COUGAR — Paul Karr, of Bend, Ore., lives in the epicenter of Northwest mountain bike riding.
But in June, Karr hustled up to Mount St. Helens to ride Ape Canyon trail No. 234.
“It’s just a cool environment to get to ride on such a big mountain,” Karr said. “It’s so deceiving, the terrain.
“It’s hard to judge the distance it’s so big.”
The trail climbs steadily for 1,300 vertical feet and 4.8 miles from the trailhead at the end of Gifford Pinchot National Forest road No. 83 to the junction with Loowit trail No. 216.
“It’s a grunt,” Karr said. “It’s a hard climb and a super sketchy downhill. You grab too much brake, and you’re going right off the edge.”
Tony Sanchez of Portland, Ore., paused at the Plains of Abraham on the Loowit trail, waiting to head back down the Ape Canyon route.
Asked to rate the trail, Sanchez said: “There’re several components. For scenery, it’s a 10. For technicality, it’s a 10. Going down is going to be amazing. The descent will be awesome: five miles of down.”
“Ape Canyon trail is the favorite route of mountain bike riders in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument,” said Peter Frenzen, monument scientist. “No doubt about it.”
The hike or ride up Ape Canyon trail is a steady climb.
The elevation is 2,895 feet at the trailhead and 4,202 feet at the junction with Loowit trail No. 216. That’s a bit more than 1,300 feet spread out over 4.8 miles, so the grade is not excessive.
Dominating the views are the Muddy River lahar just to the west. The southeast side of Mount St. Helens has had many lahars, or mudflows, over geologic time, including a huge one as part of the massive May 18, 1980, eruption when the melted the ice of Shoestring Glacier, sent a cool mudflow down and across road No. 83, through Lava Canyon and down the Muddy River.
By noon, the lahar had entered the upper end of Swift Reservoir. The lake had been lowered in advance in case of an eruption and mudflow.
Frenzen said in the afternoon of May 18 hot pyroclastic flows spilled out of the crater, sending a warm slurry on to the Plains of Abraham and down Ape Canyon and into Smith Creek and the Muddy River.
Photos over time since the eruption show the lahar is reforesting relatively quickly, he said.
“There’s green forest on both sides,” Frenzen said. “Seeds are being blown into the lahar and the trees are working their way in from the sides. There are lots of animals moving in and out of the adjacent forest and seeds get carried in that way, too.”
Just before the junction with Loowit trail No. 216, Ape Canyon trail reaches the head of Ape Canyon.
The canyon received its name in 1924 when a pack of miners claimed they had shot a giant ape creature, then were attacked by a group of them during the night. The slain Sasquatch allegedly fell into an abyss, known since as Ape Canyon.
Supposedly, the 7-foot apes tossed big rocks onto the cabin roof. The following day, the men escaped to their car and back to Kelso. They led a posse back in search of the apes. None were seen.
Once at the junction with Loowit trail, hikers and riders should take a right and visit the Plains of Abraham.
It takes less than an additional mile to visit the almost-flat Plains and well worth the effort.