13 Top-Rated Hiking Trails at Mount St. Helens
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Mount St. Helens is within the Cascade Range of southern Washington, 50 miles north of Portland, Oregon. It is best known in modern history for its dramatic 1980 eruption. And today, it 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 experience the dynamics of this active area is to venture out on its surrounding hiking trails. Trails at Mount St. Helens provide a variety of terrain to explore for family hikes and more experienced hikers alike.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, administered by Gifford-Pinchot National Forest, is divided into three main visiting areas: the west, east, and south sides of the mountain. The west side, connected by the Spirt Lake Memorial Byway, 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 and The Climber's Bivouac Trailhead are near the town of Cougar. On the east side, accessible by the seasonal Forest Road 25, other bucket-list attractions include Norway Pass and Windy Ridge, both offering front-row views of the 1980 eruption aftermath.
Explore this fascinating area with our list of the top hiking trails at Mount Saint Helens.
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1. Boundary Trail from Johnston Ridge Observatory
For a great introduction to Mount St. Helens, head to the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the west side of the mountain. It's located at the end of Highway 504, also known as Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, approximately 52 miles east of Castle Rock. At the Observatory, interpretive displays detail that massive 1980 explosion alongside a perfect view of the dismembered mountain.
For those looking to hike, the Boundary Trail #1 departs in either direction from the Observatory. This trail spans over 50 miles throughout the northwest side of the park, connecting several trailheads and scenic destinations. From the Observatory, however, hikers only need to trek a few hundred feet for increasingly excellent views.
Heading east toward the mountain, the Boundary Trail extends along with a rise in elevation that enables a closer view with every step. It's a choose-your-own-adventure on how far to trek in this direction, with junctions for Truman Trail and Harry's Ridge offering viable side paths. And on clear days, expect gorgeous views of the mountain the entire time while hiking.
The Boundary Trail also extends west from the Observatory. It connects to other prominent trails, including Loowit and Hummocks. For those looking to stretch their legs, Hummocks is a popular place to start the day with a hike up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Bring plenty of water no matter the direction you're heading.
2. Ape Caves Lava Tube
Ape Cave provides a fun subterranean adventure on the south side of Mount St. Helens. It's one of the longest lava tubes in the country, formed more than 2,000 years ago by a months-long thermal erosion event. Today, the caves offer visitors the chance to explore the underground hallway that remains. Every visitor needs to bring a flashlight when they visit.
Two routes stem from the aboveground entrance of Ape Caves, each offering 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. Here, visitors are screened for White-Nose Syndrome exposure, which affects the local bat population.
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 visitor's center.
3. Trail of Two Forests
Trail of Two Forests is a family-friendly hike and a great introduction to the southern region. It provides valuable insight and interpretive information about the geological history of the mountain and its 1980 explosion.
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 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.
4. Harry's Ridge Trail
Harry's Ridge Trail is an absolute classic and exemplary hiking trail at Mt. Saint Helens. It's off the Boundary Trail and is most commonly accessed from the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the northwest side of the monument. The round-trip 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. From roughly mid-July to early August, wildflower blooms line the landscape, offering an interesting contrast of color against the volcano blast surroundings.
After traveling approximately 3.5 miles from the Observatory on the Boundary Trail, passing the junction for the Truman Trail, the route begins to get steep as it diverts toward Harry's Ridge. It's a steep and windy hike to the top, but on clear days, 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.
For an easier alternative and kid-friendly hike, the half-mile Eruption Trail also departs from the Johnston Ridge Observatory.
5. 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.
The Birth of a Lake Trail is a kid-friendly hike that follows a boardwalk path adjacent to the shoreline with many interpretive signs along the way. Expect small crowds of families during summer weekends.
For further exploration, the Lake Trail departs from the nearby Coldwater Lake Boat Launch and provides a nine-mile, out-and-back route. The trek includes high views of the lake and pathways through the rebounding forest. Coldwater Lake itself is popular for non-motorized boating and fishing.
6. Monitor Ridge Summit Trail
There's more than one way to summit Mount St. Helens. For warm-weather hikers, the Monitor Ridge Trail, beginning at the Climber's Bivouac Trailhead on the south side of the monument, is the preferred summer route. Permits are required to hike this renowned route to the top, as is a good amount of stamina for navigating the purely uphill terrain.
It's approximately a 10-mile, out-and-back round trip to reach the summit and back. However, the route quickly climbs above the tree line and enters a rocky and exposed terrain within the first two miles of hiking. Technical climbing skills aren't required to reach the summit, though the route should only be attempted by fit and able hikers.
The route follows wooden posts buried into the rocky environment. It's hard to call it hiking at some points along the trail when hands and feet are needed to scramble up rocks and boulders. And depending on the time of year, the route also navigates snowfields. Even for experienced hikers, the route proves to be challenging. For this reason, several people start the route before daybreak.
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 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 current conditions, head on over to the Mount St. Helens Institute homepage.
7. 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. It exposes a variety of Mount St. Helens landscapes, including the trail's namesake features.
Hummocks at Mount St. Helens are small knolls and earthen mounds and a direct result of the 1980 eruption. 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 that describes in greater detail the events that led to their creation.
8. Windy Ridge Trail
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 noteworthy 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.
9. 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.
10. Lava Canyon
At the far end of Forest Road 83 on the southeast edge of the monument, Lava Canyon highlights a timespan of geologic history that is quite a sight to see. The landscape is the result of a volcanic mudslide scouring out a canyon once filled with loose sediment. As a result, the dramatic waterfalls that now define Lava Canyon were both revealed and heightened in a single event.
Visitors to Lava Canyon choose their own level of adventure with three connecting trails that increase with difficulty the farther traveled from the trailhead. 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.
Spirit Lake is on the northeast side of Mount St. Helens. It was once a popular recreation area filled with campgrounds, lodges, and a variety of hiking trails. It is one of many landscapes that dramatically changed after the 1980 eruption event.
The massive avalanche debris that crashed into Spirit Lake dramatically raised its banks. The sudden splash 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, 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, and sticking to the trails is a vital part of any visit.
12. 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 (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 is categorized as rough and rugged, 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.
13. June Lake Trail
The June Lake trail is a family-friendly hike that 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. This scenic shoreline and waterfall offer an excellent turn-around point and place to have a snack before hiking back. The Loowit Trail can be accessed from June Lake by a quarter-mile (and very steep) trail connector.
Where to Stay near Mount St. Helens
- A top family vacation tradition, the Lone Fir Resort is located south of Mount Saint Helens near the monument boundary, providing fast access to popular areas like Ape Caves and the Climber's Bivouac trailhead. Besides being one of the closest hotels to the monument, Lone Fir Resort also provides camping, cabins, and hotel rooms in a rustic setting complete with a pizza cafe and outdoor movie theater on the weekends.
- Farther southwest in the city of Battle Ground, Best Western Plus Battle Ground Inn & Suites offers extra space and on-site amenities including an outdoor saltwater pool, free breakfast in the mornings, and close vicinity to many nearby restaurants.
- Near Interstate 5, the Lewis River Inn is a comfortable and convenient hotel with balcony rooms overlooking the scenic Lewis River.
- More affordable hotel rates can be found a little farther from the volcanic monument. Specifically in the cities of Kelso and Longview, places like Super 8 by Wyndham Kelso Longview Area are very affordable and near the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center.
- Also in the area, and just over an hour drive to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, GuestHouse Inn & Suites Kelso/Longview provides an unbeatable space-to-rate ratio with modern suites complete with in-room hot tubs, extra sitting space, and small kitchenettes.
- Farther north in Chehalis, Relax Inn lives up to its name with comfortable beds, quiet surroundings, and a clean facility.
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