Ok, show of hands - how many of you clicked on this post hoping to see some apes?
Sorry to disappoint, but Ape Canyon doesn't house any primates (although I wouldn't rule out an occasional Sasquatch). This starkly beautiful canyon got its name back in 1924 when an ape-like creature threw rocks at two miners in a nearby cabin. (Years later an old-timer confessed that he and another boy were behind this prank)
|Fog amongst the trees|
Ape Canyon is one of the few valleys on Mt. St. Helen's south flank that were spared by the 1980 eruption. When the mountain's north side blew, the heat instantly melted all its glaciers. The resulting large volume of water created a huge mudflow that rocketed down St. Helen's slopes, obliterating everything in its path. But Ape Canyon somehow managed to avoid the destruction, and today boasts a lovely trail that winds through an ancient old-growth forest.
|MSH is shy|
It's been an exceptional year for wildflowers around Mt St Helens. Penstemon has been carpeting the adjacent hillsides in a deep shade of purple, and it's been the best paintbrush bloom in many years. In mid-July the Portlandhikers and Oregon wildflowers websites were both posting reports of an amazing flower show in the Plains of Abraham, above Ape Canyon. Of course I wasn't about to miss it!
|The mountain is out!|
So early one July Sunday morning had me pointing my car towards the Ape Canyon trailhead. It had been years since I'd hiked this trail, and I nearly drove right past the parking lot. But after overshooting and ending up at the Lava Canyon trailhead, I found my way back to the right spot.
|Vibrant orange paintbrush|
A sign at the trailhead warned of a recent cougar sighting. It advised hikers to travel in groups and make noise. As I was by myself, I started out cautiously, whistling and clacking my poles. Then I got passed by a group of mountain bikers....and another.....and another. After the fifth band of bikers passed me by, I quit the noisy routine. I figured all those bikers would scare away any predators!
|Looking back down Ape Canyon|
The trail up Ape Canyon began beside a cliff overlooking the Muddy River's vast lahar. It resembled a moonscape of gray rock. This lahar was created when the 1980 eruption melted the Shoestring Glacier, unleashing a torrent of mud, rock and ash.
|MSH's south side|
The morning was cold and cloudy, low-lying fog obliterating any views of the famous volcano. But my trail was through untouched forest, passing some lovely, mossy old-growth Douglas Firs. The climb was steady, ascending 1300 feet in five miles. There wasn't much for views, so I trudged along, listening for bikers, and enjoying the lush forest.
|Path through the wildflowers|
Near mile four, the forest started to thin, and I began to spot glimpses of the lahar's rocky slopes between the trees. Then I spied Mt St Helen's wide base slowly emerging from the clouds. Would the fog lift by the time I left the forest?
|Dramatic mountain view|
The answer was yes! By the time I approached the Loowit Trail junction, blue sky had replaced white fog, and MSH was showing her glorious self.
|Finally the Loowit Trail!|
After five miles slogging uphill through the forest the Loowit Trail was a welcome sight. Circling the entire mountain, the Loowit provided hikers with magnificent views of the truncated volcano and crossed barren plains, decimated by the 1980 eruption.
|Sea of purple|
My plan was to follow the Loowit Trail north, towards the Plains of Abraham. About a mile away, the flower show was supposed to be going strong.
After a quick snack, I continued my journey via the Loowit. MSH rose above the desolate plains, her shrinking summer glaciers like white stripes down her sides. More mountain bikers rolled by in both directions. By this point, I'd seen more of them than hikers all day.
I passed through a lovely lush valley, with a tiny trickling spring running through the middle. Flowers sprung from the rocky pumice soil - lupine, paintbrush, yellow Oregon Sunshine, and gobs of purple penstemon. Two tents were set up in the middle of the brush, and I thought to myself what a wonderful place for a basecamp.
|Nice accent to the mountain|
Beyond this spot of eden, the wildflower show began in earnest. The rocky plains were covered with a purple carpet of penstemon.
|Incredible penstemon bloom!|
Oh it was magnificent! I've never seen wildflowers in such high concentrations.
|It just went on and on....|
As you can imagine, it took me quite awhile to traverse the next half mile......
|Close up of these lovelies|
The flower show just kept on going. Chatting with a few mountain bikers, I learned it extended past the trail to Windy Ridge, two miles away. Although I would've loved to continue trekking northward, my gps already registered 6.5 miles. The further I walked, the further I'd have to walk back.
Finally, I forced myself to pack the camera away and head back the direction I'd come.
|Color spot near a spring|
Back through the flower fields adjacent to the spring....
Climbing up the other side of the spring's lush little valley, I was passed by a couple of slow-walking trail runners. They both looked extremely tired, and in conversation I learned they'd been running around the entire mountain via the Loowit Trail - nearly 29 miles! Now nearly finished, one guy admitted they were deep in the "pain cave."
No pain cave yet for me, but my feet were getting a tiny bit tired. But flower displays like this buoyed my spirits.
|Most excellent camping spot|
Nearing the junction with the Ape Canyon Trail, I looked out across the desolate moonscape. Ape Canyon's green ridge stood out prominently amidst the gray pumice plain. Sure looked out of place!
|Ape Canyon is the green ridge|
Reaching the Ape Canyon Trail, I was happy for a long stretch of sweet downhill. However, knowing all those mountain bikers would likely return, I kept on high alert, straining my ears for any human sounds. Luckily, all the bikers I met were very cautious and instantly slowed down the moment they spotted me. (I've heard of conflicts between hikers and mountain bikers but all the riders I met on this trail were nothing but courteous)
|Premature fall color|
Eager to be done, I forced myself to march downhill as fast as my legs would carry me. About halfway down, my energy flagging, I took a quick break and downed a peanut butter sandwich. I happened to stop next to a huckleberry bush full of ripe berries - a perfect compliment to my peanut butter.
|Old lahar path is starting to fill in|
Nearing the trailhead, I began seeing glimpses of the Muddy River's vast debris plain. Fogged in when I began in the early morning, I was now treated to some grand views of MSH and the wide river channel, slowly filling in with tiny trees.
Another wonderful wildflower trek! I clocked in at 13 miles, nearly 1500 feet of elevation gain, and a memory card full of amazing floral color.
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