Mt St Helens NVM

Washington, the Evergreen State

The Cascade Range is a mountain range that runs north-south along the west coast of the U.S., extending from Canada to northern California. Living in Seattle I'm quite used to clouds covering the sky for most of the year. During Winter the snow accumulates on the mountains of the  Cascade Range but when Spring comes the clouds start dissipating and the snow-capped peaks shining under the blue sky are just a marvelous panorama. It's almost hard to imagine that these mountains of immense beauty can also cause destruction and devastation of unimaginable proportions. Many of the Cascade Range's mountains are volcanoes, some still active, others have been dormant for centuries. Il più attivo e pericoloso di tutte queste vette non è però Mt Ranier, ma Mt St Helens. The most active and dangerous of all of these volcanoes is not the biggest, Mt Rainier, but Mt St Helens. If you have never witnessed an eruption it's difficult to grasp what it does really mean. I have spoken to people who lived in this area when, on May 18th 1980 Mt St Helens erupted, killing 57 people, thousands of animals and spreading ashes at 80,000 ft, which eventually fell in 11 States. The people I spoke to told me of how the sky turned dark and how the ashes continued to fall for several days. Mt St Helens is now a National Volcanic Monument, a striking proof of the devastating force of Nature, as well as an outstanding example of how from the ashes Nature has already begun a new cycle of life.

Mt St Helens

The view of the crater in the foreground, with Spirit Lake
and Mt Rainier in the background


Mt St Helens is located approximately 150 miles south of Seattle in a strategic position halfway between Mt Rainier and the beautiful Columbia River Gorge (which is located on the border of Washington and Oregon). There are three entrances which lead to three separate areas of the park.
The west entrance can be reached with a 3-4 hours drive from Seattle, following interstate I-5 and then continuing east along Hwy 504. This is also known as Spirit Lake Memorial Hwy, a 54 miles steady climb, starting from the town of Castle Rock, passing through a forest destroyed by the 1980 eruption and culminating at Johnston Ridge, where you'll enjoy a spectacular view of the volcano and its crater. There are four Visitor Centers along the way, each one of which offers a different perspective on the park, its geology and the eruption of 1980. If you are looking for a nice hike in the area, Boundary Lake might be right for you. A 4 miles long trail will take you to Harry's Ridge and stunning views over Spirit Lake.
The eastern side of the park is accessible via Hwy 131 and then continuing east along Forest Road 99. This could be a great stop after leaving Mt Rainier and heading south towards Oregon. This road winds through a forest devastated by the 1980 eruption and culminates at Windy Ridge where another beautiful view of the volcano and Spirit Lake is waiting for you.
The last entrance is from the south and leads to the trailhead from which begins the climb to the top of the volcano (and I'll talks in detail about it below). An attraction not to be missed in this area is Ape Cave, one of the longest lava caves in the U.S.. From the trailhead, you can choose whether to try an easy descent (.75 miles), or venture into a more difficult 1.5 miles trail that will take you through the caves and then to the surface, where another trail will take you back to the trailhead.
As for accommodation and restaurants, if you're headed to the western or southern areas of the park, I'd recommend to look for something in one of the towns along interstate I-5. Generally speaking Mt St Helens can be visited in a day and there is no need to sleep near the park. But if you want to attempt the climb, then you want to be as close to the park as possible and start your climb at dawn. In that case Woodland is a pretty good choice.

The top of the volcano

While Mt St Helens offers a unique experience even just driving through the  forest devastated by the 1980 eruption, in my humble opinion there is no better way to explore this park than climbing the volcano. Let me just make this very clear: this is a 9 miles trail, which will take you to 8,400 ft above sea level after an ascent of nearly 4,700 ft. This is not a trail to be taken lightly, I personally think it is physically the hardest trail I've ever done. That said, the satisfaction of conquering the summit and the views that you have along the way make this trail certainly one of my top-5 hikes.
Let's start from the beginning though. And the beginning of this hike, it's probably at least a few months earlier, when permits go on sale. Permits are sold starting from the beginning of February for the entire season and are awarded on a democratic first-come-first-served base. In other words, the earlier you reserve the better chances you have to a) get a permit and b) get it for the day you want. The permits are for a specific date, cost twenty dollars and are not refundable. Ah, there are only 100 permits available per day.
If you have managed to get a permit, the day of your hike start by stopping at the Lone Fir Resort, in the town of Cougar, along the road to Mt St Helens. Anyone who wants to climb the mountain has to register at the Lone Fir Resort on the way to and on the way back from the hike (it's mandatory!).
From Cougar to the trail-head's parking lot it's about a 35 minutes drive. I'd recommend starting the hike at dawn. If you're good hikers, this is going to  be a 8 to 10 hours hike.
Our hike started on a beautiful August day, with a perfectly blue sky over us and the fresh mountain air waking us up (at the trail-head we were still day dreaming after waking up at 5 AM!!!). The first section of the trail passes through a forest and is rather flat. There was still snow along the trail, and it was August! I noticed two things right away. First, the frequent gusts of hot air, coming at us almost as though coming from the rhythmic beat of the volcano's heart. Second, just after half a mile we're practically breathless. That had never happened before to us. We're in pretty good shape and are used to walk at high elevation, but this time it took our lungs a few minutes to adjust. So, don't underestimate the elevation!
As the forest gradually opened up, glimpses of the volcano's appeared on our left and then majestic views of the other nearby mountains started popping up on the right, including Mt Adams, which we had never seen from so close.

Mt St Helens

The final climb

As the trail climbs and the forest gives way to rocks, the views became more and more impressive. We could even see Mt Hood in Oregon!
Rather suddenly the trail itself ended and I began to realize why this is called a climb instead of a hike. To make a long story short, you must hike, climb and crawl on huge boulders, using big pink (?) poles as a reference. I cannot even start to think how this part of the hike might be in a cloudy day, with fog covering the whole area. Although this stretch may seem rough, it's just an easy warm-up in preparation for what is about to follow. The next section, however, is relatively simple. The steady climb follows a ridge, but at least you walk on something that vaguely recalls a trail. During this stretch the top of the volcano seems pretty close, but do not relax, it's just an illusion and the hardest part of the trail is yet to come. Once we got to the end of the ridge, a new stretch of huge boulders was there waiting for us. Here we had no choice but wear the garden gloves we had brought from home, because there is no way to continue without using hands and feet to climb. At least three or four times the perspective deceived us, as we thought we were approaching the end of the boulders section. Instead this stretch is so steep that you get to top of a section only to find out that there is a short flat stretch and then another section of boulders. Physically this is the hardest part, but psychologically it is even more challenging. You just need to stay focused and not give up every time that the goal is moved further away.
After what seemed a couple of hours spent climbing huge boulders we finally got to the end of this section. The crater is now no more than 200 feet away, but the last stretch is a killer. Not only the climb is pretty much vertical, but you have to walk on ashes. It is like walking on a 45 degrees beach, where for every two steps we took, the ashes pushed us back a step. All of this comes after more than four hours of walking and around the hottest hours of the day. But the top was now really close, we could almost touch it! At this point it was pure adrenaline to push us across the finish line. When we finally got there, the views were absolutely jaw dropping. We were on the edge of the crater, with the beating heart of the volcano pulsing below us. Several fumaroles filled the air with a smell similar to what we had already felt in Yellowstone and Lassen Volcanic.
But what we'll never forget is the 360-degree view from the top. Mt Rainier and Mt Baker to the north, Mt Adams to the east, Mt Hood and other mountains far to the south.
Sitting on the crater, our eyes and souls were simply trying to absorb as much as possible of these views. After about half an hour on the crater it was time to hike back. It might have been what we had just experienced, it might have been that now the hike was downhill, but the way back seemed so easy! We ended up making it just short of 8 hours. We're so tired but excited at the same time. Being on the top of a volcano is a unique experience. The feeling of being small and powerless in the midst of Nature had never been so clear.