A return visit to Cougar Washington, near the Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument, came with two preset missions. We had reserved a slot to climb, or at least attempt to climb, the volcano. If our legs survived the mountain, our mountain bike tires would meet the tread on the area’s most famous route, Ape Canyon and the Plains of Abraham. With camp set for five nights we had time to explore further. Surely we’d find more some good stuff in the area.
First up we thought we’d try Lewis River Trail. We’d keep things easy before the big climb. To reach the trailhead of the Lewis River Trail from Cougar, we took Lewis River Road and Road 90 east. At the end of Swift Reservoir, we stayed right on Road 90 as Road 25 splits left. (Road 25 heads up the east side of Mount St. Helens.) We clocked 14 miles from the 90/25-intersection to the trailhead at the Lower Falls Campground. The route is easy to follow but it is a surprisingly long drive from Cougar. Google tells us that it is 32 miles from Cougar to the Lower Falls Campground. With a winding and, in points, unpaved road, it took us the better part of an hour to reach the trailhead. The long drive was worth it.
A sign at the Lower Falls trailhead says that Lewis River Trail is 14 miles long. (Here’s a map.) There are three miles of trail above the campground before the trail connects to Road 90; 11 miles are below. On the map, this lower 11 mile long southern segment also finishes near Road 90.
Lewis River Trail can be ridden in multiple ways. It can be broken up into segments; it can be shuttled, top to bottom, or taken as a longer out and return. And, if you really, really have to do a loop, you can ride the length of trail and loop back on the road.
For us this was an easy day and a pooch ride. Gigi is young and we want to keep her trail miles down while she develops. Thus we chose the shortest of options, a 6-mile out and return to the upper trailhead. Our route choice was made easier when campground host advised us that this route was the most scenic and popular. The host did not deceive; this is an incredibly picturesque route.
At the campground the Lower Falls is spectacular. Here the clear water of the Lewis River flows over a volcanic rock escarpment. And if there is a “lower falls” there has to be an “upper falls.” That must be a law. In this case, there are actually 3 more falls, each spectacular, above the Lower Falls. Between the waterfalls the surrounding forest is thick and lush. Moss covered rocks give the area a sub-tropical feel. Lewis River is a pretty trail.
The tread is constructed to the typical forest service standard. Easy, wide, smooth, and gently graded, the trail worked its way beneath our tires as we pedaled to the top. It’s a trail that tempted us to go fast but we had to be careful. With plenty of hikers and dog walkers on the trail it is not the best time for the full on Hot Wheels experience.
Overall the character of the ride is reminiscent of Oregon’s McKenzie River Trail. Both trails follow a clean clear river as it flows over lava dam falls and through lush forest. MRT is a longer and, in points, more technically challenging but otherwise the experience is similar. (Even to suggest a comparison to the MRT is high praise indeed.) If you are in the area, Lewis River is a trail worth checking out.
Gigi also loved the Lewis River trail. She gives it two paws up her highest rating. Not that that means much. Gigi gives every trail her highest rating. She has never met a trail she doesn’t like. Next time, though, she wants to do the whole trail.