Thursday, August 27, 2020

Ape Canyon

Sorry to disappoint you, but this post is not about apes.  However it is about a great hike I took on Mt. St. Helens' south side the day before the July 4th holiday.


Tiger Lily


Yes, that day my trail of choice was called the "Ape Canyon Trail."  Apparently this canyon got it's name due to a report of some ape-like being residing in the forests on the south side of Mt. St. Helens.  Back in the 1920's a group of miners reported moonlit figures throwing stones down the canyon (in actuality it was kids from a nearby YMCA camp).  The legends persisted and eventually this canyon and a nearby cave were named after the alleged apes.


Ancient forest


But on this day it was wildflowers, not apes, I was after.  Rumor had it the penstemon bloom was in full force along the Loowit Trail.  It was high time for me to check things out.


First view of the mountain....but it's hiding


Anticipating holiday weekend crowds, I got an early start and snagged a coveted parking spot at the nearby Lava Canyon trailhead.  The place was crawling with mountain bikers.  Along with hiking, mountain biking was also allowed on the Ape Canyon and Loowit Trails.  Although not a huge fan of sharing the trail with two-wheeled traffic, at least the majority of the bike crowd would be creeping uphill in the morning.  And I've found the mountain bikers to be very courteous when sharing the trail with hikers.


Lupine and paintbrush


The Ape Canyon Trail climbed steadily uphill for 6 miles and 1300 feet in elevation.  The great part about this hike is while most MSH trails cross desolate plains decimated by the 1980 eruption, this canyon was spared from the devastation.  A lovely old-growth forest preserved from the blast began about a mile up the trail, dominated by huge fir and and cedar trees.  Wildflowers bloomed thick in the green carpeted forest floor.  This shady forest is especially welcome on hot sunny days.


Almost to the Loowit Trail

However, surprisingly today's weather was unseasonably chilly and cloudy.  Which was much appreciated by me as I slogged uphill.  The only downside - no mountain views.  MSH was shyly hiding her head in the clouds.

Heather blooming along Loowit Trail


Perhaps it was the cooler weather, or perhaps the early start, but I made good time ascending Ape Canyon, and before I knew it I had reached the junction with the round-the-mountain Loowit Trail.  Let the wildflower show begin!


Heather close-up


The first wildflowers I noticed were large patches of pink heather and cream-white partridge foot.  The blooms really brightened up an otherwise gray, barren landscape.


Colorful hillside

About a half mile onto the Loowit I began to notice patches of purple on the adjacent hills.  There was the penstemon I was seeking!  It was thick.  Every once and awhile the purple was accompanied by a small spot of orange - Indian paintbrush was also in bloom.


Partridge foot


The next mile took extra time to cover as I was seeing photo ops everywhere.  The penstemon was in top form, covering huge swaths of the ground.


The blooms turned an otherwise desolate landscape into a lovely purple-dotted plain.

Purple lined trail

Many of the nearby hills also sported their own purple patches.

Purple patches on nearby hill


The Loowit Trail eventually intersected with the Abraham Trail.  By this time, it was nearing noon and I was starving.  Finding a large rock nearby I perched on top and dug into my lunch.  It was a great break spot - I could see the Loowit Trail continuing towards Windy Pass, and also the Abraham Trail stretching towards Windy Ridge.  However all I could see of MSH was the base - her summit remained firmly hidden under a thick cloud layer. 

Junction to Loowit and Windy Ridge Trails


While I was eating lunch many hiking and biking parties passed by from both directions.  The world had woken up and it had become a busy day on the mountain!


Flower garden below trail junction


Looking towards the Abraham Trail I could see a large hill covered with orange and purple flowers.  It didn't seem too far away, maybe I could hike just a little bit more?

Colorful butte


I started down the Abraham Trail, only to discover after a quarter mile the trail dipped steeply downhill, and climbed back uphill after crossing a small wash.  Did I really want to do more climbing?  I'd already hiked 7 miles, which would make a round-trip distance of 14 miles so far.  Did I really want to add more mileage to my already large daily total?

Mountain bikers

And so, although the temptation was great to just keep going towards the colorful hill, I knew I was pushing my limit.  I already had a long return trip, no need to make it any longer.  So, reluctantly I turned around and headed back towards the Loowit/Abraham junction.


More beauty on my return trip


Hiking back across the Loowit I encountered large groups of mountain bikers.  I grew tired of stepping off the trail so they could pass.  I also ran into quite a few folks with large backpacks, trying to hike the entire 32-mile Loowit Trail.  I chatted with one man who said he had taken two days to cover the distance and encouraged me to backpack the entire trail someday.  "You can do it!" he exclaimed.  (I appreciated his vote of confidence)

Mt Adams peek-a-boo view


Nearing the junction with Ape Canyon trail, I noticed skies to the south clearing and got a good view of Mt Adam's snowy base.  Only it's very top remained in the clouds.  Sadly, MSH didn't get the memo and remained completely socked in.

The "notch" into Ape Canyon


I passed by the "notch," a narrow slot in the rocky cliffs that opened up into Ape Canyon.  At least the surrounding forest and hills were now visible - an improvement from the morning when I'd initially passed by.

And then it was down, down, down through the ancient forest.  I had to be very careful listening for mountain bikers barreling downhill as I didn't want to get run over.  Luckily all of the bikers I encountered were also on guard for hikers and they were good about slowing down. 


Friendly mouse


About halfway down the Ape Canyon Trail I noticed a small gray creature hopping in the middle of the trail.  It was a tiny mouse!  I crept closer to get a photo and the mouse didn't run away.  Quite the opposite, it hopped towards me.  At one point it even crawled onto my hiking boot.  I don't know if it was so young it didn't recognize me as a danger, or if it was blind.  After getting my fill of photographs, I tried to shoo the mouse off the trail into the forest, afraid one of the mountain bikers would run it over. 

One last pic of the spectacular forest

The last two miles seemed endless.  By now the sun was partially shining through the clouds, and temperatures were starting to become uncomfortably warm.  But finally the road, parking area, and my car came into view.  Clocking in at a little over 14 miles, my feet were happy to have the hiking boots finally off.  

But I was intrigued by the wildflower-studded hill I'd seen on the Abraham Trail and just couldn't reach.  Maybe I needed to approach from the opposite direction and start at Windy Ridge?  Not to spoil the surprise, but a couple of weeks later I did just that.  Stay tuned for a future blog post about that hike!


  1. ...the resilience of nature can be amazing, thanks for another beautiful trip.

  2. Amazing photos. Thanks for taking these hikes and sharing the beauty.

  3. What a great hike, the flowers are so pretty!

  4. Gorgeous photography! That's a long, beautiful hike, and I love all the wildflowers. I'm not a big fan of hiking trails with mountain bikers, but often we have no choice.

  5. Wonderful forest and beautiful flowers!

  6. Thank you for sharing the wonders of Ape Canyon. I have a mental image of Bigfoot singing YMCA around a campfire.

  7. I'm always astounded at how so little soil can support such colour. They certainly brighten up the predominantly grey scene. Always plenty of stone-throwing apes in the YMCA!

  8. You're getting in some seriously long hikes this summer! Such a beautiful area, I hope to hike there again in the future.

  9. I never tire of seeing your amazing wildflowers and of course, Mt St Helens. What a wonderful day except for a tad too many bikers.

  10. Beautiful photos. What a lovely trail and all those wild flowers. My mom's favorite wild flower was the Indian Paintbrush.

  11. Sounds like a good potential backpacking trip. I like the story about the apes. Wonder if Ape Cave is named for that incident too?

  12. Your wild flower posts are always a delight especially brightening up that rather desolate damaged area from the MSH eruption


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