A Guide to Volcano Loop Hikes in the Pacific Northwest
There are 161 active volcanoes in the United States, and dozens of them are located in Washington and Oregon. The Pacific Northwest is a paradise for hikers, so it’s no surprise that many of the most beautiful volcanoes in this area also happen to have incredible hiking trails looped around them.
Volcano loop hikes in the Pacific Northwest offer stunning views, satisfying challenges, and the unique opportunity to get to know a single mountain from almost every angle. Some loops can be completed in a weekend if you’re a strong hiker and don’t have much time to spare, but you can easily stretch them out if you’d like to stop and smell the lupine along the way.
An added bonus: as COVID-19 is threatening to ruin yet another thru-hiking season, planning to circumnavigate one (or many) of these striking peaks in the summer is a pretty cool consolation prize, especially if the PCT was the trail you were hoping to take on. And these trails were practically built for the pandemic hiker because most don’t require a resupply. The only one that does—the Wonderland Trail—is already set up for no-contact caching and pickup.
Volcano loop hikes in the Pacific Northwest are best tackled from late July through mid-September depending on snowpack. Each trail has a little something special, from exceptional wildflowers to beautiful waterfalls to inviting alpine lakes, that makes the sketchy stream crossings and steep climbs worth the effort.
Here is a quick overview of several of the best volcano loop hikes in the Pacific Northwest to guide you in your trip planning.
The Wonderland Trail—Mount Rainier
Famous for its wildflower-carpeted alpine meadows, raging glacial streams, and backcountry privies with glorious mountain views, the longest trail on this list lives up to its name. Permits can be difficult to obtain, but this glorious hike belongs on everyone’s bucket list. Longmire is a common starting point, but we like saving this spot for the middle of the hike, when a juicy burger and a beer at the restaurant (open for takeout during the pandemic) will taste especially amazing.
Location: Western Washington, about 2 hours from Seattle
Distance / Elevation Gain & Loss: 93 miles / 22,000 feet
Time to Complete: 5-12 days
Permits: Required. Apply online through the Mount Rainier National Park website. In 2020, no walk-up permits were issued due to COVID. The park hasn’t issued any info about the 2021 application process to date, but the usual permit lottery is expected to take place this winter.
Camping Info: You may camp only in designated sites and you must select your campsites for your entire trip when you apply for your permit. Indian Bar (with its famous privies), Summerland, and Golden Lakes are among the best.
Highlights: August wildflowers; glacier views; diverse wildlife
Lowlights: Sketchy washouts; bear activity at some camps; crowds in some areas
Recommended Guides/Maps: Guthook Guides – Wonderland Trail; National Geographic Wonderland Trail Map, Green Trails Map #269S
The Timberline Trail—Mount Hood
I may be biased because I live in Portland where “the mountain” is a regular fixture on the horizon on clear days, but I think Mount Hood is one of the prettiest mountains in the country—and one of the premier volcano loop hikes in the Pacific Northwest. This trail offers nearly constant views of its peak, impressively varied landscapes for a fairly short hike, and the opportunity to relax with a beer or an all-you-can-eat breakfast at the landmark Timberline Lodge.
Location: A two and a half-hour drive to the east of Portland
Distance / Elevation Gain & Loss: Approx. 40 miles / 9,000 feet
Time to Complete: 2-4 days
Permits: Required, but they’re free and can be self-issued at trailheads. You’ll also need a Northwest Forest Pass at most trailhead parking lots.
Camping Info: There are no designated campsites on the Timberline Trail. Camping is prohibited in meadows, within 500 feet of Ramona Falls, and within the tree islands of Elk Cove and Elk Meadows.
Highlights: Ramona Falls; wildflowers in Paradise Park; the breakfast buffet at Timberline Lodge
Lowlights: Potentially tough river crossings depending on snowpack and time of year; crowds
Recommended Guides/Maps: Green Trails Map 462S
The Loowit Trail—Mount St. Helens
Photo by @wanderingneesh
The Loowit Trail is the shortest on this list, but it is also the most brutal – this trail is not for beginners. You’ll have to cross several large gullies flanked with fields of loose scree and sand on the Loowit, some of them requiring in-place climbing ropes to climb in and out. The trail is also often narrow, steep, and above treeline, where hikers are fully exposed to sun, wind, and rain. But if you are up for the challenge, hiking through the worm flows, lava formations, and the blast zone from the 1980 eruption is an unforgettable experience.
Location: Southern Washington, about 90 minutes from Portland / 3 hours from Seattle
Distance / Elevation Gain & Loss: Approx. 32 miles not including the hike in from your trailhead / 6,000 feet
Time to Complete: 2-4 days
Permits: None, but Northwest Forest Pass is required at trailhead parking lots
Camping Info: No camping allowed in the blast zone, a 10 mile stretch between the south fork of the Toutle River and Windy Pass
Highlights: Wildlife; views of surrounding volcanoes; Loowit Falls
Lowlights: Wind; sun exposure; gully crossings; few water sources
Recommended Guides/Maps: Green Trails Mount St. Helens No. 364 or 364S map
The Three Sisters Loop—North, Middle, and South Sisters
On this volcano-packed circuit, you will follow a large, leisurely loop around the Three Sisters in Central Oregon with even more volcanoes in view close by. Not excited by hikes that don’t leave your quads begging for mercy? Just add a side trip to summit South Sister. This is actually the only loop on our list that offers the option of summiting one of the volcanoes you are circling without requiring hard-to-get permits or mountaineering gear.
Location: Central Oregon, about 3 hours from Portland
Distance / Elevation Gain & Loss: Approx. 50 miles including the hike in from your trailhead / 6,500 feet
Time to Complete: 3-6 days
Permits: Central Cascades Wilderness Permits are $6. This permitting system will go into effect in 2021.
Camping Info: At North and South Matthieu Lakes, Moraine Lake, and Green Lakes, you may only camp in established campsites. If you want to avoid the crowds camped at the lakes, look for sites along Alder, Park, and Glacier Creeks.
Highlights: Stunning views of beautiful Central Cascades volcanoes; deep blue lakes; easy hiking
Lowlights: Crowds in some spots; a large burn area on the east side
Recommended Guides/Maps: Green Trails Maps 621 & 622
A special tip of the hat to Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa, whose presentation on “Circling Cascade Volcanoes” inspired this post.
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