St. Helens Epic Scouting

Friday, August 30, 2013… I took the day off to scout a new route up on Mt St. Helens

St. Helens Epic Route 1

The route was about 90 miles up on Mt. St. Helens with around 15,000’ of climbing. It started at the East end of the Swift Reservoir and climbed 2000’ on gravel roads before taking Ape Canyon trail up across the Plains of Abraham to Windy Ridge above Spirit Lake then taking the road 12 miles to Bear Meadow where I would get on the Boundary Trail and take it half way to Mt. Adams before dropping down Quartz Creek Trail to the Lewis River Trail and back to the start. I estimated the route would take me 10-12 hours, but there were lots of unknowns so I packed plenty of food and lights to be prepared for the worst. But when I started out at 7:50a on Friday, I didn’t actually expect the worst.

01 - Start

7:50a – The start at Swift Creek Reservoir

The route normally has some fantastic views, but things were completely socked in as I started so I knew I was going to be missing out on them.  I headed up the road a few miles to the gravel forest service road I would take up to Ape Canyon.  What looked to be a maze of roads and turns on the map to get from Swift Forest Camp to the Ape Canyon turned out to be a single gravel road that was very easy to follow. I saw a herd of about a dozen Elk on the way up and it started raining just before I got to the Ape Canyon Trailhead.  Ape Canyon Trail was fantastic…smooth flowy singlegtrack 

03 - Ape Canyon

Ape Canyon Trail

I rode up Ape Canyon to Plains of Abraham which has incredible views of St. Helens  (RIGHT THERE), Rainier, Adams, and Hood. Unfortunately I was IN the clouds and couldn’t see any of the views.

07 - Plains of Abraham

Plains of Abraham

Still, the riding was fantastic and I could at least tell how massive the mountain and features were around me. I knew this was the start of an EPIC course.  The rain stopped on the way up and it was dry as I made my way across the Plains of Abraham to Windy Ridge at 11:30a with 21 miles behind me.

Windy Ridge

Windy Ridge

The next 12 miles on the road went quickly and was actually really nice. On a clear day, it must be a pretty incredible ride because there were around 8-10 scenic viewpoints on that section. I got to Bear Meadow – where I would get on the Boundary Trail – at 1:00p with 33 miles behind me.

11 - Boundary

Boundary Trail – Bridge out

The Boundary Trail was a huge unknown.  A friend had ridden parts of it and said it was totally rutted out due to motorcycles, but that was over 20 years ago and he’d never ridden the section I was doing.

12 - Boundary

The Boundary Trail had lots of hike-a-bike sections

The first part of it was pretty cool – the trail was plenty wide and clear, but the trail was definitely not a modern trail… it wasn’t designed to shed water. The trail clearly became a river during the Spring snow melt as all of the climbs were completely rutted and you could see the top layer of silt that had been moved around by the water.

15 - St Helens

Looking back at where I started from Shark Rock

I had to walk most of the uphills that would normally be rideable… and I even ended up walking some of the downhills that I would normally ride – although it was probably just me being careful since I was by myself. I probably walked a quarter of the 25 miles on the boundary trail. It made for really slow going and put me behind schedule.

17 - Mt Adams

Mt. Adams – Heading East on the Boundary Trail.

Still… it was more confirmation that I was onto an EPIC course… incredible trails with mountain views at the beginning, tons of climbing, incredibly hard mountain trails in the middle and finishing with a big singletrack downhill followed by the fantastic Lewis River Trail.

18 - Quartz Top

Top of Quartz Creek Trail. No signs so  double checking the map.

I finally got to Quartz Creek Trail – the trail I would take down from the Boundary Trail to the Lewis River trail – at 6:30p. The trail intersection wasn’t marked, but I was pretty confident I was in the right spot. I was out of water, but I started down Quartz Creek Trail thinking it was mostly downhill and that I would be able to cover the 10 miles to the Lewis River Trail before it got dark. I figured I’d just stop and get water when I got to the Lewis River. The first part was sweet… super steep downhill where I was off the back of my saddle… only having to stop for downed trees ever so often. But then the trees started coming more often and I was having to get off my bike a lot and the going got slower. It took me an hour to go the first 2 miles while descending 1300’.   That was the fastest I would go for awhile.

The trail I was on split and I ended up making a wrong turn. I stopped to get some water on a side creek just as it started to get dark. It felt like I was climbing more than I should and the creek I was following turned out to be going the wrong direction. I realized I had made a wrong turn and decided to try going down the creek bed until I found Quartz Creek and the trail I was supposed to be on.

This turned out to be a VERY DUMB idea that fortunately I realized before I got myself into trouble. I realized that I was off my planned route and that if something happened to me here, nobody would find me for a long time. I turned off my phone to save any power I had for later and scrambled up the hillside until I found the trail and I went back to the split where I made the wrong turn. Now it was dark. I got out 2 of my lights – a Petzl headlamp and a Niterider MiNewt, and I got out a different map and figured out exactly where I was.  I also got out my knife with a 3” blade… just in case.

I started down what I decided was the correct trail. It was very difficult going with tons of trees down across the trail, sometimes every 20 feet, and sometimes they were 6 feet high,  Nobody had been on the trail in so long so sometimes it was difficult to follow the trail and to figure out where the trail went on the other side.  It was especially difficult around creek crossings because the vegetation was always grown up more. I started hearing noises around me. Once after making a creek crossing and going up the trail on the other side I heard something knock a big rock over in the creek below me.  I spent a lot of my time walking with my knife open in my hand.  I spent over an hour at one creek crossing just trying to figure out where the trail went down to the creek.  At one point I even started collecting wood to make a fire – thinking I would make a fire and hunker down for the night until I could find the trail again in the light, but the thought of people worrying about me kept me pushing on. I left my bike on a number of locations while I walked around searching for the trail. Sometimes once I found the trail again it was difficult to find my bike again. But I kept finding a trail, and kept pressing on.

I finally made it out at the Quartz Creek Trailhead at 2:30a. It had taken me 8 hours to go 8-10 miles. I was relieved to make it out, but still had 20 miles on the road to get back to the van. (yes, I was going to skip the Lewis River Trail) I saw some people camped nearby and there were actually some people still up sitting around a campfire. I rode over to them and asked them if they had a cell phone with coverage. They were shocked to see me show up on my bike and asked what my story was. I told them and then headed on my way.

I was getting cold as I started to descend a mile later so I stopped to put on some more clothes. While I was changing a car came down the road behind me. It was the people I had talked to at the camp.  They offered me a ride to my car. You can bet I jumped at the chance.  They got me to my car at 3:15a.  It would have taken me at least until 4:30a to get there myself.

In all I covered about 70 miles in 18.5 hours.  I had ridden about 60 miles and hiked about 10 miles with a total elevation gain of around 14,000’ feet.  I’m going to estimate I lugged my bike over about 80 trees – all on the Quartz Creek “Trail”.

Here’s the Strava track of my ride… up until I turned my phone off in the creek bed:

Now I’m stuck with half of an EPIC course mapped out and I need to figure out a better way down from the Boundary Trail to the Lewis River Trail. I’m looking at Craggy Peak Trail down to Wright Meadow that will take me directly to the Middle Falls on the Lewis River.  Unfortunately I’m grounded from these type of adventures for awhile… 😉

…unless maybe I get one of these:  Spot

Seems like a GREAT idea!

Here are some pics of the first half of the ride taken on a clear day 2 weeks later

St Helens from the bottom of Ape Canyon

St Helens from the bottom of Ape Canyon


Near the top of Ape Canyon

Plains of Abraham

Plains of Abraham

Windy Ridge

Windy Ridge

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4 Responses to St. Helens Epic Scouting

  1. Wow. Stout ride. A few years ago I did almost this exact route, except I did it over two and a half days as a bike-packing trip and I took the Craggy Peak/Wright Meadow route down. 18.5 hours is impressive!

  2. 2wheeltrails says:

    I was wondering if the Quartz Creek trail was rideable. Thanks for scouting!

    • ormtb says:

      Yeah – don’t waste your time on Quartz Creek trail with your bike. You made a good decision. Going Wright Meadow to Craggy Peak is definitely the way to go. LOTS of hike-a-bike on the way up, but mostly rideable on the way back down. Cheers!

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