Shared from Planetware.com
Written by Brad Lane
Jan 24, 2019
Best known in modern history for its dramatic 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens, within the Cascade Range of southern Washington, provides many opportunities to explore the blast-stricken environment. From the horseshoe-shaped crater left behind on the summit to the subterranean lava tubes formed more than 2,000 years ago, the best way to understand the dynamics of this active area is to venture out on the surrounding hiking trails. Family-friendly or for experienced hikers only, the hiking trails at Mt. Saint Helens provide a variety of terrain and fun things to do.
The northwest side of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is the easiest to access from Seattle and includes iconic places to visit, like the Johnston Ridge Observatory. On the south side, closer to Portland, attractions like Lava Canyon allow tourists to choose their own level of adventure. From the northeast side, only accessible outside of snow season, other bucket-list attractions include Norway Pass and Windy Ridge, both giving front-row views of the most recent destruction.
Explore this fascinating area with our list of the top hiking trails at Mount Saint Helens.
Harry’s Ridge Trail
An absolute classic and exemplary hiking trail at Mt. Saint Helens, Harry’s Ridge Trail departs from the popular Johnston Ridge Observatory on the northwest side of the monument and provides a spectacular view of the area. The roundtrip distance between the observatory and the signed Harry’s Ridge Viewpoint is just over eight miles, and visitors should plan on spending most of the day traversing the route. While the elevation gain is manageable and the trail well-trodden, it’s the views and interpretive information along the way that calls for a leisurely pace.
On clear days along the trail, hikers can enjoy panoramic views encompassing Spirit Lake, Coldwater Peak, Mount Adams, and the pumice plains, as well as blast damage from the cratered Mount St. Helens nearby. The trail is steep at certain sections, and for an easier alternative and kid-friendly hike nearby, the half-mile Eruption Trail also departs from the Johnston Ridge Observatory. From roughly mid-July to early August, wildflower blooms line the landscape, offering an interesting contrast of color against the volcano blast surroundings.
Entering Ape Caves | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane
On the south side of Mount St. Helens, Ape Caves provides a subterranean adventure and one of the longest lava tubes in the country. Formed more than 2,000 years ago by a thermal erosion event, which lasted for months, the caves offer visitors the chance to explore the underground hallway that remains (bring a flashlight). Two routes stem from the aboveground entrance of Ape Caves, each catering towards a unique adventure found nowhere else in the monument. A bit of background knowledge is required to explore either trail, all of which can be found at the visitor center near the main entrance of the cave.
The Lower Trail is an out-and-back adventure, which travels for a total of 1.5 underground miles and is better suited for families and easy exploring. The Upper Ape Cave Trail is a little more demanding, featuring 1.5 miles of underground rock scrambles and an eight-foot lava wall, which requires moderate climbing skills to overcome. The Upper Ape Trail exits 1.5-miles away from the entrance, and visitors follow an aboveground trail to return to the visitors center.
The view from Norway Pass
On the more remote northeast side of the park, Norway Pass provides a great look at the different environments that now define Mount St. Helens. Climbing the 2.2-mile trail to the top of the pass is well worth the elevated effort, and on clear days, panoramic views of Mt. Saint Helens, Spirit Lake, and the massive blast zone can be easily seen in the near distance. Part of the popularity of this trail includes its gateway status for numerous other backcountry hikes, including the always inviting Mount Margaret backcountry. If plans don’t include a backcountry itinerary, it’s highly recommended to drive farther south on forest road 99 after hiking Norway Pass.
The view from Mount St. Helens summit
Beginning at the Climber’s Bivouac trailhead on the south side of the national monument, Monitor Ridge Trail is the preferred summer route to summit Mt. Saint Helens. Permits are required to hike this ridge route to the top, but it’s the elevated terrain that presents the real challenge for this internationally renowned hike. A 10-mile, out-and-back route, this hearty hiking trail quickly climbs above the tree line with the last three miles presenting steep and rocky terrain.
Technical climbing skills aren’t required to reach the summit, though the route should only be attempted by fit and able hikers. Upon reaching the top and the edge of the horseshoe crater, an unbeatable perspective of the erupted volcano accompanies views of Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and Mount Hood, on the clearest of days. The return journey down the trail is just as difficult as heading up the mountain, and trekking poles are recommended to save your knees from the brunt of the force.
Permits are required to climb anywhere above 4,800 feet on Mount St. Helens between April 1st and October 31st. Very few permits are available for walk-up status, making reservations nearly required for this bucket-list hike. For more information on permits and where to apply, head on over to the Mount St. Helens Institute homepage.
The trail up to the Windy Ridge viewpoint | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane
At the terminus of Forest Road 99 on the northeast side of the monument, the drive alone to Windy Ridge is half the adventure. Paved with a few potholes and rough areas along the way (motorcycles use caution), the road is lined with roadside attractions like the Miners Car Interpretive Site and other awesome trailheads, including Norway Pass.
The drive is well worth the effort, and at the base of Windy Ridge is one of the closest views of Mount St. Helens you can access with a vehicle. From the parking area, a steep trail climbs to the Windy Ridge viewpoint where Mt. Saint Helens and the 1980 destruction is in full view. The Truman Trail can also be accessed from the Windy Ridge parking area and provides even closer views with considerably more effort.
Hiking on the Lava Canyon’s third trail | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane
At the far end of Forest Road 83 on the southeast edge of the national monument, Lava Canyon highlights a timespan of geologic history that is quite the sight to see. A result of a volcanic mudslide scouring out a canyon once filled with loose sediment, the dramatic waterfalls that now define Lava Canyon were both revealed and heightened in a single event. With three connecting trails that increase in difficulty with distance from the trailhead, visitors to Lava Canyon can choose their own level of adventure when exploring this cascading landscape of water and time.
From the parking area, a paved and easily graded path leads to an observation point, which serves as a good introduction to the landscape. A maintained hiking trail continues from here, eventually making a loop by crossing the water via a 125-foot cable suspension bridge. For extra adventure, a third trail continues against the canyon wall beyond the suspension bridge, quickly descending and incorporating a 30-foot steel ladder for the steepest section. Regardless of how far you travel, it’s extremely important to stick only to the hiking trails of this steep canyon route and unique geological feature.
Interpretive information along the Trail of Two Forests | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane
A family-friendly hike and great introduction to the southern region, Trail of Two Forests provides insight and interpretive information about the geological history of Mount St. Helens. A quarter-mile boardwalk trail navigates the area, passing through two distinct forests along the way: an old-growth forest with Douglas firs and red cedars and a relatively younger forest in an area that was engulfed by lava nearly 2,000 years ago. Besides providing an interesting contrast, the two-millennia-old lava flow left behind remarkable imprints of the trees and root systems, better known as lava casts.
While patrons are encouraged to stay on the boardwalk to protect the fragile environment, one lava cast features an eight-foot ladder that allows visitors (particularly children) to crawl through a short lava mold.
Boardwalk on Birth of a Lake Trail
Prior to May 18th, 1980, what is now Coldwater Lake was nothing but a creek. After the 1980 eruption event, the ensuing debris avalanche dammed the small waterway, creating the near five-mile-long body of water found today on the monument’s northwest side. Two trails offer great views of the lake alongside interpretive information, including the half-mile Birth of a Lake Interpretive Trail.
A kid-friendly hike, the Birth of a Lake Trail follows a boardwalk path adjacent to the shoreline with many interpretive signs along the way. For further exploration, the Lake Trail departs from the nearby Coldwater Lake Boat Launch and provides a nine-mile, out-and-back route, which includes high views of the lake and pathways through the rebounding forest. Coldwater Lake itself is popular for non-motorized boating and fishing.
Mount St. Helens from the Loowit Trail
For an encompassing perspective on the 1980 eruption, the Loowit Trail circumnavigates Mount St. Helens, crossing through blast zones, mountain gullies, and a stark landscape full of unique beauty. Nearly 30 miles long, the Loowit Trail is nothing short of a challenging hike. Besides the distance, which requires a multi-day excursion to complete the loop (permits required for overnight travel), very few water sources and tree cover are available because the eruption stripped away much of the surrounding ecosystem.
The terrain can be categorized as rough and rugged as well, encompassing rocky terrain and areas prone to landslides. No trailhead for the Loowit Trail can be accessed by vehicle, and interested explorers need to traverse other trails, including June Lake, to access the challenging terrain. Only experienced hikers aware of the elements should attempt cross-country travel on the Loowit Trail.
View from the Hummocks Trail
On the west side of the volcanic monument, on the way to Johnston Ridge Observatory, the Hummocks Trail is a popular family hike, which exposes a variety of Mount St. Helens landscapes, including the trail’s namesake features. Small knolls and earthen mounds, hummocks at Mount St. Helens are a direct result of the 1980 eruption, and the sediment and debris that define these darkened slopes were at one time an actual part of the mountain.
The near 2.5-mile Hummocks Trail gives the best views of these unique geological features, alongside great views of Mount St. Helens itself. It is relatively flat and filled with interpretive information, describing in greater detail the events that led to their creation.
Spirit Lake log mat | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane
A once popular recreation area filled with campgrounds, lodges, and a variety of hiking trails, Spirit Lake on the northeast side of Mount St. Helens took direct impact from the 1980 eruption. The shoreline of Spirit Lake rose dramatically because of the avalanche debris that crashed into the water, which also sent a towering tidal wave beyond the banks to collect any downed trees in its way. The resulting log mat floating in Spirit Lake is still readily visible today. Spirit Lake is a living scientific study on how habitat recovers after a volcanic eruption, and the only public access point to this once-popular body of water can be found on the Harmony trail.
The namesake Harmony Falls that once attracted visitors to the area is now below the waterline of the lake after the 1980 eruption, and the roughly one-mile trail heading down to this altered environment is steep before hitting the shoreline. On clear days, expect to see a great vantage point of Mount St. Helens from the water, as well as visual remains of the eruption event. The area surrounding Spirit Lake is still recovering, meaning sticking to the trails is a vital part of any visit.
Waterfall at June Lake | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane
A family-friendly hike, the June Lake trail leads to a tranquil environment with a view. From the trailhead and parking area in the southern region of the monument, the trail gently climbs for a mile before revealing a glimpse of Mount St. Helens above a large lava flow. Continuing a quarter-mile farther, an open area of scattered trees and flat space reveals itself next to the shore of June Lake. Tucked into a small pocket against elevated terrain, the most eye-catching feature of June Lake is the cascading waterfall, which constantly refills the cold body of water. The Loowit Trail can be accessed from June Lake by a quarter-mile (and very steep) trail connector.