Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mt. Saint Helens, WA - Ape Canyon / Plains of Abraham (7.20.13)

 Wanting to do some biking & boating out-of-town for the weekend, we originally had planned to go to Bend (OR), but after learning that the High Cascades 100 mountain bike race was the same weekend, we decided it would be best to go elsewhere. After talking to my buddy Chris from up north, we decided to change plans and head to the Columbia River Gorge area, which has plenty of both activities. Once we had decided on the general location, we talked about what rides we should do. I threw out the idea of the Ape Canyon / Plains of Abraham ride, at the base of Mt. Saint Helens, which both Chris and my wife Emily instantly jumped on to. At this point we were the only three that were planning on going, until another friend, Alex, called and said that he was in as well. I was pretty stoked, since I had only ridden it once (years ago), and it's really a must-do ride for any mountain biker in the Pacific Northwest.

Since I had a work event that Friday evening, we left Eugene bright & early on Saturday morning. By the time we reached Chris' house it was ~10am, and we quickly loaded up his gear before heading to the Ape Canyon trailhead. The last time I had done this ride, the road was washed out, requiring a ~5 mile road ride just to start the singletrack. Luckily, this time we were able to park right at the bottom of the trail, eliminating the extra miles. The weather was about as good as you could ask for, ~70 degrees under bright sunny skies. Feeling good, we quickly changed into our riding gear and headed out.

The Ape Canyon Trail ascends ~1,200' over 4 miles, as it skirts a large volcanic mudslide on the east flank of Mt Saint Helens. It travels through a dark forest setting, which greatly contrasts with the surrounding lunar landscape, which was created by the massive 1980 volcanic eruption -- it's actually pretty amazing that the trees surrounding us survived the wrath based on the proximity to the mountain. Although the trees blocked the view of the mountain for most of this section, it also provided shade from the sun, which we'd lose once we reached the Plains of Abraham. We did get some clear views here and there, giving us just a taste of what was to come once we lost our tree cover.

The climb provides a great warm-up, with a nice gradient that is never too steep to ride. I had remembered it being quite enjoyable my first time riding the trail, but this time our spirits were dampened by a severe outbreak of flies. I'm used to dealing with swarms of mosquitoes, but these flies were on a whole new level. Stopping, even for a few seconds, would have you covered in the damn things, with some feeling the need to bite the hell out of you for good measure. I think I swallowed at least 3 or 4 of them along the way, and Chris mentioned that he had taken in many more than that. I'm not sure if this is a rare occasion for this area or not, but a friend of mine, who was in the Mt Hood area on the same day, said that they had also encountered them.

Chris & Alex startin' it off

The Muddy River mudflow that skirts the east side of the Ape Canyon trail

Emily powers up one of the switchbacks on the Ape Canyon Trail

One of a few nice views available on the Ape Canyon Trail

Alex nears the top of the Ape Canyon Trail, with Mt Adams in the background

Another early view of St Helens

The crew waits for me at the end of the Ape Canyon section of trail

Chris & Emily, glad to be out in the open and away from the fly outbreak

Leaving forested trail, the change in scenery was dramatic, with panoramic views as far as the eye could see. To call it a volcanic wasteland seems inappropriate, since the harshness of it is also matched by its beauty & grandeur. We soon reached Ape Canyon itself, which is a pretty impressive slot canyon in its own right. To get past Ape Canyon requires a traverse along an eroded cliff wall with some exposure. Luckily the trail here is wide enough that you can push your bike if you're uneasy about staying on the pedals. It’s really not that bad, unless maybe you’re prone to vertigo, and of course, you certainly wouldn’t want to take a spill here.

The traverse above Ape Canyon

Alex uses wise judgement at the crux

Chris & Emily tackle the traverse with little trouble

Looking into the depths of Ape Canyon

Once past Ape Canyon, we started the short (and marginally rideable) climb up to the start of the Plains of Abraham. As the name would suggest, it is flat, with a pumice surface and covered with sparse vegetation and scattered rock gardens. The trail travels across the Plains for about a mile and a half, as it skirts the east side of Mt Saint Helens, with its base a mere half mile away. We took a break about halfway through, mainly to take in the views. Even with Saint Helens as the predominant landmark, there were also great views of Mt Rainier to the north, Mt Adams to the east, and Mt Hood to the south -- even smaller landmarks like Pumice Butte and East Dome added to the landscape.

The last bit of climbing up to the Plains of Abraham

If you look closely you can see my three riding partners along the trail.
This helps give some perspective to how small you feel while doing this ride!

Photo opp!

Great views of Mt Adams along the way!

Another one of Mt Adams

Riding around more/smaller mudflows

The Plains of Abraham

Chris and Alex trail blazin' The Plains

Snack time

Amazing views of Mt Rainier as well!

Trail crossing

Emily, taking a break, taking in the view, or a little of both...

Eventually the Plains gave way to a benched-in section of trail that was covered with fields of grass and wildflowers. As it meandered into and out of multiple dry stream crossings, it presented a couple of technical/fun challenges. This part of the trail provided yet another mood, contrasting both the forested climb and desolate plains. It’s really this variety, along with the radical nature of the environment, that make this ride so awesome!

Entering the grassy section

Alex, heading north

Entering another dry stream-crossing

Soon we reached one of the coolest parts of the ride, a knife-edge ridge covered in brightly colored wildflowers. I stayed up high near the start of the ridge so that I could take photos of the others riding along it, and before dropping in myself, I sat back and just took the whole place in for a few moments. One of the more prevalent wildflowers in this section was Indian Paintbrush (Castillejas) -- and with its brilliant red-orange color it contrasted nicely against the blues, whites, and yellows of the other flowers. Riding along the top of the ridge was a pretty cool experience, and it never felt dangerously narrow, although the wind did add a little bit of excitement/challenge.

Chris, dropping down to the ridge

Emily starts on the knife ridge

The boys in hot pursuit

Beautiful wildflowers

Another amazing view to the east

I eventually reached the others, who had stopped at about the midpoint of the ridge, where a set of stairs lead down to what appeared to be a dirt road. Since we weren’t sure if this was where we were supposed to turn back around, I pulled out the trail description/map to find out. Apparently, to do the ride as laid out in the book, we were to continue down the stairs, join up with the road, and take it to the Windy Ridge Observatory, which is used as the turnaround. After a quick discussion, we decided that we should complete the ride, and started down the section of stairs.

Heading down

At the end of the stairs, the ridge continued for a short bit before dead-ending into a dirt road, which is closed to vehicles. After a short climb along the road, it flattened out until finally reaching the Windy Ridge Observatory. Since the road on the other side of the observatory was open to cars, there was quite a bit of foot traffic in this area from people trying to find the best views of Mt Saint Helens – we rode past many of them, bidding a good day as we did. At the parking area we sat and relaxed while enjoying a bite to eat. The vista looked out to both Spirit Lake as well as the volcanic breach on the north side of Saint Helens. The growing dome in the middle of the crater certainly makes you wonder if the mountain will awaken again soon.

Looking back toward St Helens from the section of ridge after the stairs

Windy Ridge Observatory

After we had enough of civilization at our turn-around point, we headed back on the road towards the knife ridge that lead up to the Plains of Abraham. Going up the stairs was certainly harder than going down, but thanks to a technique that Emily had shown us, of supporting your bike on your back, it was easier than it could have been. By the time I reached the top of the stairs I was feeling pretty spent, and hit a quick Gu before jumping out ahead to take photos. I really wanted to get a shot of the crew riding through a thick section of wildflowers along the ledge, which I was able to capture in the following photos:

Hmm, getting back up to the Plains ought to be fun...

No pain, no gain

Emily heading back across the ridge

...and up to the Plains of Abraham

Chris tries to keep his eyes on the trail, which can be very hard to do in a place like this!

Nearing the end of the climb, up the ridge

Now in familiar territory, I wasn’t planning to take as many photos, which hastened our pace quite a bit. I did want to take a few in some pre-planned places, but also found myself taking others that I just couldn’t pass up, mainly based on the new low-angle lighting from the late-afternoon sun. When we reached the Ape Canyon Trail and headed back into the woods, we were rewarded with the sweet downhill smilefest that I had remembered from last time. The trail is smooth as butter with an incredible flow and lots of banked turns. That said, this section is used heavily by hikers, and you must control your speed to mitigate user conflict, or worse, an accident with someone. On that note, I actually had two different mountain bikers slide off the trail to avoid hitting me as we were climbing up the trail earlier – this poor trail etiquette really gets under my skin, and certainly doesn’t do any good for our constant battle to expand our trail rights. Okay, enough venting… Even with keeping our speed in check, it’s an amazing downhill that acts as the icing on the cake! Back at the car we changed up and headed off for some much deserved Thai food, ending a great day on the trail.

Emily leads the charge back across the grassy bit


St Helens, under a whole new light


The Ape Canyon / Plains of Abraham ride is excellent, and as I stated in my opening paragraph, I would consider it a must-do for any mountain biker that lives in the Pacific Northwest or is visiting the area. Even one of the Washington guidebooks I have says, "If you only do one ride in this book, do this one -- especially in clear conditions, this will be an unforgettable experience." The riding is good, but the real reason to do this is the experience of being up close and personal with the relatively recent natural phenomenon that has made a dramatic impact on the surrounding landscape. Furthermore, the 360 degree vista gives you views of the nearby volcanic peaks. Saint Helens itself is so close it feels like you could reach out and touch it. As for the difficulty of the ride, it's not technically hard, but it's a tough 20 miles -- between the sun exposure, slow rolling pumice, and the hike-a-bike section at the stairs, it will work ya over a bit. On that note, make sure you bring lots of water and sunscreen. This ride is the total package, and one that I will certainly head back to once every few years!

The tracks from our ride:

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