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September 14, 2008

Mt. St. Helens: Ape Canyon and The Plains of Abraham

Filed under: MTB Travel, OR WA 2007, Travel — anotherheader @ 8:49 pm

Mt. St. Helens

Mt. St. Helens

The Crew:Brian and Dave

Stats:24.5 miles, 3000+ feet of climbing, 4+ hours in the saddle, just short of 6 hours total time

The Lahar path

The Lahar path

Ape Canyon Trail

Ape Canyon Trail

The day dawned with the main event on the menu.We headed a short way up the road to the road closure in the truck (maybe 10 miles from Cougar, GPS coordinates included at end).At this point, we took the closed road towards Lava Cave and passed the road washout early on.The washout was a general theme on the ride—at many points both the roads and the trails were under duress from streams constantly reestablishing channels after the blast spread ash and debris.The road ride itself is about 5.7 miles from the parking lot to the Ape Canyon Trailhead.Usually roads are a drag to ride on, but this one was empty, rolling (100 feet of net climbing) with plenty of viewpoints along the way including a great view of the path taken by the Lahar.*It was like riding in a National Park with the road empty.The trailhead for Ape Canyon Trail is in the turnout on the left just before the loop end of the road (GPS cords at the end).Our plan for the day was an out and return on the Ape Canyon Trail and the Plains of Abraham.



Ape Canyon Trail climbs steadily from the road.At the bottom, there are a few downfalls/trail washouts that lead to hike-a-bike scrambles.This gets better as you go up, but the current Vegas over/under line on the number of downed trees is ten.The trail climbs and winds its way though dense foliage with peek-a-boo views of the mountain.The tread itself is loamy and pine needle covered and is basically smooth, most reminiscent of the trails in Huddart, or so I hear.Most of the largely granny gear climb is on the spine of the ridge that presages a great descent.We are still trying to figure out why the trail name has “canyon” in it.There was plenty of motivation to keep a good pace on the climb, as it was very buggy under the forest canopy.

Ape Canyon Trail

Ape Canyon Trail

Towards the top, Ape Canyon Trail has become overgrown in spots.It is still quite reasonably passable at this point, but the limitation of vehicle travel to the trailhead has clearly diminished both use of and maintenance on the trail.On Ape Canyon Trail, we saw only faint indications of use and we saw no one else on the trails the entire day.If the low use/maintenance trend continues, Ape Canyon will no longer be enjoyably passable, perhaps as soon as next year.I would plan on checking with locals before coming again next year.Note also that there are other trails aside from Ape Canyon that take you up to the Plains of Abraham.It is possible that much of the traffic is using these alternatives.

Plains of Abraham

Plains of Abraham

The smoking gun

The smoking gun

At the top of the spine, the trail emerges from the foliage and bugs into a region cleared by the blast.While this section missed the massive rockslide that began the explosive eruption and wiped out Spirit Lake (we were facing away from the crater that we saw yesterday), the force was powerful enough to scour the vegetation, including the trees, from the landscape.What results is a plain covered with volcanic ash and pumice and scattered with basalt boulders.Amongst this wasteland, vegetation is taking hold and small wildflowers are springing to life.It will be interesting to see how this land transforms over the next ten years.For now, the landscape is surreal.The views of the nearby ravaged mountain with a broken off peak showed smoke emerging as if from a recently fired gun.Both Brian and I took tons of pictures and our facing tough choices to pick the best sets.

Plains of Abraham

Plains of Abraham

At the high point of the trail on the Plains of Abraham, we turned around and started the descent through the moon-like landscape.The descent on Ape Canyon made the climb worthwhile and the speed kept the bugs at bay.We still had to keep an eye out for the downfalls across the trail.We emerged at the bottom and had a rapid spin back to the car making it back just under 6 hours.On the road back, we started to see some hikers along the way, making us think that we were returning to civilization.That was until we saw one guy with no front teeth.You could almost hear the banjos playing in the background.We were a long ways from home.

Overall, I’d give this trail a two star rating (definite destination ride if you are within 200 miles).If the tread of the trail were more interesting with technical features and challenges, it would be a three star ride.As it stands, is a three star trail for both Brian and myself and anyone else enjoys getting an amazing view of the geologic process in action.The views are astounding.

Lahar path with Mt. St. Helens in the background

Lahar path with Mt. St. Helens in the background

Note added 9/09:

I understand that the paved road to the trail head has reopened.

Other notes:

There are plenty of additional trails in the area of Ape Canyon/Plains of Abraham.Some of the trails will get you up to the Plains of Abraham and it looked like bikes were using some of these.A little exploration could identify some other ride options in the area (aside from the Lewis River Trail, the trail we planned on riding yesterday) and an alternative to the washed out road and Ape Canyon, if that was desirable.You should also be able to do this ride as a point-to-point shuttle, leaving from Windy Ridge (where we were sightseeing yesterday) and riding 4 miles to the highest point on the Plains of Abraham where we turned around.Ideally, you would have a shuttle driver who wanted to view the sights.

*A Lahar is the mud and rock flow that results when the extreme heat from a volcanic eruption rapidly melts the glaciers and ice fields on the mountain.Much of the damage that occurs during eruptions occurs from this process.


Find an update from our 2011 visit here:

The pictures from 2011 are also on Picasa:

GPS waypoints:

The current end of the road, start of the ride:N46 07.840 W122 10.210

Start of the Ape Canyon Trail:N46 09.922 W122 05.527


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