Mount St. Helens – Winter Route to the Summit

When it comes to accessible Washington volcanoes, this is a bucket list day hike for many adventure seekers! On a clear day, like we luckily had, the panoramic views from the summit of Mount St. Helens are extraordinary – not to mention that you’re standing at the crater rim of an infamous volcano! If you recall, this volcano erupted relatively recently – May of 1980 – and changed the surrounding landscape forever.

This is not a technical climb, but hikers should be in excellent shape and capable of spending many hours hiking. And if you plan on taking the Winter Route, as we did, you should also be familiar with how to safely hike in snowy conditions.

Panoramic view looking down into the crater from the crater rim. Mount Rainier is seen North (center), and Mount Adams to the East (right).

The Details

  • PERMITS:
    • A climbing permit is required year round.  The permits are limited to a group size of 12 people maximum.  The cost of the permit and the number of permits available for release will vary based on season/time of year you plan to hike.  
      • For example, for anyone who is planning to hike between April 1 and November 30, you will need to apply for and pay for a permit.  There is an application system that is quite popular, so you’ll need to plan ahead!
      • For anyone hiking between December 1 and March 31, you do NOT need to apply for and pay for a permit.  You can self-issue a free permit at the trailhead at the beginning of your hike.
    • Details here
  • GETTING THERE:
    • There are two ways to reach the crater rim of this infamous volcano
    • The winter route from Worm Flows (which we did), starts from Marble Mountain Sno-Park. 
      • If you park here between December 1 and March 31, you will have to pay for a sno-park permit to park at this trailhead. 
      • Washington State Sno-Park Permits can be purchased online or in most outdoor recreation retailers.
      • Remember that winter lasts longer in the mountains, so even though we did this hike the second weekend of June 2023, the summer route still hadn’t opened yet.  This is because there was still snow along the road to access the summer route.
    • The summer route begins from the Climber’s Bivouac trailhead and takes you towards Monitor Ridge. 
      • To park here, you must either pay a $5 day pass, have a Northwest Forest Pass, or an America the Beautiful Pass
    • Historically, road access to the summer route is open from late June to mid October, but this varies slightly every year.
The closest town to the trailheads is Cougar, WA (bottom left). The winter route starts from Marble Mountain (yellow box), and the summer route starts from Climbers Bivouac (red circle). Both trails head North towards the crater rim.
  • THE TRAIL:
    • Again, we did the Worm Flows winter route from Marble Mountain Sno-Park.  From here, this was 12 miles round trip with 5,699 feet of elevation gain
    • If you access it via the summer route from Climber’s Bivouac, this starts at a point higher up towards the summit, so this will shorten your trip to a total round trip distance of 10 miles and about 4500’ elevation gain
    • It is technically dog friendly (on-leash), but this is a strenuous trek, so your dog must be well trained for this intense hike, and be in excellent physical fitness!  Note that this is a hike on a volcano, so it is icy, rocky and ashy.  That being said, any dogs that do join should wear booties to protect their paws.  But generally speaking, this is a trail best reserved for humans only.
  • MUST PACK ITEMS:
    • More water, electrolytes and food than you think.  At the time we went, there were no streams or anything to filter water.  So we had to carry in all the water we needed for the day, and more, just in case!
    • UV protection – the bright snow is intense!  Wear sunglasses, hat, layers.  Reapply sunscreen often as most of the hike is exposed
    • Hiking poles, ideally with snow baskets
    • Gaiters for your boots – this will prevent little rocks, ash and snow from getting into your boots
    • Snow gear if taking the winter route *** microspikes, ice axe, and optional items for glissading downwards (some folks brought a sled, a trash bag, etc)
Early morning view of Mount Hood about 2-3 miles into our hike

The Experience

  • The night before, we stayed at the Lone Fir Resort, which was a 24 minute drive from the trailhead in Cougar, WA.  This was such a convenient location, their staff was so friendly, and they even had live music that evening!
  • Official start time: boots on the trail at 3:45am
    • Elevation at the trailhead is 2800’
    • Obviously headlamps are needed at this hour- first light wasn’t until 4:40am
    • There was plenty of parking this early, and two clean pit toilets

a welcoming sunrise

We reached the wooden signpost (far left) denoting Loowit Trail/Worm Flows Route at 5am. Shortly afterwards, around 5:30am, the colors started to explode from the sky with a peek-a-boo view of Mount Adams to the East (center top photo) and Mount Hood behind us to the South (center bottom photo, far right photos)

Up until this point, the hiking had been pretty chill – meandering through the forest without much elevation gain. This was about to change as we started to encounter some boulder fields and start climbing. Every once in a while, when catching your breath, remember to turn around and look back at the view of the lush valley and the view of Mount Hood we were hiking further away from.

Around 7am we reach the weather station where we take a short break, refuel (Jimmy John’s #5 for me!), reapply sunscreen, and rehydrate.  Here, we are at 6,200’ elevation. We have definitely started to sweat by now.

At this point, the sun is very much out and shining.  This makes things difficult because from this point on (the weather station), this is where the snow field starts, so we strap on our microspikes, break out our trekking poles, and try to make good time because the more the sun comes up, the more soft and slushy the snow becomes, and therefore the more difficult climbing up it is!  This is why the early start is so important – trying to beat the heat (or rather, the slush!)

Hopefully these images demonstrate how steep this climb is!

This snowy section was super hard for me – it was like every time I took a step forward, I would slide back just a little bit because of the melting snow, and so I was using my entire body to get better grip and traction with each step, which required me to both push AND pull myself forward because of how steep it was. 

Then, finally, the summit!

I reached the top just before 11am (so it took a little less than 7 hours for me to reach the summit).

The views from the crater rim were unbelievable – as soon you as you crested the rim you had views of Mount Rainier to the North, Mount Adams to the East, and Mount Hood to the South behind us. 

At the bottom left you can even see a bit of steam rising from the center of the crater, a gentle reminder that this volcano is very much still active….

We were so lucky to have such clear skies with panoramic views that day.  There are few other times in my life that I had felt just so, so accomplished…and also so relieved (to be done with climbing! Haha).

There is not much room here at the rim, so you must take care to step carefully and on solid ground.  Cornices are a true danger – these are outpouches of snow that appear solid and stable, but are not on actual solid ground. So if you step on these, they can crumble beneath your feet and you can fall. 

We hung out here for a while – enjoying the scenery, eating our lunch and waiting for all our party members to catch up.  Once we all felt very well rested, the clouds were starting to roll in anyway and began to obscure our view of Mount Adams – our cue to start our way downwards and back to our cars.

We glissaded down the snowy section, which was so fast! This saved us so much time.  Glissading just means sledding down the mountain and can be dangerous if not done correctly! Before starting your glissade, you will need to make sure you have a clear, smooth path, free of any rocks or other people that you could collide into. You will also need to ensure you can actually visualize the end of your glissade path – you do not want to sled off of a cliff edge! On that note, you will also need to have a way to “apply the brakes” and stop yourself if you start sliding downwards uncontrollably. This is referred to as “self-arresting” and is usually done with an ice axe. [Full disclosure: I did not use an ice axe, but rather had my trekking poles in case I needed to self-arrest. This, along with digging my heels into the snow, worked for when I needed to slow down or stop, but many experts highly recommend an actual ice axe if you’re going to glissade as the safest option.] Some people brought trash bags to sit on to glissade down the mountain. Some people even brought snowboards and skis for the downhill, which just seems so epic! I was wearing waterproof pants, so I just sat on my butt, leaned backwards, and let gravity take over!

Pro tip: remove your microspikes/crampons before glissading, and ensure your pack is worn tightly on your body, without any loose items on the outer parts of your pack. It’s easy to lose a water bottle or a hat when you are sliding quickly down a snowy mountainside!

We glissaded all the way down to the weather station, where the snow ended, then hiked the rest of the way down. There are boulder fields and rocky sections that required some scrambling, but then after that, the last few miles were an easy rolling elevation downwards. This was smooth sailing, but at this point, we were all just exhausted and ready to be back at our cars. The entire way down from the summit back to the trailhead took us about 4 hours.

Total hiking time = 11 hours

Total time on the mountain = 13ish hours (7 hours up, 2 hours of total idle time/breaks/lunch, oops!, 4 hours down)

Pro tip: have a spare change of clean clothes to change into once you get back to your car, and a cooler with cold beverages as a reward for a job well done!