Summiting our First Volcano: Mount St. Helens
We knocked a big item off the bucket list this past weekend: summiting an active volcano! We climbed to the top of Mount St. Helens, one of the five active volcanoes in Washington, and had one heck of a time doing so. When we decided to summit Mount St. Helens over a year ago, we did a lot of research on what to expect, how to get permits, etc. so we thought we’d share our experience with the world in case anyone else is considering summiting Mount St. Helens themselves!
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A permit is always required to climb above 4,800 ft at Mount St. Helens, but if you are summiting Mount St. Helens between April 1-October 31, you have to obtain a permit in advance and pay $22/permit. During other times of the year, you can self register at the trailhead for free. From April 1-May 14 there are 500 permits available a day and from May 15-October 31 there are only 100 permits available a day. As you can imagine, the summer is the busiest time to climb Mount St. Helens due to the weather and this makes getting a permit tricky. However, we hear that late spring/early summer is an awesome time to go because you can avoid some of the rock scrambling and get to glissade some of the way down.
Permit sales open on February 1 at 9 AM and it’s like getting concert tickets. You need to be online minutes before, ready to go with a list of all days you’d want, and refresh your page like you’re trying to get tickets to see *insert whatever concert is selling out like crazy these days*.
Our experience getting a permit was stressful. I got online on February 1 at work (I blocked my calendar so I could focus…sorry work!) and tried off and on for hours to get a permit. Their system was overwhelmed by the demand and everything broke and I was unable to get us permits. I was stressed and heartbroken the rest of the day (just ask my coworkers lol). Thankfully the Mount St. Helens Institute owned up to their mistakes and let us all know that they still had a good amount of permits left (despite what it said when we tried to get one). They reopened sales on February 26 and once again I spent my morning at work trying to get one. I was able to secure us two permits for one of our free weekends and the rest is history!
Where to stay the night before
We highly recommend starting the hike early in the morning (more on that later!), so staying close to the trailhead is crucial. We ended up sleeping in our car at the Climber’s Bivouac trailhead and it worked out perfectly. We rolled out of bed (or I guess we should say the folded down car seats lol) and started the hike. However, we realize that’s not for everyone! Here are some other options of where you can stay the night before:
- Climber’s Bivouac Trailhead: We know, we just said sleeping in the car isn’t for everyone, but one cool thing about the trailhead is that they have campsites! These are first come, first serve, so get there early! They have a few toilets here, but no water or showers.
- Beaver Bay Campground: Where we thought we were camping, but it turns out we booked a similarly named campground 1.5 hours away. Oops! This campground is really nice, close to the trailhead, and is on a lake!
- Cougar Campground: This is right down the street from Beaver Bay and is also on a lake.
- Lone Fir Resort: If you’re looking for something a little more luxurious, the Lone Fir Resort is a 30 minute drive from the trailhead (and located right by the two campgrounds above) and will give you the luxury of a comfy bed and shower.
What to Bring
Beyond the essentials, here are some key items you’ll need when summiting Mount St. Helens:
- Layers!!! We cannot express this enough. We started the hike in light pullovers and by the time we got to the summit we had multiple jackets on because it was so cold and windy. We also recommend bringing something to protect your ears from the cold wind!
- Hiking poles to help with the ashy portions of the trail.
- Gloves for the rock climbing portions of the trail and to keep your hands warm.
- Lots of water!
- Your permits (one for everyone in your party)
- A bag to store your trash–please pack out what you pack in and follow the Leave No Trace principles.
- Depending on when you do the hike, you may want to have spikes with you for any icy parts. Late summer is snow-free, but it’s good to be prepared! We have these spikes and they are awesome!
- A portable charger so you can keep your phone charged in case of an emergency. We recommend this charger!
After a decent night’s sleep in our car, we woke up at 3:30 AM in order to hit the trail at 4 AM. We highly recommend starting early! The hike can take anywhere from 7-12 hours depending on your fitness level and how many breaks you take. Starting early also gives you plenty of time in case you take longer than anticipated.
When we got out of the car to start the hike, we noticed that it was super foggy out. We started to get worried about the weather, which was forecasted to be rainy, but we had secretly held onto hope that it would be wrong. But when we saw the fog, we instantly felt a bit of dread about the hike and wondered if it would be a waste of time.
We made our way through the first 2 miles of the trail, which is wooded. It’s super easy, even in the dark (thank the lord!), and went by pretty quick. After getting out of the woods, we hit the rock scrambling portion of the trail, which seems to go on forever. Thankfully it was getting lighter out at this point, although still pretty foggy. As we made our way up the rocks, we turned around and noticed that the sky was turning pink. We squealed because we had given up hope that we would even see anything on this hike. We hurried up the rocks until we hit an area where you can look out towards the east and south to watch the sunrise. We got to see Mount Hood and Mount Adams poking out above the clouds and we couldn’t wipe the smiles off of our faces. Things were turning around weatherwise and it was just what we needed to keep pushing! Just another reason why starting the hike early is TOTALLY worth it!
After watching the sunset we continued on through the rock scrambles. These scrambles range from just stepping over rocks to full on using your hands and upper body strength to get yourself over them. The rocks can be rough and having gloves on is key to keeping your hands from hurting.
The rock section is a little hard to follow. We kept losing the “trail,” but we also aren’t sure if there was actually an official trail for most of this portion. There are poles sticking out of the rocks to guide you, but you’re kind of free to choose which rocks seem sturdy to you and just go for it. As we hoisted ourselves up the rocks, we started to get a better view of the summit, which seemed so close, yet so far.
Slowly the rock section turns to smaller rocks and ash. This portion was hard because with every step we took, we slide back a little bit from the slick ash. The hiking poles really come in handy here! We made our way up the ash as fast as we could and then got to the best part of the hike—the summit!
It took us about 4.5 hours to reach the summit and when we finally made it we were immediately greeted with a gorgeous view of the crater. We had seen many photos of the crater before, but photos do not do it justice! It’s colors and jaggedness were unlike anything we had ever seen and it felt like we were on Mars! It also didn’t hurt that we had a slight view of Mount Rainier off in the distance. 🙂 While we had MUCH better weather than we expected, we still had a lot of clouds, so getting to see even a small portion of Mount Rainier was super exciting!
We hung out at the summit for around 30 minutes. It was FREEZING cold and so windy. We kept having ash fly into our eyes and mouth and we struggled to stand up without being knocked over by the wind. But totally worth suffering through for the views!
We headed back down to the trailhead and surprisingly, the ashy part wasn’t as hard going down as we anticipated. We thought we would be falling down the whole time lol. With every step we slid a little, but stopped automatically and then kept repeating the sliding and stopping until we were back at the rock scramble. The rock scramble also wasn’t that bad going down. We lost the “trail” a lot, but always found our way. As we descended, the weather got a lot cloudier and we were extra thankful that we started the hike when we did.
After surviving the rock scramble portion (and only falling twice!), we made it back to the wooded portion of the trail. We flew through this part because we were so eager to finish the hike and ended up making it back to the car in 2 hours and 40 minutes, giving us a total hike time of 7 hours and 45 minutes with our little break at the top! We were shooting for 10 hours and we were shocked and really proud that we did it much faster than we hoped for.
Mount St. Helens was truly a one of a kind experience and we couldn’t recommend it more! It challenged us, rewarded us, and gave us a very unique change of hiking scenery. We cannot wait to conquer more of Washington’s volcanoes and we have our sights set on Mount Adams for next summer. For those of you considering Mount St. Helens, GO!
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