m from 2,950m. What was left as an aftermath was a horseshoe-shaped crater of about 1.6km wide? The small successive eruptions have resulted in the formation of magma dome on the southern side.

Mount St. Helens Climate

Mount St. Helens experiences a warm and temperate type of climate. The winter has more rainfall than in the summer. The average annual precipitation is 1146mm. The average temperature in a year is 11.4 °C.

Climbing Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helen has become quite popular since its last eruption and many mountaineering enthusiasts have it on the top of their bucket list. It attracts beginners and experienced climbers from all over the world. It is mainly a non-technical climb but quite strenuous like any other existing mountain. Climbers are advised to be in peak physical condition because of the rugged and steep terrain. It is highly prohibited to climb into the crater. The endpoint should be at the rim of the crater. Keep away from the snow cornice. Snow cornices may develop during winter and last till summer, so some areas may be unstable at the crater rim all year round. Climbing the mountain may not be particularly dangerous though accidents have occurred in the past. Ensure that your speed is controlled. Be prepared for extreme weather changes. Confirm weather conditions prior to your attempt. Ensure you have the right gear and equipment. Crampons, an ice-ax, mountaineering boots, synthetic clothing, First Aid Kit, water, food, sunscreen, sunglasses are a must. You can complete a round-trip within 7-12hours

Best time to climb

It is possible to summit Mount St. Helens all year round but the best time would be towards the end of spring through to early fall. The season begins at May 16 and ends in October 31.

Any permits, passes or reservations needed?

If you plan to climb between November 1 and March 31, no permits are required for this period. You are however advised to register at Climbers Bivouac or Marble Mountain Sno-Park. Climbing Passes are available at zero cost by self-registration. If you chose to climb between April 1 and October 31, you are required to have a permit. The permits are purchased through an online vendor administered by Mount St. Helens Institute. The Permit fee is $22 per individual. These fees are used for conservation and youth education programs. You will also need to self-register at Climbers Bivouac. From April 1 to May 14, the permits are limited to 500 per day while from May 15 to October 31 they are limited to 100 per day. Parking Permits are required at Climbers Bivouac. A National Forest Recreation Pass will cost you $5 for a day and $30 for the annual pass.

Accommodation on Mount St. Helens

Camping on Mount St. Helens

Campsites vary from site to site regarding visitation fees and seasonal restrictions. Mount St. Helens offers quite a wide variety of campgrounds and RV sites for your selection. These include the Cougar RV Park and Campground, Lone Fir Resort, Eco Park, Lower Fall Campground, Iron Creek Campground, Pacificorps Campgrounds, Kid Valley Campgrounds among others.

Mountain climbing routes

  • The Monitor Ridge Route
This is the most popular route among climbers and quite crowded during summer actually. Its trailhead is named Climbers Bivouac. It has an elevation gain of 4600ft covering a total distance of about 4.5 miles to the summit crater rim. You will hike through a forest trail for the 2.1 miles. At the LowestTrail, you can use the toilet on your right-hand side. Follow a rocky ridge marked by wooden posts till the last post. Proceed with that ridge and soon enough you will be at the summit. If you are climbing during winter, trekking poles and an ice-axe will definitely come in handy.
  • The Worm Flows/Swift Glacier
It is the single most direct route to the crater rim and mostly used during winter and spring. Mount St. Helens has great summit view and experienced hikers can enjoy a non-technical climb and begin at Marble Mountain Sno-Park and cross to Swift Creek. At about 2 miles in, you will come across the breathtaking Chocolate Falls that are along Swift Creek that will open up to a barren landscape full of mudflows and rock towards the crater rim. Head west to find the true summit.
  • Hummocks Trail

This trail has an elevation gain of 100 ft and the round-trip distance is about 2.3 miles. The climbing season is from late June through to November. If you want to get an in-depth appreciation of the effects that came about with the eruption of this mountain, this is the best trail to use. You will also note how nature fights back as it regains its vitality after the aftermath. It is a relatively flat trail and is considered easy even for young children. You will get to spot a few animals if you are lucky. Remember to stay on the trail so as not to tamper with the habitat.
  • Harry’s Ridge

The best climbing season for this route is from late June through to November. It has an elevation gain of approximately 200ft and is about 8miles long.
Harry's Ridge Trail at Mt. St. Helens NM in WA
Harry's Ridge Trail at Mt. St. Helens NM in WA Photo by Mt. St. Helens
Starting from the Johnson Ridge Observatory, you will enjoy the sight of wildflowers, especially in mid-summer. At the end of Harry’s Ridge, you will be treated to the most direct and perfect view of the crater mouth and the Lowest Falls. Also, Mount Adams and Spirit Lake will be amazingly visible. On a clear day, you can catch a glimpse of Mt. Hood while on this trail. From Johnson Ridge Visitors Centre, follow a paved path downhill for about a mile and a half till you get to the parking lot. Follow the trail till you get to Devils’ Elbow and after 3.5miles you will get to a junction. Harry’s ridge will be on your right. Proceed upwards until you arrive at the summit.
  • Lakes Trail
This trail has an elevation gain of 500ft and is about 8miles long. Best season to climb is from late June to November. The trail usually stays about 300ft above a large, beautiful lake called Coldwater Lake and this has attracted many hikers. The trail starts from the boat launch offering a great view of wildlife and wildflowers. Go uphill to Coldwater Ridge Visitor Centre. Another 2 miles of hiking will bring you the South Coldwater trail to the right. To the left the trail continues to Mt. Margaret Backcountry.
  • Lava Canyon

It is about 5 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 1600ft. The best time to climb is from May through to November.
Lava Canyon Near Mount St. Helens
Lava Canyon Photo by dmytrok
It is quite a thrilling experience using this trail. You will get across via a suspension bridge after starting from a paved trail and get into the Lava Canyon Gorge. If you are afraid of heights, this may not be your thing. The trail will later intersect Ship Trail which is the return route. The canyon will begin to broaden as it leads to Smith Creek Valley.
  • Goat Mountain
This trail has an elevation gain of approximately 1600ft and the roundtrip distance is about 6 miles. The best time to climb is from late June through to November. The trail offers distant views Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, Mount St. Helens and the surrounding areas from the summit. Climb steeply upwards along a ridge and the traverse to the southern flank for the last mile.

Emergency/Information Center

  • In case of an emergency call 911
  • Mount St. Helens National Monument: 360-247-3900
  • Mount St. Helens Climbing Hotline:360-449-7861
  • Northwest Avalanche Forecast: 503-808-2400

Flora and Fauna on Mount St. Helens

36 years after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, vegetation has tried to claim its roots back. There is evidence of pre-forest conditions and young patches of the deciduous forest can be seen. You can also see, dense thickets of shrubs, colorful flowers in their complexities, paintbrush, lupin and scattered conifers are evidenced too.
Willow Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher Photo by Steve Thompson
The black-tailed deer, the mountain goat, cougar, the American Black Bear and the majestic elk were the famous five animals that existed before the eruption. They all perished as they could not outrun the pyroclastic flows and survive the poisonous sulfur dioxide gas that was emitted with the ash. But all the five species are now back in the zone. Other animals present include the Western frog, the American beaver, bird species like the yellow warbler and the willow flycatcher.

Hiking with Kids

Children above the age of 10 years can climb the mountain to the summit. Keen observation, proper gear and guidance are essential when hiking with kids.

Things to do

  • Ape Cave

It is the longest lava tube formed 2000 years ago by lava that flowed across a deep watercourse. You can walk on either the Lower Ape Cave Trail which is 0.8 miles or the Upper Ape Cave Trail which is 1.5 miles and you may scramble over rock piles and narrow passages. Additionally, you can carry your own torch/headlamp or hire a lantern for $5 at the Apes’ Headquarters.
  • Check out the Coldwater Lake

It is located 43 miles east of Castle Rock and was created after the eruption in 1980. It formed when water collected behind a dam was brought down during the explosive eruption. It’s a fascinating sight indeed.
Coldwater Lake Trail at Mt. St. Helens
Coldwater Lake Trail at Mt. St. Helens Photo by Mt. St. Helens
  • The Fire Mountain Grill

This American grill menu is located at a strategic spot offering great views. The mouthwatering fiery tasting burgers and steaks will have you scrambling for more!
  • The Cougar Grill

Nothing beats this grill when it comes to their signature burgers and tacos. Sipping down a cold beer after such a treatment will leave you with quite a heavy impression that you will swear to be right back!
  • Silver Lake Visitor Centre

It is in the Mount St. Helens region situated a few miles east of Castle Rock. It also offers the best background of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Movement showcasing classic films and a mock-up volcano exhibit too. Additionally, you even have an opportunity to duck as you learn about the inner workings of a mountain.
  • Johnston Ridge Observatory

This observatory is situated strategically overlooking the mouth of Mount St. Helens crater at the end of Hwy 504. It also offers the most stunning views of this crater too. The center has exhibits that showcase the geological events that climaxed with the eruption of the mountain as well as the monitoring and volcano forecasting advancements.