Moderate (to Dryer Creek Meadows)8 miles round trip
1100 feet elevation gain
Open late June through October
Very Difficult (to summit)
9.4 miles round trip
4500 feet elevation gain
Open mid-July to mid-October
Left: Mt. St. Helens from the Loowit Trail
From Mt. St. Helens’ summit rim, the crater gapes like the broken edge of a shattered planet. Rock avalanches rumble in slow motion down 2000-foot cliffs to the steaming lava dome. On the horizon, the snowpeaks of Washington and Oregon float above the clouds. The volcano created this crater in a violent 1980 blast. After a dome-building eruption 2004-2007, climbing permits are again available. For current conditions, check www.fs.fed.us/gpnf or call 360-449-7800.
Between May 15 and October 31, only 100 people a day are allowed to hike to the rim, either by way of Butte Camp (Hike #119) or up the shorter, more popular Monitor Ridge route described here. The climb requires no technical climbing skills—only stamina and strong knees. Hikers start out on a well-graded forest path to timberline, then follow poles marking the way up a ridge of lava boulders, and finally trudge up a dune-like slope of ash. Goggles and face masks are advised because of blowing ash. Maximum party size is 12. Don’t take pets.
If you’re unsure about attempting the climb—or if you can’t get a permit—an option is to take the round-the-mountain Loowit Trail to the wildflowers at Dryer Creek Meadows instead. This alternative skips the steep climbing, yet still visits Monitor Ridge’s interesting lava fields and offers views to Mt. Hood.
Permits are always required for travel above the 4800-foot level. The permits cost $22 per person between April 1 and October 31, but are free the rest of the year. In winter the access road is gated closed 4.4 miles short of the trailhead. Permits must be reserved online at least one day in advance at www.mshinstitute.org. Summer weekends fill soon after the reservation system opens in February, so consider a weekday trip. Permits have to be picked up at the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar (16806 Lewis River Road, 360-238-5210) by presenting your online payment confirmation.To find the summer trailhead, drive...