On May 18th, 1980, the 5th tallest mountain in Washington blew off its top and lost over 1,341 feet, placing it as the 31st tallest mountain in the state. A massive crater is present as a result, and many fauna and flora were impacted by this eruption. In all, 57 people perished.
First Hike Experience
Today, you can climb this behemoth at any time of the year. If you don’t have snow equipment, such as crampons or an ice axe, you’ll want to climb during the summer months of July, August and September. I have attempted to summit Saint Helens on two separate occasions. My first time was with a party of 4 on October 14th 2020, a Wednesday. What a scene it was on the volcano! While we didn’t summit, we were awed at the Oreo looking landscape of boulders and snow. We made it to about 7,200 feet, just over 1,000 feet short of the 8,363 feet summit. High winds and low visibility on a narrow ridge (known as monitor ridge) convinced us to turn back.
Second Hike Experience
Ten months later (August 11, 2021), this time in a smaller party of 2, I attempted to summit Saint Helens again. I packed food, water, sunscreen and sunglasses, a hat, a second layer, and hiking poles. My friend and I left our camping spot at Climber’s Bivouac at approximately 7:00 AM. The first hour is a wooded and gently sloped incline up the mountain. After passing the circumferential trail that travels around the mountain, known as the Loowit Trail, you will encounter boulders for the rest of your climb. My friend luckily brought garden gloves, which he let me borrow and I highly recommend. We scrambled up the mountain for about 3 hours. Wooden poles about 6 feet tall will mark the trail up the mountain. These poles are not in a straight line. Their base is tucked in between the boulders. On our way, we saw plenty of snow fields.
What to Prepare For
Be prepared to be exposed to the sun. You will want sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat that protects your neck and forehead, and a thin long sleeve to protect your arms from the sun. It will be hot and cold. Hot because these are rocks reflecting the intense summer sun, and cold because you are thousands of feet above sea level and high winds can pick up at any moment. Hiking boots are a must.
At the summit, be prepared to be in awe of the breathtaking views of the massive crater, and the nearby volcanoes of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood. Do be careful. There are cliffs with soft rock that can collapse. Unfortunately the day was not very clear. There was smoke in the distance. Had the day been clear, you would have been able to see Portland and pretty much any lowland area where Mount Saint Helens is visible, in addition to other mountains.
The way down was no walk in the park. Believe it or not, it took almost the same amount of time to get down the mountain than it did to go up. Those boulders are unforgiving. Hiking poles helped a little. We got back to our car around 3. All together, it took us 8 hours to summit and get back to our car. If I could do things differently next time, I would pack less food. You can never pack too much water. The reason I say that is because it is unlikely you will want to carry more than 10 lbs of water. But the truth is you may want all that water. You will lose a lot of water. Electrolytes are definitely a plus.
Mount Saint Helens is a good mountain to climb if you don’t want to climb with gear (rope and other special equipment), and if you want to prepare yourself for a higher summit. You will push yourself in order to summit this mountain. Hopefully, you will feel proud once you’re done summiting and back in your car.
Precautions to Remember
Some precautions. Both times I climbed Saint Helens I drove back and forth in under 24 hours (I live in Covington, Washington). If you are with a buddy, take turns driving. If you do camp, try to get some good sleep. An air filled sleeping pad can help with that. If you are driving more than 3 hours to get back home, consider staying at a hotel. You deserve that. You don’t deserve to drive with salt dried up all over your skin. You can stop at beautiful Merwin Park on Lake Merwin and bathe in the clean mountain water if you can’t stay at a hotel. And finally, stretch! Stretch before you start hiking and after you finish. It could be some simple stretches, less than 5 minutes. You do not want to sit in a long car ride after hiking for 8 hours without properly stretching your body.
You will need a climbing permit in order to hike above 4,800 feet. While both times I have not seen park rangers questioning people, the reason you want a permit is because the mountain can get crowded during the summer months. This can create dangerous conditions, especially at the summit. You’ll want to create a recreation.gov profile. On that website, you’ll see what your options are for obtaining permits. As of April 2022, permits during the months from April through October are reservable online. From April 1st to May 14th, there is a limit of 350 climbers. From May 15th to October 31st, there is a limit of 110 climbers. Permits are released on the first of every month at 7 a.m. Pacific Time. These permits are for that month only.
However, last year I tried booking a permit for July on the 1st just after 7 a.m. Not only was all of July already booked, but most of the summer was too! I was able to get two permits for a Wednesday in August. Therefore, the instructions on the website were not accurate. I recommend looking on the 1st of every month that passes. Permits are not required from November through March. The best window to avoid snow would have to be July, August and September. It’s a short window, but one you’ll want to be in if you don’t have proper snow gear.
Overall, this was an incredible hike. It was breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and all the above. It came with its challenges. This is not a hike you want to try if you are hiking for the first time ever. If you like views, looking at glaciers and volcanoes, this is your hike. This is a good stepping stone for more extreme climbs like Rainier or Adams. I did see kids at the summit. Is this something for the whole family? That depends. You can always visit the visitors center on the other side of the mountain at Johnston Ridge Observatory and see the massive crater. If you are looking for an adventure, this won’t disappoint.