Mount St. Helens — A Tale of a Sleeping Giant
By David A Anderson
Thirty years ago, on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens exploded and dramatically changed the landscape of Southwest Washington. The eruption was the first recorded volcanic activity in the 48 contiguous states since the smaller 1914 eruption of Lassen Peak in northern California. The blast reminded us of some of the dramatic processes that have taken place in the past, which have shaped and molded our landscape.
Mount St. Helens 30 years after the blast. It has been transformed from a featureless landscape into a wildflower paradise that is enjoyed by both mountain bike riders and hikers.
In 1982, the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was established to protect some of the land around the mountain which now provides an opportunity for people to see and study what happened thirty years ago and how the environment has evolved since. It is truly an amazing process and one of the best parts is that you can see this amazing place from your bicycle.
The area around Mount St. Helens, which is part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, contains some of the best mountain bike riding anywhere. From the signature Ape Canyon Trail to the Lewis River and Siouxon Trails, there is plenty to sink your teeth into. The Ape Canyon and Smith Creek loop system has recently been designated an International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) epic trail. The 25-mile loop, with 5,000 feet of climbing, will challenge most riders. The Ape Canyon Trail climbs steadily towards its namesake, Ape Canyon, through an old growth forest, providing views of the mudflow that swept down upper Muddy River, while near the top, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams fill the backdrop.
As you crest the canyon, the track merges with the Loowit Trail and crosses the Plains of Abraham. Some people have likened traversing this section to riding on the moon. It used to be that way soon after the 1980 eruption, but now it is like riding across the moon covered with wildflowers. Located at the eastern base of Mount St. Helens, the Plains of Abraham received the full impact of the eruption and all surface life was destroyed, resulting in what looked like a sterile and lifeless pumice strewn desert. Now the summer wildflower displays of lupine and paintbrush are spectacular. Many riders stop at the upper part of Windy Ridge to eat their lunches. At this point a decision must be made as to whether or not to turn around and enjoy a sweet descent back down the Plains and Ape Canyon Trails, or to continue on around to the Smith Creek Trail and back to the parking lot.
Toutle Trail on the north side of Red Rock Pass. Butte Camp Dome is on the volcano's left shoulder.
Several rarely seen waterfalls and some great riding await those that continue on. As with all rides, bring extra water and the ten essentials since you will literally be out in the middle of nowhere when riding these sections. The preferred direction of travel on the Ape Canyon/Smith Creek loop is clockwise. The trail is best reached from the Ape Canyon trailhead parking lot at the end of Forest Road 83. However, riders from the north side can begin at the Smith Creek Trailhead, or at the Windy Ridge Viewpoint on Forest Road 99. The Ape Canyon Trail is the second most popular hiking trail on the Monument so riders should be very courteous when interacting with hikers.
The west side of Mount St. Helens is best explored by beginning from Red Rock Pass on Forest Road 81. These trails cover a diverse landscape ranging from blocky lava, basalt lava flows, old growth forest, mudflows both old and recent, and alpine meadows. The west side did not receive nearly the level of impact the east side did, as only three mudflows came down that slope in 1980. However, the evidence of past volcanic activity is everywhere. The most ambitious ride on the westerly trails is a 15-mile loop best ridden in a clockwise direction. With about 5,000 feet of climbing, the Toutle, Sheep Canyon, Loowit and Butte Camp Trails are for the adventurous explorer rider, not for the Sunday afternoon melba toast rider. There are, however, options for shorter out-and-back rides. For a fun ride head up the Butte Camp Trail to the Loowit and back down again. This is an enjoyable trail that is big on scenery and a blast to ride. You will encounter horse riders on all the west side trails except for Sheep Canyon, Loowit and Butte Camp Trails. Be courteous to horses as they are bigger than you and have the right of way.
On the north side of the mountain, try exploring the Boundary Trail from Elk Pass to Ghost Lake and back again. This is a challenging route that travels through old growth forest and into the northern edge of the blast zone, a total of nearly 20 miles. A shorter version can be ridden by starting at the Bear Meadows Viewpoint. You may not see many other people when using this trail. Motorized dirt bikers use the portion from Elk Pass to Bear Meadows and the impact of that use shows. As with all rides around the mountain, always carry more food and water than you expect to need.
Outside the National Volcanic Monument, trails worth riding in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest are the Lewis River Trail and the Siouxon Creek Trail. Both of these are very popular hiking and biking destinations. The Lewis River Trail passes through some groves of cedar trees that are reminiscent of old redwood groves. The Siouxon Trail provides views of several spectacular waterfalls.
A plethora of events are scheduled to mark the eruption’s 30th anniversary. Roadies can visit the area along Highway 504 while riding the Tour de Blast on June 19. Mountain bikers are invited to gather for two days of riding and a trail work party day during the Helens Fest 2010 taking place on July 9-11. The National Volcanic Monument and the Mount St. Helens Institute are also conducting other events throughout the summer.
Geologists and park officials constantly monitor the seismic activity of Mount St. Helens and the mountain’s trails can be closed at any time due to its unpredictability. As recently as 2006, Forest Road 83 was closed for two years due to flooding, so get out and enjoy the area now.
Forest parking passes are required for trailhead parking near the Monument. On the south side passes can be obtained at the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar, at the Ape Cave Visitor Center, and at the self-service machine at the Lava Canyon Trailhead. Most all of the trails around Mount St. Helens fall in the intermediate to advanced skills rider category. Be safe and courteous to other trail users. Currently, cell phone coverage within the boundaries of the Monument is non-existent, so in the event of an accident, you would be very isolated. Travel with a friend for your own safety.
For information about the Gifford Pinchot and the National Volcanic Monument visit fs.fed.us. To find out more about the Mount St. Helens Institute go to mshinstitute.org. Visit Tour de Blast at tourdeblast.com and Helens Fest at nw-trail.org. For more details on the Plains of Abraham go to imba.com/epics.