If you’re looking for a new adventure in the Pacific Northwest, try climbing Mt. St. Helens. Yes, this is the same mountain that had an explosion in 1980. That means yes, you’ll be climbing an active volcano. While it’s five miles to the top, a 4,000-foot elevation gain is no joke.
When my friend asked me in the spring of 2019 if I’d want to join her for an August climb with her permit, I immediately said yes. We spent the summer training together by doing various hikes and getting ready for one of the most exciting hikes of our lives – doing the Mt. St. Helens summit hike. This is one of the top things to do in the Pacific Northwest by far.
I had a lot of questions when I researched this climb, so I created this guide to hiking Mount St. Helens to help you prepare and feel more comfortable for when you go.
The information in this post has been updated and is correct as of March 2021.
Common Questions About Climbing Mt. St. Helens
If you’re not from Washington, you may be unaware that this once peaceful mountain had a major eruption in 1980. An earthquake triggered the eruption, which caused a massive debris avalanche that destroyed everything in its path.
This eruption was the deadliest in the United States to date, and 57 people perished. Ash erupted for over nine hours, and it even reached as far as Alberta. While there’s occasionally small activity from inside the mountain, things have been pretty calm since 1980.
There is now a visitor’s center facing the slope of the mountain that collapsed in the eruption. However, those who are adventurous can climb on the backside of Mount St. Helens all the way up to the crater’s rim. Here are the most common questions I’ve gotten since I completed my Mt. St. Helens hike.
How Do You Get a Mt. St. Helens Climbing Permit?
You can climb Mount St. Helens throughout the year, but the rules vary. To get Mt. St. Helens permits in 2021, you must apply for a permit before you can hike from April 1 to October 31. You can do this online, and permits usually open up around February 1st.
Permits cost $15 per person and you can have up to 12 people in your group. From April 1 – May 14, 300 climbers are allowed per day. The most popular period is the warm months from May 15 – October 31, where only 110 climbers are allowed each day for the Mount Saint Helens hike.
If you want to hike in the winter from November 1-March 31, there’s an unlimited number of people that can go and you can register yourself at the trailhead.
My recommendations for getting a permit are to apply as soon as the applications open and pick a weekday when you want to do the Mt. St. Helens summit hike, as weekend permits go quickly. You’ll also need each person’s name on the permit, and everyone should carry their permit and ID on the trail in case a ranger stops them.
If you plan on climbing Mt. St. Helens without a permit, you’ll only be able to go the first two miles on the trail (the wooded section). Once you come out of the trail, you’ll see a sign saying you need a permit so you won’t be able to go on any part of the exposed mountain. There are rangers that are stationed here daily who will be checking for your Mt. St. Helens climbing permit.
That said, you’ll need to make sure each person in your group has their permit and ID on them so you can show the ranger. They may turn you back if you can’t prove it, which would be a huge bummer.
What’s the Best Time to Hike Mt. St. Helens?
This is one of the more common questions I’ve gotten, and it depends on what you’re looking for in a hike. Some people thrive on winter hikes, and if that’s you, you’ll love being able to hike for free during the winter at Mount St. Helens.
You should consider that inclement weather might make you turn around due to safety reasons when you climb Mount Saint Helens. I know it’s heartbreaking to have to turn around on a hike you’ve trained for and drove this far for, but you should never compromise your safety for a hike.
You also might not have a view at the top if it’s snowing or cloudy depending on the Mt. St. Helens summit weather. These aren’t meant to discourage you but just to make you aware of winter hiking conditions. Being able to see Mount Rainier during my trip in the summer was one of the highlights.
However, I would say the majority of people prefer hiking in drier conditions. For me personally, I think the best time to hike Mt. St. Helens is during the summer.
Summer hikes are preferable because the early mornings will be cooler when you start, the weather should be pleasant and dry for the most part, and your chances of a stunning view are higher. These are just additional reasons I think the warmer part of the year is the best time to climb Mt. St. Helens.
How Long Does Hiking Mt. St. Helens Take?
The top question I’ve gotten about this hike is how long it takes to hike Mt. St. Helens. I’ve heard of people completing this anywhere from 7 to 14 hours, so there’s no “set” number you need to aim for.
It took my group, who I would consider moderately fit, about 10 hours to hike to the Mt. St. Helens summit and back.
We started a little before 5 am, summitted at 10 am, enjoyed the view for an hour, and then got back to camp around 3 pm. That means getting to the top took about 5 hours and it took 4 hours to come back down.
We took plenty of extended breaks and could have completed it in less time if we shortened them, but we also weren’t in a rush and wanted to pace ourselves. You’ll also find when you’re with a group that each person has certain strengths and weaknesses during the hike.
Some people in my group struggled with the boulder section and needed more time. My biggest struggle was my hip flexor decided to give out halfway down the mountain on the way back and I had to go much slower than I wanted due to the pain.
How Do You Train to Climb Mt. St. Helens?
One of the top questions I get is how hard is it to climb Mt. St. Helens. To start, this is a 10-mile roundtrip hike with a 4,500-foot elevation gain. You hike through a variety of terrain (which I’ll cover in more detail below). While you could try to “wing it,” I recommend being smart about it and training for the hike first. You should also note that you’ll be at 8,365 feet at the top of the mountain, so you’ll have to account for altitude as well.
Based on this, I recommend a few different types of training.
Going on several hikes around Seattle that are between 8-10 miles with a 3,000-4,000 foot elevation will help you get in shape. I also did Mt. Ellinor during my training, which is one of the best Olympic National Park hikes to help you train for this.
A few good hikes to train for this include:
- Granite Mountain (8.6 miles roundtrip, 3,800-foot elevation gain)
- Mt. Si (8.0 miles roundtrip, 3,150-foot elevation gain)
- Mt. Dickerman (8.2 miles roundtrip, 3,950-foot elevation gain)
I added the Stairmaster to my routine a few times a week towards the last few months. You can put it on interval or fat burning mode, both of which have periods of increased resistance mixed with periods of rest.
This type of training will prepare you better for the steep parts of the climb where you want to give up. I would tell myself “just one more minute” and push on a little longer since I knew I had done it in my training. You’ll also train your glutes and hamstrings to activate and get stronger.
Speaking of weight lifting, don’t forget to add that to your routine. You’ll want to do exercises that strengthen your core, legs, and glutes in particular.
While this might seem like a strange activity to add to a hike training plan, I recommend taking going to an indoor climbing gym a few times before your hike.
The middle section of the Mt. St. Helens climb has very large boulders, and I actually felt this was the easier part because I had previous knowledge of how to alternate using my arms and legs from rock climbing in the past.
What to Pack for Your Mt. St. Helens Climb
While I tend to pack lighter in terms of traveling or hiking, this hike isn’t the time to do that. You don’t want to be stuck halfway up the mountain in the sun with no food or water.
As far as hydration goes, the most important thing to note is there are no water sources anywhere on the hike, including the trailhead. That means you need to bring all the water you plan on having.
I recommend bringing five liters of water for climbing Mt. St. Helens. You can hide some of it behind trees in the tree line to save for yourself when you’re coming back down.
There is no shade or cover past the tree line, which means you’ll be in the sun for hours going to the summit and back. You’ll also want to bring more snacks than you think you need, as it can take more energy than you think to climb it.
Some ideas for snacks when you climb Mt. St. Helens are dried fruit, trail mix, chocolate-covered coffee beans, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or jerky. They are all pretty easy to digest and give you the boost of energy you need. Another trick I used was taking an energy chew or two when I wanted energy without taking a break.
Since you’ll have zero shade after you get out of the forest, you’ll want to wear a hat and sunglasses. In addition, reapply sunscreen often, as you’ll end up sweating it off several times.
The most random item I’ll recommend for your Mount Saint Helens climb but also one of the most crucial is gardening gloves. The second portion of the hike has you going over huge boulders with rough surfaces, so trust me when I say you don’t want to forget these.
Mt. St. Helens Hiking Packing List
Here’s a condensed packing list for hiking Mt. St. Helens:
- hiking backpack
- hiking shoes
- jacket (the summit gets chilly)
- polarized sunglasses
- gardening gloves
- hiking poles
- energy chews
- plenty of water
- optional – a celebration beer
I should note that I hiked this in August, so my list is primarily for hiking during the summer months. Should you decide to do a winter climb, you’ll need winter clothes as well as microspikes or snowshoes depending on the weather.
What the Mt. St. Helens Summit Hike is Like
There are two different routes to take depending on what month you climb Mt. St. Helens. From spring through fall, you’ll start at Climber’s Bivouac Trailhead. This is where I recommend camping for the night so you can start early in the morning (read my camping for beginners tips if you’re new to it). The fee is $5 per vehicle, which you can pay at a self-service fee station on-site.
Since I hiked in August, I hiked from Climber’s Bivouac and followed the Monitor Ridge route, so that’s what the following will cover.
If you hike Mt. St. Helens in the winter, you’ll have to do the Worm Flows Route. This starts at Marble Mountain Sno-Park and is longer, increasing your mileage on your Mount St. Helens climb to 12 miles roundtrip. You can read more about the route on the official website.
The top question I’ve gotten about this hike is how long it takes to hike Mt. St. Helens. It took my group, who I would consider moderately fit, about 10 hours to hike to the summit and back.
Hiking Through the Forest
My group camped overnight to be able to start first thing in the morning. We left about 4:45 am and had an easy, quiet hike through the forest with our headlamps. While others were in the campground with us, I was surprised we were the only ones on the trail.
The forest hike is about two miles with a 1,000′ elevation gain. We went at a steady pace and decided to only take a break once we got past the tree line.
A great tip my friend Gabby had was to take extra water bottles and leave them by a tree. We put our water behind a tree just before the “permit required” sign was visible so we would have them when we returned. That way you don’t have to carry extra weight up the hill (because every pound counts on this hike, believe me).
Navigating the Boulder Field
The next two miles have you going through a boulder field. When you first enter it, I recommend taking a break to fuel up and rest. This is also where we got out our hiking poles.
The mountain starts to get steeper, so these can be helpful going uphill when climbing Mt. St. Helens. The trail may also get a bit confusing at this point, but look for the white posts along the mountain and stick close to those.
On the second part of this section, you’ll encounter giant boulders (as in possibly bigger than you). This is where you will need your gardening gloves so you don’t cut up your hands.
I also recommended some rock climbing practice earlier in this post due to this section. You can give your legs a break by pulling up with your arms on the larger boulders. For the smaller boulders, think of pushing through your heel so you use your hamstrings and glutes to help you uphill.
Something unexpected that we ran across was this weather station sticking out of the boulders. We couldn’t figure out what it was when we first saw it. This solar-powered device sends information back to volcanologists about the current state of the mountain.
The Final Mile
From all the research I did, most people said this was the hardest part for them. Many said that you take two steps forward only to go back one step. To be honest, I didn’t feel that was true for the conditions we had.
The last section is tough for sure, as it’s very steep and covered with loose rocks and ash. You will need to go slower than you think and your body has already been hiking Mt. St. Helens for hours, so you’re likely to be exhausted.
I feel like this is where my Stairmaster training came in to help me prepare for climbing Mt. St. Helens, as I set “intervals” in my mind during the last mile. I would tell myself to push with my legs while using my poles for at least a minute or two before I could stop and take a break.
You’ll also start to see people at the top at this point, which is incredibly motivating. I wanted nothing more than to join them at the top and take a break, so that pushed me as well.
Reaching the Summit of Mt. St. Helens
As tired as I was when I finally got to the top, all I wanted to do was stand and marvel at how amazing the sight was. We were literally standing on the rim of the crater looking into the dome of Mt. St. Helens.
Any fatigue I had vanished, but it did get cold as my body started to cool down. That’s why you’ll want a jacket to put on at the top.
When you’re on the rim, do not get too close to the edge. People have fallen in and it honestly wouldn’t be that hard to do. There is barely room for two people to walk on it at the same time. We always made sure the other person was aware we were trying to pass them.
If you go in the winter, it’s even more important to stand away from the edge, as you can’t see the true edge when it’s covered in snow.
Be aware of your position when taking pictures and carefully walk around people on the ridge. I think it’s safest to have someone else take your photos so you’re fully focused on where you’re standing. The only pictures I took myself were further away from the edge where I felt secure in the ground I was standing on.
I don’t say all this to scare you, but I do think it’s important to remember you’re standing on the edge of a volcano. It’s so easy to get excited about what you just accomplished and let your senses down.
It’s fun to sit at the top and shout encouragement down to people who are almost there but look discouraged. We also said congratulations to everyone who joined us on the rim, which was fun to talk to different people climbing Mt. St. Helens.
We stayed at the top for an hour and all pulled out our celebration beer and lunch. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until we stopped moving, and I’m pretty sure I had 2 sandwiches and multiple snacks.
Take as long as you want at the top, as there isn’t a “limit” for how long you can stay. I would take into account that you’re sitting in direct sun at roughly 8,366′ and you have a long way down until you’re in the shade of trees again. Resting at the Mt. St. Helens summit is also an ideal time to reapply sunscreen.
When you start to head down from the top, I recommend trying to slide a bit with your shoes. I did what was similar to a skiing motion with my body and zoomed down the steep part that took forever in no time going downhill.
One tricky part when you get to the boulders is you aren’t able to see a clear path down. There isn’t necessarily a wrong way down as long as you’re generally going straight, but it’s much easier to see the best path when you’re going uphill hiking Mt. St. Helens.
This slowed us down more than I expected, as we had to backtrack multiple times when we realized certain boulders would be too big to go over. Just be prepared for a little trial and error and try to remember that you’re that much closer to finishing.
Walking through the forest on the last two miles felt like a dream due to how easy it was. I grabbed the water I had stashed, poured one over me because I was so hot, and downed the other. When we got back to the campsite just before 3 pm, I stretched before getting in the car for a long ride home.
I hope this guide helps you plan your trip for climbing Mt. St. Helens, and please leave a comment or email me if you have any additional questions I can help with!