Mount St. Helens solidified its place in history with a massive eruption on May 18, 1980. Unleashing a pyroclastic flow that killed 57 people, it was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic eruption in U.S. history.
St. Helens, which sits between Seattle and Portland, is still active today, with frequent earthquakes and constant emission of steam vents. And here’s the kicker: You can actually climb it. A moderate 8,366 feet compared to its much taller volcanic neighbors, you need little besides a sense of adventure to get to the top.
Most ambitious hikers take the Monitor Ridge route, which starts at the Climbers Bivouac camp on the south side of the mountain. The ascent takes about seven to 12 hours and can be completed in a day. Make sure you're acclimated to the altitude because the route gains 4,500 feet in just over five miles — a strenuous undertaking.
You’ll start in the shade of forests for a relatively flat two-mile warm-up. After breaking free from the greenery, the rest of the route is very rocky, as you pick your way through a massive boulder field that leads straight up the spine of the mountain. The going is tough and slow, but the views begin to open up across the shoulder towards Mount Adams and Mount Hood. The final section is entirely slippery ash, and you'll struggle to regain your footing with every step. With the summit in sight, the last big push gains 1,000 vertical feet.
Once you’ve summited, gaze into the crater, catch a whiff of volcanic steam, and even spot the Crater Glacier, considered the world’s newest — growing at a time when so many are receding. On a clear day, the panoramic views extend across the Cascade Mountains.
Preparations and Considerations
The journey to the top of Mount St. Helens can be completed any time of year, though the most popular times for those not experienced with winter snow are late spring through early fall. The hike is tough but non-technical so you can leave your ice pick and crampons at home. Instead, bring the hikers’ 10 Essentials and a Green Trails map of your route. Prepare by getting in peak physical shape.
At the top, take care not to stand too close to the rim’s edge, which is unstable and can crumble beneath your feet. Early in the summer, there’s usually a snow cornice at the ridge, which also shouldn’t be stepped on. Check the weather before you go; if there's lightning in the forecast, skip the climb, as you’ll be exposed the entire route. Visibility can be a concern, too, on foggy or cloudy days. Much of the trail requires route-finding through the boulder fields from one marker to another. And finally, you will need to purchase a permit to climb the mountain. They’re available through the Mount St. Helens Institute.