Man Alpinist Standing on top of Ruth Mountain

The 6 Best PNW Routes To Start Mountaineering

With glaciated peaks galore, the Pacific Northwest is blessed with a number of less-technical routes that cater well to beginners learning to mountaineer.

The Pacific Northwest has more glaciers than anywhere else in the contiguous United States, making it one of the best places in the country for true mountaineering. Even better? You’ll find a wealth of massive peaks that are as beginner-friendly as they are stunning. Here are six of the region’s favored non-technical and semi-technical peaks, organized (more or less) by difficulty. 

South Sister, Oregon: Devils Lake Route

About 4 hours from Portland and 3.5 from Medford, Oregon’s South Sister is the state’s third highest peak—and one of the most stunning. You’ll find steep scree and snow (bring an ice ax and crampons if you go early in the season) but no crevasses to speak of. Instead, you’ll thread your way between glaciers and ribbons of conifer forest. Bonus: The 11-mile route is bookended by gorgeous alpine lakes; one at the trailhead campground, and one in the summit crater. 

Details: Reserve your permit online. Then hustle to the Devil’s Lake Campground; there are only 10 sites and it’s first-come, first-served. Weekday afternoons are the best time to snag a spot. Head north along South Sister Climber Trail, which carries you 5,000 vertical feet straight up the mountain. Admire the spin-around views from the summit, then retrace your steps. More info:

Mount St. Helens, Washington: Monitor Ridge 

Monitor Ridge, the standard summer route to the top of Mount St. Helens, is one of the easiest of Washington's popular volcano climbs. Its limited avalanche danger and lack of crevasses make it a great objective for climbers without a lot of official skills training. However, with over 4,500 feet of elevation gain and some tricky route-finding, the mountain still offers plenty of challenge for the novice mountaineer. 

Details: Mount St. Helens is about 6 hours from Medford and just 1.5 from Portland. Once you arrive, secure a permit, then get to bed early (there are 14 first-come, first-served tent sites at the trailhead). The climb is only 9 miles round-trip, but the elevation gain, exposure, and unpredictable visibility usually turn it into a full-day affair, which means you’ll need to start hiking well before dawn. Start from the Climber’s Bivouac trailhead. Then, take the Ptarmigan Trail to the start of the Monitor Ridge Trail, which will deposit you on the crater’s lip (carefully retrace your steps to descend). More info:


Ruth Mountain, Washington: North Face  

The North Face of Route Mountain is one of Washington’s best introductions to glacier travel. The route itself is fairly straightforward and usually has few crevasses. Even better: The summit affords views of glacier-streaked peaks in every direction, including iconic mounts Baker and Shuksan to the southwest. The whole route is roughly 12 miles round-trip and features about 4,500 feet of gain. Not the fastest hiker? Snag a campsite at Hannegan Camp at the base and turn the route into a leisurely two-day affair. 


The Details: At 5.5 hours from Portland and 9 hours from Medford, the Mount Baker Wilderness is one of the more remote areas in Washington. Lodging is available in the nearby town of Glacier, and camping can be found within the wilderness area and surrounding national forest. Be sure to secure a Northwest Forest Pass for parking at the Hannegan Pass Trailhead. Then follow the Hannegan Pass Trail to the unmaintained mountaineering route that leads to the top of Ruth (GPS track recommended). Retrace your steps back to your car. More info:

Mt St Helens Monitor Ridge Rock Scamble

Mount Hood, Oregon: South Side

Mount Hood is one of the most iconic peaks in the Pacific Northwest. Every year, its standard South Side route attracts thousands of mountaineers of all experience levels. Credit the limited technical terrain and straightforward access—right at the base of the Timberline Lodge ski area. It’s also a fairly easy drive: under 2 hours from Portland and 5.5 from Medford. 

However popular this 7-mile round-trip climb may be, this peak isn’t for the inexperienced. For one thing, it’s the tallest in Oregon at 11,239 feet and requires over 5,000 feet of vertical gain. Climbers generally encounter at least one crevasse (often easy to cross early in the season) and some exposed snow climbing just below the summit. Still, roped glacier travel is usually not required, and the descent is straightforward provided that you have solid mountain sense, good visibility, and/or GPS capabilities (GPS track available here). 

Details: Grab a self-issue permit at the Wy’East Day Lodge at the base of the peak and fill out the mountain register. Many climbers start hiking between 1 and 3 a.m. to ensure good snow conditions by the time they hit the mountain’s upper reaches. From the parking area, follow the climber’s trail past the ski runs and take the mountaineering route to the top. Be sure to avoid the smoking fumaroles; this geothermally active peak frequently vents noxious gasses. More info: 

Eldorado Peak, Washington: East Ridge 

Surrounded by wildflower-strewn meadows, glacier-encrusted peaks, and the spectacular solitude of the North Cascades wilderness, it’s no wonder that Eldorado Peak is one of the most coveted beginner-friendly summits in Washington. The East Ridge shoots straight uphill from Cascade Pass Road, covering over 6,700 feet of elevation in just 4 miles. The approach alone is strenuous—which is why many parties choose to do it as a two-day trip, camping at the base of the peak in between. Come prepared for low visibility, a little snow climbing, and exposure: The climb ends on a stunning, knife-edge arête. 

Details: Before you set out, stop by the North Cascades National Park visitor center for a backcountry permit, and be sure to ask the rangers about recent conditions on the peak. It’s best to bring approach shoes for the long hike in and mountaineering boots for the snow climbing near the top. You’ll also need a harness, crampons, ice ax, and other glacier travel essentials (and a bear canister and overnight gear if you choose to stay overnight). More info:

Mount Thielsen, Oregon: West Ridge 

Located within Oregon’s stunning Mount Thielsen Wilderness, this scramble carries you to the summit of one of the state’s most picturesque volcanoes. The iconic West Ridge is most often done as a summer mountaineering route. On it, you’ll encounter several miles of alpine hiking, and plentiful second- and third-class terrain. Because the final stretch includes a short section of tricky fourth-class climbing, this is considered one of the more technical routes on this list. However, intrepid adventurers will reap the rewards: gorgeous views, plus a well-earned swim in Diamond Lake post-descent. 

Details: The Mount Thielsen Trailhead is located about 90 minutes northeast of Medford and four hours southwest of Portland. You’ll find it along state Route 138, just east of Diamond Lake. The West Ridge is popular among local guided groups, so try to do it on a weekday (and start early). The entire route covers about 3,500 feet of gain over 8.8 miles, so be sure to budget at least a half-day to complete it un-roped—and a full day to complete it if you plan to rope up for the technical portions of the ascent.  More info: 

Note: Big mountains are dangerous, no matter how easy the route. Make sure you’re comfortable using crampons and executing a self-arrest before venturing into snowy terrain. Take a glacier travel course with a certified instructor if you expect to encounter crevasses. Whenever possible, climb with an experienced partner who’s familiar with the route. Always check the weather before you climb, and bring sufficient navigation, communication, and emergency gear. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.