Monitor Ridge {Mount St. Helens}

Monitor Ridge {Mount St. Helens}

Mount St. Helens

  • Distance – 15 -16 km / 10 miles (scrambling and route finding skills required)
  • Elevation Gain – 1,421 meters / 4,663 feet
  • Trailhead LocationGifford Pinchot National Forest Climbers’ Bivouac
  • LogisticsPermit required to hike, parking pass required to park at trailhead
  • Route – 3.4 km / 2.1 miles on the Ptarmigan Trail (216A) until the junction of Loowit Trail which is another  4 – 5 kms to the rim, depending on your route (if you follow the wooden poles or take the lower trail to the left of the poles).
  • Prepare For – Wind, LOTS of wind, and blowing ash – wraparound sunglasses or ski goggles and a Gore-Tex or windproof jacket are a necessity.

After a summer of not much hiking due summer forest fires and early snow in the fall, it was a welcome reprieve to sneak away from the snow up here in the subarctic and enjoy the Oregon coastline and the Cascades for a week.

While planning possible adventures, Mount St. Helens came onto the radar.

After all, why not hike up to the rim of one of the most famous volcanoes in the world when you’re in the neighbourhood?


As most fabulous adventures go, more logistics exist than originally appear at first glance.

In order to hike to the top, a permit is required. And of course the permits sell out for the whole season at the beginning of each spring.

And let me tell you, from experience, the top is spectacular!

Mount rainer from mount st. helens monitor ridge
See? I told you — spectacular!

Seeing how it is fall, there was no chance a permit was available for purchase. Luckily for us, there is an online forum where people who purchased a permit and can no longer hike or climb can re-sell them to someone else at or below face value.

I made an account, posted my need for two permits with associated possible dates, and messaged everyone who was selling on those dates, and then waited.


Finally, after a few false starts and then a flurry of emails with a man named Yu, I had two permits in my inbox with our names and contact information on them.

It is always a bit unnerving to send cash via PayPal to a random email address and hope for the best.

Luckily it all worked out and my worrying was all for nothing; we had two of Yu’s six permits and were locked in for October 14, 2018.

After a week of exploring the Oregon coastline from top to bottom, we were ready for an uphill adventure, namely Mount St. Helens.

As is usual when researching a harder than normal hike, the information online was all over the map and what I read wasn’t really in line with what I experienced, which is pretty typical. The only things that were clear were that permits are required and where the hike starts. After those two things, the information was all over the place.

This is not an easy hike, in fact, this is the most elevation gain that I have ever done on one hike and most of the elevation gain is on the last two-thirds of the hike, or in 4.2 km. I am a relatively skilled hiker and the hike up to the rim tried to kill me. Let’s just say I was a bit of a mess on the final ascent when my legs had turned into stone due to lactic acid build up and then the descent shredded my quads.

Walking over the next few days was a bit hilarious, to say the least.

The hike starts at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest Climbers’ Bivouac.

Starting the hike in the woods mount st. helens
At the start of the hike, it was chilly and wooded – even needed my toque!

There is a decent amount of parking (parking pass / recreation pass required to park) and the trailhead is very clear. First things first, you sign into the hiker’s log with information about everyone in your group, including permit numbers, your start time, and an estimated time of completion.

It was 9:45 am, finishing by 4:00 or 4:30 seemed feasible.

With my naïveté still intact and excitement filling me at the prospect of the awaiting adventure, we took out on the trail with gusto. The first 3.4 km / 2.1 miles on the Ptarmigan Trail (216A) is very easy. It is much more of a walk than a hike. When you reach the junction of the Loowit Trail, there is a vault toilet called the “Last Chance Bathroom”… very apropos.

It is at this point where the climbing begins and does not stop.

the trail at mount st. helens monitor ridge
A more, well-defined part of the trail — was able to stop and take a picture, which wasn’t always possible!

There are really no flat sections for your legs to recover, the only way to rest is to find a large, somewhat flat volcanic rock in one of the MANY rockfalls that you need to scramble and sit down while trying not to rip your pants. Wooden, 8-foot poles mark the official trail, but the easier route is just left of the poles on the lower ground, which keeps you out of the wind for quite some time.

Have I mentioned the wind yet?

The wind was howling, I mean HOWLING, and you could see a rather large ash storm swirling at the rim. About an hour and a half into the hike, we met several groups of hikers who turned around due to, “nearly being blown off the mountain” and, “having to crawl on the trail to get back to lower ground and safety.

This made me nervous.

Speedy didn’t bat an eyelash. He just kept hiking and waved me forward while trying not to roll his eyes too much. But the thing was, I felt like I might get blown off the mountain … and I am a sturdy woman. I continued to hike up, straight into the wind.

The trail is made of ash and volcanic rock. The large rock falls were hard to navigate and really slowed me down and the dirt paths were made of ash and smaller rocks which was similar to climbing a sand dune.

The climb begins mount st. helens monitor ridge
A rare, flat spot in the midst of the rock fall and ash at the start of the climb.
The grade of the hike towards the top at mount st. helens
It’s a bit unrelenting without a lot of switchbacks …

There is no way to do this trail quickly, unless you know how to fly.

Eventually the poled way and the lower trail meet at the final ascent which is straight up to the rim. The final ascent is made up of two small shoulders and then a final stretch to the rim. Though it looks short, it takes forever.

the poles marking the trail mount st. helens monitor ridge
The poles lead you right up a spine with no relief from the wind. This is us off course and trying to climb while keeping somewhat out of the wind. You can see a small portion of the swirling ash cloud at the top. Wraparound sunglasses and a Gore-Tex coat are a must.

And the wind simply pummelled us and sand-blasted us with ash. Without eye protection, it would have been impossible to see.

When I reached the top, I could not believe that I made it.

Doubt had followed me and tried to pull me down for the last 4 kms, in fact I told Speedy I may not be able to finish the climb. Luckily for me, he couldn’t hear me despite the fact that I was yelling. The wind violently blew my words of doubt into oblivion and I had no choice but to keep following him to the top, just to let him know that I wasn’t going to make it.

I am extremely glad I kept going.

The view of the missing side of Mount St. Helens along with her lava mass, Mount Rainer, Mount Baker, and Mount Hood on a clear day was worth all the work.

It was simply incredible to find myself on the rim. 

On top of the world at mount st helens

A view of the rim mount st. helens monitor ridge

the top mount st. helens monitor ridge

By the way, whatever you do, DO NOT stand on the edge of the rim!

The edge is a cornice and could easy break off and take you with it. I kept my distance while admiring the view and trying to stay upright in the wind. Picture taking in the 100 kph wind was complex, so I have less pictures than I would like, but I have oh so many memories.

While standing on the rim with a few other brave souls, pride at my accomplishment welled up inside of me. Fear, wind, and my legs tried to keep me from getting there, but somehow I found myself literally on top of the world.

It doesn’t matter the speed at which you go, simply that you go.

We hit the descent hard.

Leaning back, we ran and slid down the ashy trails and little rocks filled my shoes. On the ascent, we had followed the wooden poles route, which is harder than it needs to be; full of scrambling with unclear trails. We took the more travelled and defined trail on the way down and kept a decent pace back to the car. My legs were so happy to arrive at the junction for Ptarmigan Trail – the last few kms, a welcome reprieve and shake out.

It took just over four hours to make it to the rim and two and a half hours to find the car. As always, down is always so much easier, but not necessarily easier on the legs. We made it back to the trailhead at 4:15, splitting the difference between my and Speedy’s estimated finish time.

I signed us out of the hiking log with a heart full of happiness and shoes full of ash.

Mount st helen national monument hike donloree
All signed out and ready to find some dinner. This hiking woman is happy and starving! But first, a picture with the sign, which is always a must!

If you haven’t hiked to the top of Mount St. Helens, put this amazing and hard hike on your list!

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