Distance: 7.4 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 1,600 feet
Season: July – October
Best: July – August
Pass: NW Forest Pass
Map: Mount Saint Helens (Green Trails #364)
Directions: From Portland drive north on I-5 for 28 miles. Following signs for WA 503 and Cougar, leave the interstate at exit 21 and turn right at the stop light. Follow WA 503 for 28 more winding miles to Cougar. 3 miles later WA 503 becomes FR 90. Follow this forest highway another 3.2 miles to a junction with FR 83 and signs for Mount Saint Helens. Turn left and drive 3 miles north towards the volcano to a junction with FR 81. Turn left again and drive 3 gravel miles to a small parking area at Redrock Pass.
Hike: The 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens obliterated the north side of the mountain and everything around it. The south side of the mountain saw less, though still significant damage. Many areas were spared entirely while canyons experienced significant lahars, or volcanic mudflows. On this spectacular, little-known hike up the south flank of the volcano you can sample the best of both worlds as you trade old-growth forest for volcanism and back again.
Begin at Red Rock Pass on the Toutle Trail and immediately ascend a rise to a vast lava field with a face-to-face view of Mount Saint Helens. In some years beargrass blankets the lava field with its fragrant white blooms. Photographers may have trouble escaping this spot. If you can, continue on the trail as it enters meadows; look for lupine, penstemon and ludicrous amounts of wild strawberry blooms in July. Enter a mossy, verdant forest and hike half a mile to a junction with the Butte Camp Trail 1.2 miles from your car. Turn right here and begin climbing steadily (though never steeply; the trail is very well-graded) through a forest of pine and mountain hemlock. Listen for woodpeckers, as they love the low pines that dominate this forest. Also note the lava bombs the mountain has deposited here over the years, lest you forget you are on an active volcano!
At 2.5 miles, reach Butte Camp, a long meadow under rocky Butte Camp Dome. Early in the season the stream running through the meadow also runs along the trail, so you might need to watch your feet. Good campsites are abundant here though you may need to wait out the mosquitoes, who love this marshy environment. You won’t see the volcano, however, as it is blocked by the ridge above you. If you’ve come for the views, keep on the trail as it switchbacks up the slope through a dark old-growth hemlock grove draped by yellow lichen. Note the height of the lichen off the trees; this is the height of the winter snow depth. Impressive! Top out and round the bend to your left to see the mountain in front of you and a steep dropoff to your right. Watch your footing on the rocky, dusty trail. Purple phlox and yellow wallflowers cling to the hillside in dramatic fashion. After this traverse, the trail reaches an ashy plain with the volcano directly in front of you. Follow the trail 0.3 mile to a junction with the round-the-mountain Loowit Trail. This is your destination. Keep an eye out for a colony of marmots that live in the area. Mount Saint Helens looms immense above you. Return the way you came or turn left on the Loowit for a longer, optional loop.
Note: The map below was created with software that does not show all of the trails around Mount Saint Helens. There are many trails in the area not shown here. If you wish to deviate from the itinerary above I recommend purchasing a detailed map with all current trails.