Climbing Mt St Helens – Crater Summit

Climbing Mt St Helens has been on my bucket list for a while, but after my 50th birthday a few years back, it made it closer to the top of the list. Prior to my birthday, we sent out lots of party invitations and we included return postcards asking for and receiving adventures for me to complete. In Noelle’s 50th year, I challenged her to complete 50 new adventures, which I got to join in on throughout the year. So this time we solicited friends and family! My cardiac rehab team suggested a climb up Mt St Helens to her crater.

And what better time to do it than right after I finished hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail? After completing a mountain pass every single day for a few weeks, I figured that I’m now in the best physical condition possible to attack Mt St Helens varied terrain.

Get a Permit & follow the rules

Climbing Mt St Helens means getting a permit. The process is easy, just enter the number of people in your party and‘s website will give you a selection of days with available permits. Permits are only required from April 1st to October 31st. Climbing is allowed year round, but during the peak weather months, the number of climbers is limited to reduce impact to the area.

This is also a blue bag trail, meaning poop before you go! Or take one of the blue bags from the trailhead and then carry your poop out of the trail area when you leave. As always, don’t just leave no trace, but leave the trail better than you find it. Paper on the ground? Pick it up and haul it out! (I packed out a blue bag, but was SO thankful that I didn’t need to use it!)

Parking in the lot also requires an Interagency Pass (America the Beautiful Dreamer to the rescue yet again!), a Northwest Forest Pass or a National Forest Day Pass. Just a little side note, if you have a 4th Grader at home, he or she can get a free Interagency Annual Pass. It’s a pretty neat deal and definitely worth checking out.

Trail Overview

Most climbers use the Monitor Ridge Route via Climbers Bivouac, which is exactly what we did! We drove up through Cougar, Washington into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and then into the National Volcanic Monument. Climbers Bivouac has a lot of parking and probably twenty or so camping sites. During our visit, the sites were only about half full with people like us, who drive up the night before hiking. We actually ended up staying the night after climbing Mt St Helens also. And as an extra bonus, our son Matt and his boys drove up to hang out and see our pictures! Their visit made our day even more special.

It takes most climbers 7-12 hours to complete the entire trail. About two thirds of the time is spent going up, but that doesn’t mean that coming back down is all that easy. It’s not! The trail is broken into three distinct areas: the forest trail, the boulder field and the vertical beach. The route gains 4,500 feet in 5 miles, so just know that “climbing” is the word of the day!

We left our camper about 7:00am and made it back to the parking area about 5:00pm, so it’s a long, but rewarding day. Pack a lunch, snacks and carry about 3 liters of water and you’ll be good. Noelle ran into one hiker who was out of water and since she ended up stopping about 3/4 of the way up the boulder field, she had water to spare for him. (Don’t be that hiker though, carry enough water.)

National Volcanic Monument

Noelle was a teen living in Beaverton, Oregon during the 1980 Mt St Helens eruption and remembers getting 3-4 inches of ash in her neighborhood. A couple years later her family drove up to the mountain where trees were literally laying down just as they fell. They lay in the direction of the flow, so sometimes trees lay UP a mountain and then they lay DOWN the next mountain side. She says it was one of the most surreal things she’s ever seen.

Before the May 18, 1980 eruption, Mt St Helens was 9,677 feet high. After that fateful day, the highest side of the horseshoe-shaped crater stands at 8,365 feet on the mountain’s southwestern side. The Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument lies inside the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It was established in 1982 to designate 110,000 acres for research, recreation and education.

The Johnston Ridge Observatory is open seasonally and is located on Johnston Ridge in the center of the 1980 blast zone approximately 8 km (5 mi) north of the Mount St. Helens summit. That’s about a three hour drive from where we were, so if you’re wanting to go to the observatory and visitor’s center, this is not the place! It’s up Interstate 5 at the Castle Rock exit. Still a great adventure but very different from what we did. Signs posted near the Climbers Bivouac reminded visitors that there’s no access to Johnston Ridge from this portion of the Monument.

Forest Path along the Ptarmigan Trail

We woke up early, signed the hiker register and then made our way into the woods (along with three or four other groups of hikers). The first 2.1 miles of the ascent meanders along through the forest. As we were going up, a rescue crew was bringing down an injured hiker. It wasn’t the greatest omen for our start, but the hiker appeared generally okay, except for a possible broken leg. We made our way through the forest, enjoying the sunrise and the beams peeking through the trees. This section of trail itself makes for an awesome hike. You could simply do this portion as a four mile round trip and still have a great day with beautiful views.

Climbing Mt ST Helens Boulder Field

Our excitement built coming out of the forest, and we felt a little anxious about what lied ahead. We saw the boulder field, along with the “permits required” sign.

We made it to 4,800 feet! The word “field” sounds like a flat meadow where cows graze. Well, this is not that field! It’s a 2500 foot climb over, around and through rocks, ash and huge boulders. These are no regular boulders, as they’re covered in ash pumice. And these sharp, jagged babies will cut you right up. We took leather gardening gloves for this section. Noelle wore hers the whole time, while I chose to risk it a little and wore my REI hiking gloves.

There are poles in the ground every 400 yards or so, which point the overall “way” but there’s not one exact trail. Do you see the marker? Once you enter the boulder field, climbing Mt St Helens means choosing your own adventure. There are several well worn paths but not one main “good” path. The left side of the ridge is a little easier to climb up and down. However, the ridge itself offers a straighter way up the mountain.

Stop to look around as you catch your breath. From about 3/4 of the way up you can see Mt Adams, Mt Hood and Mt Jefferson in the distance. Or maybe it’s Mt Bachelor, but we’re not positive. The views above the clouds are absolutely stunning. Noelle chose to hang out here, while I kept climbing.

Truth be told, my right foot was really bothering me. My ankle chimed in as well. I really began to question my decision to hike Mt. St. Helens while I was still suffering from injuries from the PCT. Best word description is “ouch”! The rock climbing section had me questioning what I was doing. Would it be too honest to tell you that I didn’t really enjoy this section? I started to see other hikers that looked to be in serious discomfort as well. I suspect that the real gluttons for punishment were up at 4AM and hiking by 4:01AM, so I’m sure that there was joy to be found on the mountain, but I sure wasn’t seeing it in my tribe of hikers.

Vertical Ashy Beach

The last stage in climbing Mt St Helens is the 1,000 foot vertical beach! It’s a sandy, ash where you take a step up and slide a half step back. Just like climbing a sand dune, this section is physically challenging. It reminds me of the photos I’ve seen of climbers on Mt Everest. They’re all lined up and waiting their turn to go.

I was behind an older gentleman, who took one step then paused to catch his breath. Then one step and pause again. This may have been the most difficult section for me. I wasn’t able to set my own pace, I was stuck with the pace of the other hikers crawling up the mountain. Passing someone required a burst of speed, on a sandy like ground. I did pass one or two folks, but realized that it was pointless. The person in front of them might also be going slow. So I stopped and ate a breakfast bar and tried to have a positive attitude.

Onward I climbed. As I neared the top there were hikers, deeper sand, and a little bit of snow to contend with. It was a relief to arrive at the apex of the climb.

The View from the top

Once at the crater, the actual summit is about ten more minutes of climbing. The crater itself is huge with a dome growing inside.

A view from the top

I didn’t see any steam during my time at the top of the crater, but many climbers report how cool it is to see steam rising from the center of the crater. Spirit Lake looms ahead, serene and blue. Simply gorgeous. Most days offer a view of Mt Rainier to the north, but cloudy skies kept her from coming out to play today!

Cross this off the list!

As I was sitting near the top of the mountain, with about 35 of my brand new hiking buddies, a tall redheaded woman began to sing. We all quieted down and listened as we looked out upon the Cascade Mountain Range. I can’t tell you about the lyrics, nor the notes, but I can tell you that it was a magical moment. We all hushed, listen to her sing, and then applauded. It was short, perhaps thirty seconds total, but I suspect that this moment of intimacy with 35 strangers will stay with me for a a very long time.

So, what’s with the whale picture postcard you ask? Well, as I complete the challenges that were given to me a few years back, I take a picture with the postcard that my friend/family sent to me, I print a picture of myself completing the task, write a note, stick ’em in an envelope, and send it all back to whomever sent it to me in the first place. It may well take me the rest of my life to complete all the challenges, but I’m still working on them.

The descent

As I moved down through the ash/pumice section it was a challenge to stay in control of my descent. It was easy to pick up speed and start zooming down the hill, but a little more challenging to go slower and stay in control of my wonky ass. Several times the ash/pumice was deep enough that the top of my feet disappeared into the mix. I could feel many tiny pebbles in my shoes, but I kept moving forward/downward until I cleared this section.

I began to move back towards the boulder field after the ash/pumice section and then began to ease my way through the longer descent down Mt St Helens.

I realized that there was perhaps more danger now. Going up in this section, if I were to fall, it’d basically just be a foot or two in front of me. But going down! Falling could mean serious injury. Thinking about the man in the stretcher being rescued reminded me to take careful steps. My ankle and foot were really bothering me, so I ended up very slowing easing my way down the mountain.

Once I got back to Noelle, she told me that she’d seen numerous hikers sliding down different parts of the trails.

Together we started heading down. We stopped to eat a sandwich and enjoy the views, then kept going. It took about three hours to get back to the truck, which was such a great site to see! I felt tired but glad to have accomplished this climbing goal. I’m thankful to my cardiac rehab team for suggesting this trek and thankful for their help in getting me back to good health!

Relaxing at the end of the day

Noelle and I were pretty wiped out when we got back to Cupcake. We stretched out on the bed for a bit before making ourselves an easy dinner. Thank goodness for all that backpacking food! Boil some water and 15 minutes later, we had a hot meal! Then our son Garmin texted to see if he and our grandsons could swing by. They only live a half hours or so away, so we were sure glad to see them! What an unexpected treat to wind up our day. Hunter was hilarious! He said, “I know where you keep your ramen, because I saw it on YouTube”. We all got a chuckle out of that. Thanks Matt, for raising such awesome boys!

The next day, Matt met up with us back in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, where he took us mushroom hunting for the first time. That was such a blast! We loved every second of it.

Matt, Hunter and Carter came to cheer us on!

Climbing Mt St Helens: Rated on a Scale of 1-10

Okay, a little climbing Mt St Helens wrap-up now…In an effort to be transparent, this was not one of my most favorite hikes. 🙂 It was steep, rocky and just one more in a long list of mountain passes this summer. I took my own poll of hikers coming down from summiting Mt St Helens, asking what they’d rate their experience on a scale of 1 to 10. With ten being the best hike ever and one being I’d probably never do this hike again.

had a “1′, a few “4 and 5’s”, and one “6”. No one said that they would hike it again. Personally, I’d give it about a 6 or 7 on the pleasure scale. It was nice to see the view at the top, but honestly, the view wasn’t that much better at the top than it was before the boulder field. The view of the crater was impressive though!

On a side note, I said goodbye to some dear friends at the conclusion of my Mt. St. Helens excursion. These little fellers traveled with me through the last several hundred miles of my PCT trek. I’m seriously sad to drop them into a recycle bin, but, it’s time to move onto the next adventure with fresh water bottles.


  1. Go Wander Wild

    I loved reading about your experience in Mt St Helens. Your descriptions really made it come alive for me. Happy travels!

    • mcgarveysan

      Thanks. It’s pretty awesome up there.

  2. Angus Mccamant

    I have done the climb twice, and I would gladly do it again.
    My rating would be an 8.
    I agree that the rock field is difficult. If you have done a lot of hiking above timberline you probably have gone many miles over similar terrain. It is definitely not a maintained trail and if you have problems on rough sections of trail you will have problems with the rock field.
    The last time I climbed was in mid summer, July I believe. We went through flocks of butterflies.

    • mcgarveysan

      Sadly there were no flocks of butterflies! I have spent a fair amount of time in similar terrain in both the or therm Cascades and the Sierra mountain ranges. Yet…the footing seems a little more sketchy on this climb!

      I met a guy on the way down as he was puttering around near the edge of the rock field. He’s done the hill four times, each time with a different relative when they’re visiting OR/WA. I tend to lean towards taking my visiting friends and family to Powell Books! Take care!

  3. Hirohiko Kitsuki

    Mt. St. Helens is one of my most favorite places. Thank you for sharing great view from the top!

    • mcgarveysan

      It’s definitely one of my favorite mountains to look at from afar. Mt. Rainier and Mt. Shasta are my absolute favorites! I’ve hiked on Rainier, but not on Shasta (yet).


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