With an already healthy obsession for riding in the mountains that are close to home, I decided to document a ride I have been doing the past couple of years on Mount St.Helens. In 2020 a friend took me on a mountain bike ride that blew my mind with all types of visual overload riding on an active volcano in previous eruption lava zones. Of course we are talking about Mount St. Helens which last erupted 42 years ago. Apparently, Mount St. Helens is the most active volcano in the contiguous United States.
A Trail system of Ape Canyon, Plains of Abraham, Windy Ridge and Smith Creek make this loop – 25miles
– 3.5hrs ride time
This is considered a big ride in mountain biking. Ride time if you are high in fitness will be around 3:30hr but you will be stopping for many photographs and also eating a lot :-). From car to car we were gone about 5hrs and certainly a water filter is a good thing to take if you are doing the whole loop. I rode with a hydration backpack and 1.75L (60oz) of water, which was just right.
Half of this ride is fairly simple and can be done by high level beginners or intermediate mountain bikers. The later Smith Creek section can be very dangerous if you don’t have higher level skills with loose soil and steep and exposed sections. The good news is that if you don’t want to be involved in the very difficult bits then an out and back is very doable. (A note here that if you do an out and back, start early in the day when hiker traffic is less)
With an hour and a half drive from Portland, Oregon we started at the Ape Caves area, parking specifically at the Lava Canyon Trail head area which has a vaulted toilet and room for parking. The 6-8miles on the road to the trailhead has some large dips and a few holes to actively look out for but is easily drivable with a normal car. You don’t have to have a gnarly lifted bro dozer that everyone in the PNW thinks you should have. ;-\
For simplicity I break this ride into 4 sections, which also equate to the trail names if you look them up on a guide like Trail Forks.
Ape Canyon, the first part is a single track climb that is mainly in the trees, it goes up 1600ft over 4miles, never gets super steep, but constantly peddling up on a generally smooth well defined wooded trail. there are several points where you have great views both at the mountain and East into the valley. When you get to the top you immediately know as it opens into some mind blowing views. This trail continues and winds around some rocks with small sections of up for another 4 miles. The terrain up here is small lava rock which is loose and in general ridable as it feels gravel esq. There are a few sections towards the end of the Ape canyon Trail where you will find small boulders of lava rocks, for the most part the trail weaves through these but there are small areas where you have to be good at riding rock patches or walk your bike. Not a big deal, just good to mention.
Plains of Abraham to Windy Ridge, this section crosses an amazing ridgeline over to a manicured tourist area of Windy Ridge. The ridgeline is exposed on both sides yet very ridable, undoubtedly you will be stoping and taking photos. Towards the end there is a steep loose section, which has wood ladders (not vertical ladders, but in the ground ladders) built into it. You can see some people have chosen to ride their bikes down here, if you have super high skills no problem, but most of us walked this short section, using the in ground ladders. You continue and cross a smaller ridgeline and eventually pop out a car wide gravel service road that takes you to the Windy Ridge viewpoint. At time of writing this gravel road is closed for vehicles and has been for a while
Windy Ridge Viewpoint, as you pop out from the gravel road you get to a tourist centred view point, it over looks Spirit Lake on one side. Theres a vaulted toilet here but thats about it, no services. This viewpoint is accessible by car, (if you look up Road FR99) so it is possible to shuttle this ride, netting you 10miles and some amazing views. From here you are going to ride the road FR99 for 1.5 miles to find the Upper Smith Creek trailhead on the right.
Smith Creek, is about an 11 mile section – mainly down the mountain and parallel to the creek. Passing through quite a few eco systems that eventually puts you at the Smith Creek which you cross a couple of times. The first 1/4 mile of trail has amazing views as it looks into the valley, then be prepared for very loose gravel like descending with tight corners. Not being of an advanced rider, this upper section I did not enjoy too much, many of the corners are pretty soft and not a ton of traction which basically meant sliding through them making them scary. You can see on a map of Smith Creek that the really steep stuff starts at about 2 miles in, but then eventually mellows out to some different riding style lower down.
Lower down you drop into a more forested vibe, a fun section of semi flowy dips and bumps to have fun on, then a meandering trail alongside the creek, its very pretty as the birch trees overhang the sides. Some sections are on old river bed which is quite sandy and some push a bike is needed. You will need to cross the creek a few times down here and if you are careful you can do this without getting your feet wet, but for the most part expect to get some water in your boots, which is alight on a nice warm summer day. Smith Creek is a source of filterable waters, but note that this is close to the end of the ride.
Note: At the time of writing this, some of the lower part was pretty overgrown and navigation can be tricky, so watch your gps tracks.
Where you started your ride isn’t so far away now, but since you have dropped down quite a lot of elevation it’s above you by approx 1200ft. You guessed it the last part of this section is riding up through a wide wooded area of a 3mile climb. It’s not difficult in any form, but it does feel long and it’s pretty uneventful. A small price to pay for otherwise amazing ride.
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