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Mount Saint Helens via Butte Camp Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

View to the Crater Glacier and west rim (bobcat)
The Toutle Trail leading from Red Rock Pass over a lava flow (bobcat)
Junction with the trail leading to the Butte Camp overnight area (bobcat)
Butte Camp Dome and Goat Mountain from the ascent route (bobcat)
Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier from the true summit (bobcat)
At the true summit (bobcat)
The route from Butte Camp to the true summit (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: National Geographic Topo
  • Start point: Red Rock Pass TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Mount Saint Helens Summit
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: Out-and-back
  • Distance: 13.2 miles up and down or a 16.1 mile loop using Monitor Ridge
  • High point: 8,365 feet
  • Elevation gain: 5305 feet (add another 500 feet if doing the loop)
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: Late June into Fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: No
Falling

Contents

Hike Description

Before May 18th, 1980, when the beautiful cone of St. Helens was 1,300 feet more prominent than it is today, those seeking the mountain’s highest point would camp out beneath two buttes on its south side. The camp became Butte Camp, strictly speaking Lower Butte Camp, and the pair of buttes became Butte Camp Dome. While the winter ascent, using June Lake and the Worm Flows, and the summer plod, via Monitor Ridge, are well-known, a third, and yes officially sanctioned though not highly publicized way to the crater rim is up the old ascent ridge west of Monitor. There is no boot path here but the route is technically not much more difficult than Monitor Ridge although there are many loose lava boulders and no one to help you if you manage to injure yourself. Earlier in the season, there is more snow to use; later in the summer and fall, snow can be used only at the highest section of the route and you will spend more time on loose lava boulders and ash. This route can de done as an overnight camp at lush, well-watered Butte Camp or as a day hike.

From the trailhead parking area, switchback up to a lava field and see a sign telling you that you’re on the Toutle Trail #238. Hike across the jumbled lava flow, which is dotted with bear-grass, and drop slightly into a dry montane woodland of mountain hemlock, silver fir, noble fir, lodgepole pine, and western white pine. Hike on the level through the huckleberry understory and pass through a clearing and keep straight at the Toutle-Blue Lake Wild Gravel Trail Junction. Keep right into shady woods and soon reach the signposted Toutle-Kalama Ski Trail North Junction. Keep straight here, passing a large Douglas-fir. Wind up and then dip into a several dry gullies in succession. After the last gully, reach the Toutle-Butte Camp Trail Junction and go right.

Head up the Butte Camp Trail #238A in a sparse woodland of lodgepole pine, noble fir, and silver fir with a carpet of lupine. Cross a two more dry draws and continue ascending in a carpet of pinemat manzanita. Enter a shadier fir forest and pass up through a rocky area with a viewpoint up to your right. Hike along a flat bench. After you encounter water running on the trail, look for a post and see the trail leading left into the area of Butte Camp. If you are camping there, go back into the trees to locate a campsite.

From Butte Camp, head up the trail. Note that the creek here issues copiously from the northernmost of the two buttes, runs through the lush meadow of false hellebore, monkey flower, linanthus, and rushes, and then disappears into the lava substrate after a few hundred yards. Pass a thicket of Sitka alder which shades the creek. Switchback up the hillside in a wonderful old growth slope forest of mountain hemlock and noble fir. Switchback again and make a traverse, rounding the nose of the ridge. Hike above a cliff with a view of Mount Hood and the Lewis River valley. The trail levels in a parkland of lodgepole pine, noble fir, and mountain hemlock. Cross a draw and head gently up. Come out in an alpine meadow and reach the Loowit-Butte Camp Trail Junction.

Go right here and look for the lava flow, now a ridge of dark boulders, descending the mountain’s slope just to the east. This is your ascent route. You can take the trail or cut across several gullies to reach the ridge. Take care as you scramble up the ridge – there are a lot of loose rocks. It may tempt you to step off on sections of soft ash and cinder, but these are like sand and the rock offers more stable footing. As you ascend, get views back down to Butte Camp Dome and Goat Mountain. Fleeceflower, parsley fern, alpine buckwheat, penstemon, heather, and alpine saxifrage adorn the crevices. Where you see snow tongues to your left, leave the rock and continue up using crampons if necessary. These snow fields are the remains of the Dryer Glacier, named after Thomas Dryer, Oregonian editor, and leader of the first ascent in 1853. Continue up, taking your time. You may see elk and coyote tracks high on the mountain. In the summer, the snow will run out about 100 feet below the rim. Then, it’s a sand dune-type slog for the remaining short distance to the rim itself.

Take in the glorious view in front of you. Below lies the steaming, steep-walled crater with its glacier and lava domes. Beyond the crater breach is Spirit Lake and Mount Rainier forms a magnificent backdrop. The true summit should be about 50 yards to your left. There is a summit cairn there. The rim beyond the true summit can also be explored, but the footing can be treacherous and snow cornices are dangerous into the summer.

Loop option:

You can return the way you came or make a loop by heading along the the jagged rim to where the Monitor Ridge route ends at the Mount Saint Helens Rim. Some of the day’s 100 hikers may already be there. It’s about a quarter of a mile on soft ash, up and down, with care to be taken in a couple of spots, to reach Monitor Ridge.

Descend Monitor Ridge on soft cinder and ash, kicking up a lot of dust. Eventually, you will reach the more stable lava ridge. Follow user trails down this ridge. The way is clearly marked with posts. There are a few steep sections that involve use of your hands. You will pass the shiny seismic monitoring station for which the ridge is named. Continue down with Monitor Butte in your sights. This lower section of the trail is home to hoary marmots, so keep an eye out for them. Drop down along the west side of the ridge and keep descending as the trail runs above a gully. Below Monitor Butte, cross over the ridge and begin descending it to the parkland below. You will pass a sign saying Monitor Ridge Climbers Route. Enter shady woods and keep descending to the Loowit-Monitor Ridge Trail Junction.

Go right here in shady mountain hemlock/silver fir woods. Soon exit the shade and reach the Monitor lava flow. Make your way across this flow carefully. The Loowit Trail tread is not always clear here, but the way is marked with posts. The rock radiates heat on hot days. Leave the lava flow and cross a gully in sparse woods of noble fir, western white pine, and lodgepole pine. Cross another gully eroded down to the bedrock and the negotiate an open slope. Head into woods and then cross two more gullies, the second one with a lava rim. The trail now rises through parkland and meadows. After a small gully, cross a much deeper ravine on an eroded tread. Reach the lava flow which you used to reach the rim. The Loowit Trail ascends through this jumble of lava. Eventually head across alpine meadows to the Loowit-Butte Camp Trail Junction, and go left to return to the Red Rock Pass Trailhead via the Butte Camp and Toutle Trails.

Note: Take crampons in any season for fast and efficient passage on snow slopes. There is water year-round at Butte Camp; mosquitoes can be a problem there before August; biting flies are more of an issue later in the summer and fall.

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Climbing permit and Northwest Forest Pass required (OR Mount St. Helens Climbers Parking Voucher) - See Climber's Bivouac for more information.
  • Peak season permits (April 1st – October 31st) are by reservation only ($22.00) through the Mt. St. Helens Institute. Permits include a parking voucher for the trailhead. Print out your reservation form and pick up your climbing permit at the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar the day before your ascent. Sign in and sign out at the Climber’s Register at the Lone Fir Resort.
  • Off-season permits (November 1st – March 31st) can be obtained in person at the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar. Sign in and sign out at the Climber’s Register at the Lone Fir Resort.

Maps

  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • Green Trails Maps: Mount St. Helens, WA #364
  • Green Trails Maps: Mount St. Helens NW, WA #364S
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument & Administrative Area
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Gifford Pinchot National Forest
  • National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map: Mount St. Helens - Mt. Adams

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • Washington's South Cascades' Volcanic Landscapes by Marge and Ted Mueller
  • Off the Beaten Trail by Matt Reeder (Butte Camp Trail only)
  • A FalconGuide to Mount St. Helens by Fred Barstad (Butte Camp Trail)
  • Day Hiking: South Cascades by Dan A. Nelson and Alan L. Bauer (Butte Camp Trail)
  • Exploring Washington's Wild Areas by Marge & Ted Mueller (Butte Camp Trail)
  • Hiking the Gifford Pinchot Backcountry by the Columbia Group Sierra Club
  • Climbing the Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot

More Links


Contributors

Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.