Lying just north of the Mount St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument, the Mount Margaret Backcountry provides sweeping views of the blast zone caused by the 1980’s eruption and the surrounding peaks of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. It remains one of the more geologically interesting places to hike, as more than 30 years after the explosion you can witness signs of the devastation and the resilient ecological comeback.
With spectacular views, abundant lakes and wildflowers that persist into early August, the Mount Margaret Backcountry provides an incredible chance to get away without having to travel far from either Portland or Seattle. Elk and mountain goats are not uncommon sights along the Lakes Trail and well-maintained and permit-controlled campsites make this area delightful to explore.
- Distance: Varies, 25-35 miles depending on trip
- Days Needed: 2-4 days
- Elevation Gain/Loss: varies, 3-6k depending on trip
- Best Time to Travel: Late July - October
- Permits: Yes, overnight permits for each campsite available online
- Difficulty: Moderate - Strenuous, depending on itinerary
- Views of Mount St. Helens blast zone and surrounding peaks
- Numerous alpine lakes
- Beautiful wildflowers
- Fairly ample water sources
- Ecosystem and wildlife diversity
- Trails are well-marked and easy to navigate
- Easy permit process
- Good campsites
- Well-maintained composting toilets at all campsites
- Close proximity to Portland and Seattle
- Seasonal bugs (biting flies & mosquitoes)
- Snowpack can linger late into hiking season
- Busy on summer weekends
- Limited shade and potentially hot summer weather
- Steep ascents and descents
- Lesser used trails can be overgrown and washed out
Best Time to Travel
Late July to early October will provide the best trail conditions and weather. Snowpack is a key factor for trip planning in this region. Some years a heavy winter snowpack and early season storms will keep trails covered into July. On warmer years with lighter snowpack, June backcountry trips are quite feasible. The same is true for autumn hiking, some years early snowstorms make this area inaccessible and other years it’s stable into October.
In the Mount Margaret area, especially during shoulder seasons, there are often large, steep snow fields found on north and east exposures above 5,000 feet. Taking these sections slowly and moving cautiously is recommended. When snow travel is expected, we recommend packing microspikes and an ice ax for stability and safety (more info: ice axe self arrest video). Always contact a local ranger station prior to your trip to obtain current information on trail conditions and snow level.
July and August are usually great for wildflowers, but that’s also the time when mosquitoes will be at their peak. Use a combination of permethrin on your clothing and a small amount of 30% DEET on exposed skin for full protection. Mid-August through September can also be a good time to visit this area because there will be fewer crowds and bugs.
- Total Distance: varies, 20-50 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: varies, 3-6k (fairly steep ascents and descents)
- Overall Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
As always, difficulty ratings depend on your experience, physical fitness, pack weight, & weather conditions. There is one primary trail system in the Mount Margaret Backcountry, and regardless of the route you pick, you’ll encounter some elevation changes. It’s also possible that you'll encounter snowy slopes, so make sure you are adequately prepared for this type of travel.
According to the USDA Forest Service Website, wilderness permits are required for overnight trips in the Mount Margaret Backcountry. There are eight designated camps available, each with two permits available nightly (up to four people per permit). Permits may be reserved online and are $10 per night. Also, many trailheads that access Mount Margaret Backcountry require a valid Recreation Pass.
Fires, dogs, and stock are not allowed in the Mount Margaret Backcountry.
There are many day hikers along the Lakes, South Coldwater, and Boundary Trails, however there’s solitude to be found as you hike farther from trailheads. The limited backcountry permits keep the campsites from getting overrun and ensure you’ll have a quiet place to set up camp.
The west edge of the Mount Margaret Backcountry is 100 miles north of Portland, Oregon and 150 miles south of Seattle, Washington. Whether you’re coming from the north or the south, you’ll take I-5 to the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway 504. Once your itinerary is set, get specific directions to your trailhead and ensure you have an appropriate vehicle for road conditions.
The Mount Margaret Backcountry has eight backcountry camps available, each offering two permits per night. All campsites have level wood-framed tent pads and solar composting toilets.
Along the Lakes Trail (211) there are campsites at Snow Lake, Shovel Lake, Panhandle Lake and Obscurity Lake. Along the Boundary Trail (1) camping is available at Bear Camp, Margaret Camp and Dome Camp. Along the Coldwater Trail (230) camping is available at Ridge Camp. This is the only camp in the Mount Margaret Backcountry without reliable water access, with the nearest water approximately ½ mile away.
There are four primary trailheads with access to the Mount Margaret Backcountry: Lakes Trail, South Coldwater Trail, and Boundary Trail to the west and the Norway Pass Trail to the east. Well-maintained and paved, highway 504 provides easy access to the western trailheads. Forest Roads 99 and 26 provide access to the Norway Pass trailhead, and may be sesonally closed. The Gifford Pinchot Forest Service site is your best resource for road and weather information.
The Whittier Ridge Trail (214) provides a connector between the Lakes Trail (211) to the north and the Boundary Trail (1) to the south. This trail is very narrow and requires scrambling across steep terrain with sheer dropoffs. None of the suggested trips include the Whittier Ridge Trail, and it should be approached with caution and considered only by very experienced hikers comfortable with heights.
There are some worthwhile side trips to the summits of Coldwater Peak, Mount Margaret and Harry’s Ridge which provide great opportunities for additional mileage and breathtaking views.
Backpacking Trip Itineraries
MOUNT MARGARET LAKES LOOP
- Trailhead: Coldwater Lake Boat Launch
- Miles: about 30
- Days Needed: 3-5
Quick Summary: This loop covers a wide section of the Mount Margaret Backcountry, and includes some serious climbing as it takes you to to numerous lakes and to the highest points for breathtaking 360 views. The campsite at Shovel Lake is often overlooked because accessing it requires a steep 400 foot descent (and then ascent) in ½ a mile, but the lower traffic means greater solitude. This trip includes the ability to climb to the top of Mount Margaret and Coldwater Peak, each offering spectacular views of the blast zone and the surrounding mountains.
Route: From the Coldwater Lake Boat Launch, take the Lakes Trail (211) past campsites at Snow, Shovel, Panhandle and Obscurity Lake. At the Boundary Trail (1) junction, turn right and continue past Margaret and Dome Camps, passing Mount Margaret on your way. Follow the Boundary Trail until turning right at the Coldwater Trail (230) junction and continue past Ridge Camp to the Coldwater Trail before turning right at the South Coldwater Trail (230A) junction, which connects back to the Lakes Trail.
NORWAY PASS LAKES LOOP
- Trailhead: Norway Pass
- Miles: about 25
- Days Needed: 2-3
Quick Summary: Approaching the Mount Margaret Backcountry from the east, this loop is a slightly shorter option with more gradual climbs than the Lakes Loop. The trailhead at Norway Pass may be inaccessible depending on road conditions, so call ahead to the Ranger Station before selecting this route. This loop passes through Norway and Bear Passes, both providing incredible views.
Route: From the Norway Pass Trailhead, follow the Boundary Trail (1) until the junction with the Lakes Trail (211), turning left and continuing along the Boundary trail, passing three possible campsites at Bear, Margaret and Dome Camps, before reaching the Coldwater Trail (230) junction. Turn right and continue to the South Coldwater Trail (230A), passing Ridge Camp, and continuing to the Lakes Trail (211) and turning right. The Lakes Trail passes camps at Snow, Shovel, Panhandle and Obscurity Lakes before reaching Bear Pass and the junction with the Boundary Trail.
JOHNSTON RIDGE TO COLDWATER LAKE
- Trailhead: Johnston Ridge Observatory
- Miles: about 25
- Days Needed: 2-3
Quick Summary: This trip requires a shuttle or second car, but provides a great way to see the best of the Mount Margaret Backcountry with a more net downhill profile and a chance to bone up on your Mt. St. Helen’s knowledge before hitting the trail. Starting at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, this trip provides the option of side trips to Harry’s Ridge, Coldwater Peak and Mount Margaret, while approaching the lakes section from above, avoiding the strenuous climb up.
Route: From the Johnston Ridge Observatory, follow the Boundary Trail (1) heading east and passing possible campsites at Dome, Margaret and Bear Camps until it connects with the Lakes Trail (211) at Bear Pass and turning left. Continue along the Lakes Trail past Obscurity, Panhandle, Shovel and Snow Lake Camps until reaching the Coldwater Lake Boat Launch.
Maps & Guidebooks
- Green Trails Map #332S provides a full overview of the Mount Margaret Backcountry and surrounding Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. It has mileage elevation markers.
- Backpacking Washington Book - This book has several hikes in the Mount St. Helens area, offering comprehensive and detailed information. We highly recommend picking this book up if you like backpacking in the PNW.
- We used Caltopo to research, plan trips, and print maps for the Mount Margaret Backcountry. It takes a little time to learn the tool, but Caltopo is an excellent resource for backpackers, and provides excellent elevation profiles and terrain information.
- Though trails are well-marked through the Mount Margaret Backcountry, the Gaia GPS Phone App is a very helpful tool in the backcountry. We always bring printed topo maps and a good compass, but Gaia is one of our favorite navigation tools.
- Basic USDA Forest Service Information - Mount Margaret Backcountry
Water is fairly accessible throughout the Mount Margaret Backcountry, with a few exceptions. The lakes and streams along the Lakes Trail and portions of the Boundary Trail (from Dome Camp east to Bear Pass) provide ample opportunities to fill up with clear, moving water. The Coldwater Trail (230) provides few reliable water sources with small streams likely to dry up late in the season. Carry plenty of water between on the Coldwater Trail and Boundary Trail south of Dome Camp. Always carry a lightweight water purification method, such as the SteriPEN Ultra, Sawyer Squeeze, or Aquamira drops.
Biting flies and mosquitoes are seasonally present and can be aggressive in the Mount Margaret Backcountry. Be sure to prepare for this annoyance with permethrin on your clothing and by carrying and applying DEET on exposed skin for full protection.
The trails in the Mount Margaret Backcountry are well defined and easy to follow. Signage at some trail junctions may be weathered or confusing, and some less traveled trails may be overgrown. Some sections are overgrown to the point that your legs will quickly get scratched up, so long pants may be beneficial.
We prefer lightweight backpacking because it’s more comfortable and it allows us to cover more ground with less effort. For recommendations on our favorite lightweight backpacking equipment, check out the CleverHiker Gear Guide and Top Picks page.
What to Pack
TENT: We used the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 tent on this trip. We love its combination of low weight and livability and that's why it's one of our top picks on our best lightweight backpacking tents list.
SLEEPING BAG - We used the Feathered Friends Egret UL 20 Women’s Sleeping Bag and the REI Magma 10 Men’s Sleeping Bag. Both sleeping bags are lightweight, incredibly warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping bags.
SLEEPING PAD - We used the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite and Sea to Summit UltraLight Insulated sleeping pads on this trip. Both are light, comfortable, warm, and make our list of the best backpacking sleeping pads.
COOKING SYSTEM - We love the JetBoil MiniMo as a backcountry stove as it’s easy to use and compact. If you use a canister stove, such as the MSR Pocket Rocket, make sure you bring a cookpot set. Don’t forget utensils!
HEADLAMP - A small headlamp like the Petzl e+LITE will be useful for late night bathroom visits.
SHOES OR BOOTS - We almost always prefer trail runners when hiking. On most backpacking trips we wear our Saucony Peregrine 7 trail runners, which come in both male and female versions. They're lightweight, comfortable, and provide adequate support for us. If you prefer boots, make sure they’re lightweight and break them in really well before you set off on the trail. Here’s why I prefer to hike in trail running shoes: 5 Reasons to Ditch Your Hiking Boots.
WATER PURIFIER - You will need to purify water from streams throughout this trip. We absolutely love the SteriPEN Ultra and would highly recommend it. It’s fast, easy, and effective. Also, we recommend having two 1L plastic water bottles per person.
FOOD - For some suggestions on food to pack for backpacking and hiking, check out our video on Backpacking Food.
FOOD STORAGE - It is probably unlikely that you will see any bears on the trail and more likely that critters will be scampering to get at your food. We recommend using an Ursack for food storage. Bear canisters are also a good choice as a foolproof food storage method, but they’re a bit heavier and bulkier than Ursacks.
- 1 Rain jacket shell - Patagonia M10
- 1 Pair rain pants - Mountain Hardwear Stretch Ozonic
- 1 Down jacket - Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody
- 1 Fleece jacket - Extra warmth under your down jacket that will be warmer when damp and better to hike in.
- 1 Pair hiking pants/running tights
- 1 Pair hiking shorts - Nike dri fit running shorts
- 1-2 Hiking t-shirts - Nike dri fit t-shirts
- 1 Long-sleeve shirt - Nike dri fit quarter zip
- 1-3 Pair underwear - ExOfficio boxer briefs or or ExOfficio women’s briefs
- 2-3 Pair socks (add thin sock liners if using boots) - Balega running socks for warm weather & SmartWool mountaineer socks for snow.
- 1 Pair long john bottoms - long john top optional for nighttime use.
- 1 Warm hat
- 1 Sun hat
- 1 Pair light gloves or mittens
MAP & COMPASS - We used the highly detailed and reliable Green Trails Map #332S for this backpacking trip. Although the trails are well-marked you always want to hike with a good map. In addition, we always hike with a compass too, though the trails were easy to follow and we didn’t end up needing it.
FIRST AID KIT - Always bring a small personalized first aid kit. We used the .5 Ultralight Kit and added extras, like painkillers, diamox, and personal medications.
SUN PROTECTION - Sunglasses (polarized recommended), sunscreen, and spf lip balm are an absolute must.
POCKET KNIFE - We brought along a small Swiss Army Knife which came in handy here and there. This should be considered optional, but we like to hike with one.
- SMALL TOWEL - the Nano pack towel is great.
- CASH and ID
- PERSONAL TOILETRIES
- HAND SANITIZER - Always apply after using a bathroom and before eating.
- WET WIPES - These are very useful for cleaning up after hiking.
- INSECT REPELLANT - At higher elevations insects aren’t a problem at all. For lower elevations, 30% DEET will do the trick.
- CAMERA - The Sony RX100 is my go-to camera for backpacking.
Bears & Food Storage
The Mount Margaret Backcountry lists no specific food storage requirements, however bear and cougar sightings are not uncommon in this area. Marmots, chipmunks and other small critters are prevalent and food storage should be taken seriously.
For trips in the Mount Margaret Backcountry, we recommend using an Ursack for food storage. Bear canisters are also a good choice as a foolproof food storage method, but they’re a bit heavier and bulkier than Ursacks.
We hope this guide helps you plan a fun adventure into the stunning and accessible Mount Margaret Backcountry. As always, please leave a comment below if you have any recommendations, questions, or suggestions.
For more popular CleverHiker content, check out the following links:
- CleverHiker Gear Guide
- CleverHiker Top Gear Picks
- Essential Trail Skills Videos
- Lightweight Gear Foundations Videos
Mount Margaret Photo Gallery
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