Of all the volcanoes in the northern Cascades, Mt. St. Helens is by far the easiest to climb. For starters, the most common route, Monitor Ridge on the south flank, is non-technical, eliminating the need for specialized gear or advanced mountaineering skills. At just 8,366 feet, its summit elevation post-1980 eruption places it several thousand feet lower than neighbors such as Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier, essentially taking the ill effects of altitude out of the equation. However, at 10 miles round trip and with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s still a robust day hike.
After numerous trips to the base of Mt. St. Helens over the years, reaching the summit of this active volcano has long been on my to-do list. When we moved back to Washington last summer, I knew I might finally get my chance. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest limits the number of climbers to 100 per day in the summer months, and the permits sell out quickly when they go on sale in March. Sadly, I missed the initial sale this year, leaving me to obsessively check every few days for cancellations. Eventually I got lucky and spotted two permits up for grabs in late-July. A few minutes later, they were mine.
From a distance and elevation gain standpoint, the hike up Monitor Ridge is comparable to many of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners”. One major difference: on Mt. St. Helens we would be topping out at a lower elevation than one starts most Fourteener climbs at. The other big difference would be the terrain. Most Fourteeners have a fairly distinct path a good way up the mountain and are on reasonably solid rock (my dislike of exposure and falling means I haven’t done any of the ones on rotten rock). On Mt. St. Helens, after a brief foray through the forest, the climb traverses a mixture of large lava boulders and a loose scree consisting of pumice and volcanic ash. This is a hike where a mask was on the suggested gear list before they were cool!
To the hike! As the National Weather Service had accurately predicted several days in advance, the morning of our climb dawned with some fairly dense fog at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead where we had camped the previous night. We hit the trail at 6:00 am, anticipating that it would take us 4-5 hours to reach the summit. The first two miles of trail climbs gently through a moist and somewhat unremarkable second growth forest. At timberline is where the route changes from a well-maintained trail to the aforementioned scree and boulder scramble. Wooden posts serve as guides for the remainder of the climb, but following them too closely didn’t always make for the most sensible route. In places there is a fairly obvious path, while in others (particularly in the boulder fields), you just sort of have to find what works best. Just before arriving at timberline, we began to emerge from the clouds, revealing views of Mt. Adams to the east and the extremely conical Mt. Hood to the south that we enjoyed the rest of the day. Once above the trees, our pace slowed significantly, but before too long we were several hundred feet above the cloud deck we had been immersed in a short time earlier:
We made fairly good time through the ~2 miles of boulder fields. The final mile through a deep and loose mixture of volcanic ash and pumice was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. With masks on to prevent inhaling clouds of ash kicked up by our feet (and the wind), it was somewhat analogous to hiking up a sand dune: two steps forward, one step back, repeat. After about four hours, we were standing on the crater rim.
The first view northward into the bowels of Mt. St. Helens was stunning, and definitely one of the most dramatic viewpoints I can recall. Unlike many lesser peaks in the Cascades, or most peaks in the Rockies, where you are often surrounded by other peaks of comparable elevation, Mt. St. Helens stands alone. On this volcano, you are standing on what is, by far, the highest point for dozens of miles in any direction, with only the other volcanoes exceeding you in height. Looking down onto the crater formed by the 1980 eruption, the lava domes that are slowly rebuilding the summit, and the Crater Glacier (one of the few alpine glaciers in the world that is actually advancing) was spectacular. Cornices of hard-packed, dirty snow clung to the nearly vertical slopes of the crater walls just beneath our feet, necessitating caution as we moved our way along the rim. Gentle puffs of steam were visible on portions of the lava dome, a gentle reminder that we were standing at the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The dull roar of rock and ice fall from the crater walls was nearly constant for the hour we spent taking in the view from the summit.
While the hike up had been relatively uneventful, the journey down was definitely less pleasant. Hiking poles are a must for the descent due to the steep, loose, and rocky terrain. This is definitely one of those hikes where coming down is exponentially more difficult than going up!
Compared to our experience hiking Fourteeners in Colorado, the significantly lower elevation of this hike makes a huge difference and in my opinion dramatically lowers the overall difficultly of this route. There is a big difference between inching your way up a scree slope at 13,000′ and having to stop every few steps to take in oxygen, and doing the same at 8,000′ where breathing isn’t as much of an issue. While the terrain was definitely more difficult than your average hike with similar specs, in the end we felt like the difficulty of the Monitor Ridge route was somewhat over-hyped based on some of the accounts we read in advance. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. As far as special gear, a mask was definitely helpful for both COVID and volcanic ash purposes. Hiking poles were more or less useless on the way up, as the boulder fields often required the use of hands to navigate, but essential on the way down. Other sources recommended bringing garden gloves to protect against cuts on the sharp volcanic rocks. We bought some cheap ones and definitely found them useful. I never actually put mine on during the ascent, and made it to the summit with only one small abrasion on the back of my hand. Long pants are also a must if you don’t want your lower legs ripped to shreds by the rocks.
With Mt. St. Helens checked off, next up on the to-do list is Mt. Adams, which is also a non-technical climb at the right time of year, albeit longer. We may not get to that one this summer…perhaps our goal will be to climb one Cascade volcano per year!
Mt. Adams is a striking feature of the western skyline from here in the Yakima Valley of Central Washington. Here’s what it looked like from our neighborhood at sunrise a few months back:
The towering volcanic cone looks close enough to touch, but in reality, reaching the base of Washington’s second highest peak requires a nearly three hour drive down a labyrinth of Forest Service roads. We’ve been wanting to explore the Mt. Adams area since we returned to Washington last year. With winter’s grip beginning to ease in the higher elevations of the Cascades, earlier this week we finally got the chance.
Mostly clear skies, calm wind, and a dark moon made for some great photo opportunities. While it may be debatable, I think some of these were worth their weight in mosquito bites. Several small ponds dot the lower flanks of Mt. Adams and snowdrifts still lingered in the shadier patches of forest, making the entire landscape somewhat damp. Consequently, the mosquitoes were ferocious! Sadly, our mosquito “repellent” only seemed to attract more. I was quickly reminded that a vastly underrated aspect of living in the southwest is the lack of bugs!
The forests just to the west of Mt. Adams happen to be located nearly in the center of the four large active stratovolcanoes of the south Cascades: Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier to the north, Mt. St. Helens to the west, and Mt. Hood just across the Columbia River to the south in Oregon. A variety of relatively short but steep hikes in the area ascend lesser peaks, resulting in fantastic views of all four volcanoes, plus the dense forests of the Cascades:
The real fun came after nightfall. Dark skies are much harder to find in Washington than in Utah, and this was my first good look at the Milky Way since last summer. The calm weather allowed me to capture the Milky Way’s reflection in Takhlakh Lake. Jupiter was kind enough to rise directly above the summit of Mt. Adams. And I got lucky and captured the brightest meteor of the evening in one exposure. This was certainly a case of being in the right place at the right time! (One might argue that the “right time” would have been a few months from now, when all the mosquitoes are dead, but then the Milky Way would not have been positioned so perfectly.)
Golden Larches at Blue Lake in the North Cascades.
Still reeling from the disappointment of having to leave Colorado a mere fortnight before the world’s largest Aspen forests exploded into their annual displays of color, I was determined to find some similar photo opportunities in Washington this fall. The “Aspen of the Pacific Northwest” is arguably the Western Larch. Most common in the Northern Rockies, a handful of Western Larch stands can be found east of the Cascade Crest in Washington state. Tall but unassuming for 50 weeks out of the year, and then drop-dead spectacular for two, the Western Larch looks all for the world like an evergreen, but it is decidedly deciduous. Most high-altitude Pacific Northwest forests are all evergreen, so unless seeing dead and decaying brown pine-needles pile up on the forest floor is your thing, autumn up in the high Cascades isn’t anything to get too excited about. Add larch though and it’s a different story. The yellowish-green needles of the larch go out with a bang, turning a glittering golden-yellow for just a few short weeks in the late fall before leaving the tree buck naked until the following spring.
Golden larch season in the Cascades is an event that generally attracts hordes of needle-peeping Seattleites to the mountains. My hope was that the several feet of early-season snow the mountains had received in late September would be deep enough to temper the crowds. I was wrong. The parking lot at the Blue Lake Trailhead off of Highway 20 in the Okanogan National Forest was completely full, forcing us to park alongside the highway. Fortunately, photographers are born with an innate desire to bask in late-afternoon light which meant we were headed up the trail to Blue Lake late enough that most other folks were already on their way down. One advantage to having lots of folks on the trail was that we were alerted to the presence of a solitary mountain goat scrambling along a rocky gully a few hundred feet above the trail.
The lower portion of the trail was snow-free, but by the time we reached the goat and the larch groves, it was several feet deep. The main trail was hard-packed snow and ice due to all of the foot traffic but wandering off trail trying to take pictures of the larches sans people would definitely have been easier with a pair of snowshoes. The larches were nothing short of spectacular, especially against the snowy-white backdrop. In the late afternoon sun, the color of the needles was so resplendent that you could have painstakingly coated each needle in gold leaf and not known the difference. Individual larches on mountain ridges miles away could easily be picked out, their needles back lit by the sun, shining like beacons in a sea of mountains.
A surprisingly sunny and warm October afternoon in the North Cascades is perfect for larch hunting.
Exploring off trail, gazing out at the Cascades through the larches.
Later in the evening, headed to a lower-elevation (read: warmer) camping spot, I was able to catch the very last rays of sunlight on Liberty Bell Mountain. And just in case larches and a spectacular sunset weren’t enough, the clear skies and nearly full moon were ideal conditions for some nightscapes of the North Cascades!
Sunset along the North Cascade Highway.
The constellation of Aquila sets over North Cascade peaks illuminated by the Full Moon .