Trail of the Week: Mount St. Helens

Climbers make their way up Mount St. Helens on July 6.
Climbers make their way up Mount St. Helens on July 6. chill@thenewstribune.com

Mount St. Helens

Hike description: Of Washington’s five volcanoes, none is easier to reach the top of than Mount St. Helens.

In the summer, 100 people per day scramble over rock, sand and snow to try to reach the rim of the crater created by the 1980 eruption.

On a clear day, your view will be enhanced by Mount Adams, Mount Hood and Mount Rainier. When cornices don’t block your view, you’ll be able to gaze into the crater and the steaming lava dome.

Taking on the Monitor Ridge route requires a permit, a parking pass and a 2-mile approach hike through the woods. At timberline (your last chance to use an outhouse on the way up), the climb switches from a hike to a scramble up the rocky ridge. A route is marked with wood poles.

The 3-mile (each way) scramble is a physical and mental challenge for some, but it is doable for a wide range of hikers if they allow plenty of time. For many, descending on tired legs is more taxing than the ascent.

The $22 climbing permits are sold out for the summer but still frequently available via the website purmit.com, where people sell permits they’re unable to use. Permits are required above 4,800 feet.

Safety: Never venture out on the snowy cornices at the crater rim. These can give way. Two people have fallen into the crater when cornices collapsed. One survived, but the other died.

Rangers warn climbers to stick close to the marked route. If the weather gets nasty, hikers may only be able to see from post to post as they make their way off the mountain.

Many visitors glissade down the snowfields on the upper mountain. Sliding on the snow and losing control is how most injuries (and torn hiking pants) occur on the mountain. Stay alert as you glissade to avoid getting off course and having to make a long hike back to your route.

A dust mask is recommended in case of ash fall or blowing dust. The Forest Service also recommends a helmet.

Directions: Exit Interstate 5 in Woodland and follow state Route 503 through Cougar. The road becomes Forest Road 90. Turn left on Forest Road 83. Keep left and follow signs to Climber’s Bivouac. Turn right on Forest Road 830 and continue to the trailhead.

Difficulty rating: 5 (5 is most difficult, 1 is easiest).

Miles round trip: 10.

Elevation gain: 4,800 feet.

Best time of the year: May-October.

Map: Green Trails 364S: Mount St. Helens Climbing.

Pass: Climbing permits ($22 per person) and a Northwest Forest Pass ($5 per day per vehicle) are required.

Also: The permit system has changed in recent years. Now climbers must print their own permit. Plastic bags are available at the trailhead for affixing permits to packs. Permits must be displayed for each hiker. Hikers are asked to sign in and out at the trailhead kiosk. Dogs are not recommended on this route. A geocache is hidden near the trailhead. For more information, visit geocaching.com.

Info: mshinstitute.org, purmit.com.

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497