A Beautiful Challenge
Mount Saint Helens is truly amazing. The national park has so much to do and see. There are many trails and activities to choose from. There are lakes, information centers and lava tubes to explore. It is both unique and beautiful. It's no surprise that this active volcano is such a popular hiking destination. But, there are some things you should know before you hike up to the summit.
1. Getting a Permit
That's right this trail is not open year round to just anyone. Unlike many other trails in the park, you need a permit to climb to the top. This is for both conservation and safety reasons. If you want to hike up to the summit you are going to have to plan ahead. They cost around $20 per person. The tricky part is actually getting one. They sell out fast and there are different permit limitations throughout the year. Currently, as of 2019, the limitations are:
- April 1 - May 14: 500 climbers/day. Must be purchased online in advance.
- May 15 - October 31: 100 climbers/day. Must be purchased online in advance.
- November 1 - March 31: Unlimited climbers. The permit is free and self-issued at the trailhead.
Unfortunately, this information is changing all the time. I would recommend checking the Mt St. Helens Institute website, following them on social media or signing up for the newsletter. The Mt St. Helens Institute also provides a lot of information about the hike itself, safety, where and when to purchase permits (It changes a lot more than you would think) and what you need to do to prepare. Overall if you really want to hike to the top you are going to need to start planning way ahead of time.
This is not your typical day hike. It's a 10 mile round trip with significant elevation gain and the longest bolder field I have ever encountered. Don't get me wrong. This is a fun hike and you don't have to be an expert or a super advanced hiker to complete it, but it will likely be a more enjoyable experience if you train a little ahead of time. Some things I do to prepare for more challenging hikes are:
- Carrying a weighted pack around on some long walks
- Going on a few hikes that are a shorter distance, but have similar elevation
- Some form of cardio a few times a week ( I personally like running, but there are lots of different cardio workouts you could try)
3. Packing The Right Gear
This is always important whether you are going on a 2-mile day hike or 2-day summit trip. Although there are essentials you should bring on every hike what you bring with you to Mt St. Helens depends on the season you plan on going. Weather on the mountain is not always consistent so checking the week and night before is probably a good idea. One thing I have observed is that people often attempt to wear tennis shoes and bring a light jacket and snack. These are the people who are usually miserable and end up turning back. In addition to packing the essentials I would suggest:
- Looking up a packing checklist that matches both your distance and season
- Wear actual hiking shoes
- Bring enough food and water for an all-day adventure
- Make sure you have some basic first aid items
4. Water Water Water
Bring a lot of water. This was the biggest mistake I and many others before me have made. I typically bring somewhere between 3-6 water bottles along with me while hiking. I brought 6 with me on this hike. I ran out at the top and totally regretted it. Someone had mentioned packing more water and I just didn't because I have never needed more than 6 before. At the time this was one of the most challenging hikes I had done and I wish I had brought at least 2 more bottles. I was lucky enough to have a life straw water bottle with me. I was able to melt some snow and use my water bottle as a filter. I am glad I had a backup, but it would have been nice to just have brought the right amount of water.
5. Early Bird
This hike is much more enjoyable when you are fully rested and ready to start early. I actually slept in my van in the parking lot at the trailhead. This way I was able to just get up and go just before sunrise. It is always a good idea to start early on a longer out and back hike. This way you make it back to your car before dark and can stop and take breaks if you need them. I personally hate rushing and putting myself on a timer, but with longer hikes that can some times be necessary. It is much easier to get lost in the dark and wildlife tends to be a little more curious at night.
The Mount St Helens summit hike is a beautiful challenge. One mistake people often make is confusing the summit hike with something shorter and easier. The summit hike is a 10-mile round trip with long bolder fields and has over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Be sure to prepare, plan ahead, train, pack appropriately, bring lots of water and get an early start. The views alone are totally worth all the preparation.
Bob Seger on May 24, 2019:
Bring at least 3 liters of water and please don't use plastic water bottles. Always bring hat, gloves, a good insulating layer, and a waterproof/windproof shell (ideally for both upper and lower body). Even in nice days the wind could be howling at the top and you can get cold really quick. And don't forget the sunscreen!