Guide to Mount St. Helens

Visiting the South Side of Mount St. Helens: On Top of Old Smokey

Take a walk on the adventure side of the volcano. Keen athletes can spelunk underground, ski gentle slopes, or climb to the crater rim.

By Allison Williams May 6, 2020

The view into the crater from the summit.

Image: Kim Thwaits

► Crash at the funky Lone Fir Resort in the town of Cougar to get a taste of what St. Helens was like before the blast—locally owned RV spots and accommodations with more personality than luxuries. Motel rooms and cabins have wood-panel walls and thick wood-branch furniture, and guests gather at the outdoor games, hammocks, and pool. 

Decending into the Ape Caves.

► Don’t expect primates at the Ape Cave, a 2,000-year-old lava tube; it was named for the Boy Scout troop that first explored it, and legend has it their nickname referenced Bigfoot. In summer rangers rent out lanterns, but backup headlamps are recommended year-round. The mile-long cave exploration is an ideal first trip underground, since it’s one long, thin room; no way to get lost.

► Hike Lava Canyon for an up-close look at how the eruption lahars cut through the land like a knife through butter. The 125-foot suspension bridge—undergoing repairs but expected to reopen—offers the best vantage point for the deep canyon and lava formations; leaving the trail on these steep cliffs can be deadly. The first section is paved and ADA accessible.

Crossing the suspension bridge at Lava Canyon.

► Score a permit ($22) to climb Mount St. Helens between April and October, and come prepared. It’s a 10-mile round-trip trek gaining 4,500 to 5,500 feet, depending on the starting point; that can mean more than a mile straight up. In shoulder season the snow requires traction and winter hike know-how. In summer, the ashy, rocky trail demands lots of water and good footwear. The reward comes at the jagged rim with a top-down view into the crater. Wary climbers can join a snow, summer, ski, or geologist-guided trip through Mount St. Helens Institute ($250). 

► Return through Cougar for a big meal at Bigfoot’s Lodge at the Lone Fir. Though a hearty bacon melt or Sasquatch stew are the best refueling options after a chilly winter day, locals recommend the pizza in summer. Cougar Bar and Grill across the street does the job for a no-frills beer.

The statewide Covid-19 response has affected planned Mount St. Helens anniversary events, temporarily closed businesses, and prohibited access to some roads, trailheads, visitor centers, and more. Be sure to check online or by phone for the latest updates before making plans. 

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