Circumnavigate 8,365-foot Mt. St. Helens on the 28.6-mile Loowit Trail, and you’ll scramble over old lava flows, witness recovering flora, and peek into the infamous crater. The rewards are not free: Tough detours around trail damage from 2006 storms increase difficulty, making the circuit best for fit and experienced backpackers. From June Lake trailhead (1), hike 1.3 miles to the Loowit Trail junction (2). Turn right to commence a counterclockwise route ranging from 3,400 to 4,800 feet. In the next 4.7 miles, you’ll cross the Muddy River and traverse Ape Canyon. Stay left at the Abraham Trail junction and set up camp near Pumice Butte (3), east of the trail at mile six.
Get moving early on day two to cross a 14-mile no-camping area to a tent site on the south fork of the Toutle River. The restricted area encompasses the 1980 blast zone that scientists still research. You’ll cross the Plains of Abraham (4), a 2.1-mile moonlike expanse. Filter water just beyond–it’s the last source for 10 miles. At mile 7.3, keep left and switchback up to 4,900-foot Windy Pass (5). See Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier to the north. From here, it’s 1.9 miles to a side trip option to Loowit Falls (6). (Turn left to hike .7 mile to its 150-foot, latte-colored cascade.) Past this junction, the trail is poorly marked and obstacle-packed, leading seven miles to the Toutle River (7). It runs fast and deep; head downstream to scout a shallower ford. Turn right on the Toutle Trail to hike .2 mile to your second camp (8). Scree-filled gullies lie ahead on day three, opening to verdant, lupine-packed meadows (9) with views of Mt. Hood 60 miles southeast. Go straight at a four-way junction with the Ptarmigan Trail (10). From here, it’s 4.3 miles to close the loop and retrace your steps to the trailhead.
Driving From Portland, take I-5 for 29 miles north to WA 503. Head east 34.4 miles through Cougar to a left on FR 83. It’s seven miles to the trailhead.
Gear Up Find last-minute items at Ace Hardware in Woodland (1325 Lewis River Rd.; 360-225-6526).
Conditions Get current trail reports at fs.fed.us/gpnf/recreation/current-conditions/trails.shtml or call (360) 449-7800.
Map NWIA Trail Guide to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument ($5, discovernw.org)