Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Ape Canyon in November

It occurred to me that in the previous post I'd highlighted my Top Ten Hikes of 2021, but neglected to write a blog post about three of the top ten.  I felt bad about shortchanging these three wonderful treks - a hike that's earned a "top ten" billing deserves to have its own post.  To better explain the reason these specific hikes deserved their high rating, I resolved to turn back time and prepare narratives for each of the missing adventures.

This post highlights the first of the three "neglected" top ten hikes:

First view of the MSH

Back in November on one of the Facebook hiking groups I follow, someone had posted a trip report from the Ape Canyon Trail.  The article included several gorgeous photos of the snow-covered Mt. St. Helens and a couple up-close pics of mountain goats.  Ape Canyon was a trail I'd only ever hiked in midsummer for the wildflowers.  I didn't even know the road to the trailhead was still open (it closes during winter months).  But the thought of seeing MSH decked out in snow (and mountain goats too!) intrigued me enough to start the planning wheels in motion.  I picked a sunny day, and invited my friend Catherine to join me.

Sunshine on the trail

On the appointed day, I woke up to an extremely cold, frosty morning.  Worried about icy roads to the trailhead, I almost backed out.  If I'd been hiking solo I probably would've rolled over and went back to sleep.  But knowing I'd made a commitment to a friend got me out of bed and on the road.  After witnessing an excellent sunrise I was glad I hadn't backed out.  Nearing the trailhead and seeing Mt. St. Helens wearing a fresh coat of snow, gleaming white against blue skies, made me doubly glad to have made the effort.

Higher up we had to navigate a bit of snow

We emerged from the car to chilly temps, prompting both of us to don jackets, knit hats, and gloves.  Well - until I discovered I had two left hand gloves and no right hand ones!  (Memo to self - from now on always throw a second pair of gloves in the backpack!)  I improvised by pulling my shirt sleeve over the bare right hand.  Luckily, once we got moving our bodies warmed up quickly, and I didn't need gloves (glove) for long.

The grand viewpoint at mile 4-ish

I have a love-hate relationship with the Ape Canyon Trail.  Located on the mountain's south side, it traverses the edge of a huge lahar, created by a mudflow.  You have to plod nearly four uphill miles through a kinda boring forest, with only a couple of token views, before reaching the good stuff.  But once you hit the junction with Loowit Trail, the scenery is totally worth the slog!  There are killer views of Mt. St. Helens, so close you can see its canyons and glaciers in detail.  The wide-open Plains of Abraham start at the Loowit junction.  In the summer this area is covered in wildflowers - one of my favorite places to see colorful flora.  

However, the other drawback, Ape Canyon trail is a favorite of mountain bikers.  And they share the trail with hikers.  Although all the bikers I've ever encountered here have been nothing but polite, I'm always uneasy hiking on a trail that requires me to keep a sharp lookout for bikes barreling downhill.

Catherine says "hi"

Although Ape Canyon is a wildly popular during the summer months, today we were only the fourth car at the trailhead.  Catherine and I saw a grand total of one other hiking party on the way up.  It was nice having the place to ourselves, especially not having to worry about encountering mountain bikers.

The mountain is front and center as we continue to climb

After a half mile trek through second-growth woods, we took a short side path and were treated to a nice view of Mt St Helens from a cliff's edge.  The mountain sat prominently at the head of a mile-wide mudflow.  Ape Canyon hugs the edge of the Muddy River's vast lahar, a flow of mud, rock and ash created from the 1980 eruption.  Ape Canyon itself escaped damage from the blast, and further uphill the trail winds through a stand of huge old-growth trees, miraculously preserved.

Mt Adams and the beginning of Ape Canyon

Although our trail began clear of snow, we began to encounter it on the trail about halfway up.  Luckily the snow wasn't icy and was soft enough to provide traction.  It also wasn't very deep, so navigating through was a piece of cake.  As a matter of fact, it was kind of fun to walk on the snowy trail.  The first snow I'd seen this season!

The ridge where Catherine spotted the mountain goats

As we climbed up Ape Canyon, I took my usual position in the rear so I could take photos.  You'll notice there's lots of images of Catherine's back as she's marching uphill.  I tell my friends that when hiking with me, they get included in lots of photographs, whether they like it or not! :)

The snowy mountain against blue skies was stunning!

About 2/3 of the way up Ape Canyon Trail the forest opened up to stunning viewpoint of Mt. St. Helens.  Naturally, many photos were taken here including a few with Catherine in them (I told you my friends get in lots of pictures!)

Junction with the Loowit Trail.

From that point on, we began to regularly see glimpses of MSH and also Mt. Adams to the southeast.  The snow was now pretty much continuous, but navigating the snowy trail just added to the fun.  We climbed up a narrow portion of the trail where one side dropped off steeply into a deep canyon.  A narrow chasm rose up from the bottom.  This gap defined Ape Canyon's beginning.

This calls for some photo documentation!

From past trips, I knew the junction with the "round-the-mountain" Loowit trail wasn't far.  Although it was mighty tempting to continue on the Loowit for a ways further, we'd already decided the junction would be our day's destination.  It was a 5-mile trek to this point, so any additional distance would add to the day's total.  I really wasn't in shape to hike more than 10 miles yet, and even 10 miles was stretching it.  So when Catherine and I finally reached the Loowit Trail sign, we took the required photos for documentation, and then found a clear patch of rocks to sit and have lunch.

Eagle-eyed Catherine spotted two mountain goats on an adjacent ridge

While we were enjoying our sandwiches, eagle-eyed Catherine spotted a couple of white specks moving on a nearby ridge.  Mountain goats!  They were just barely visible to the naked eye.  Trying to keep my pack weight down, I'd left my big zoom lens at home.  Now I was wishing I'd lugged it up here.  Although all I had was my 24-105 mm lens, I focused in on the white specks, and clicked the shutter anyway.  After lots of zooming and cropping in my photo editing software, I managed to get a couple images where you can see that those white dots are really goats.

View towards the south, Mt Hood is visible on the horizon

Catherine loves to explore, so while I was content to sit in the sunshine and rest, she climbed up a nearby small knoll to see what was there.  She reported that the scenery was really great, enough that I was inspired to get off my duff and check it our for myself.

Great Mt Adams view

The views extended southward across the great lahar.  The forested ridge of Ape Canyon stood out to the east, and Mt. Hood was visible on the horizon.  A short distance further, I came upon a picture-perfect view of Mt. Adams, framed between two fir trees.  Yes, it had been worth the short uphill climb to take in these views!

One final mountain view before heading back

Although the day had started out near freezing, by noon the sun had warmed temperatures enough that Catherine and I shed jackets down to our base layers.  It was so nice to sit in the sunshine, warm our limbs, and turn our faces towards the sun's glow.  Our lunch spot had a great vantage of Mt. St. Helens, her white slopes looking fabulous against blue skies.  It was so wonderful I didn't ever want to leave.

A grove of huge old growth trees that somehow escaped the blast

But of course, we couldn't stay all day - there was still five downhill miles yet to cover and a two-hour drive back home.  So after a most excellent lunch break Catherine and I reluctantly tore ourselves away from this high viewpoint and began our journey back down Ape Canyon.

Evening light on MSH

The hike down was uneventful.  Nearing the trailhead, we made one final stop at the last viewpoint to say our goodbyes to MSH.  Good night, old girl!  

Amazing how visiting a familiar trail in a different season gives one an entirely new perspective.


  1. Montanhas fantásticas em qualquer altura do ano.
    Um abraço e continuação de uma boa semana.

    Dedais de Francisco e Idalisa
    O prazer dos livros

  2. ...gorgeous images, nature makes us seem insignificant.

  3. Everything is so lovely with a dusting of snow!

  4. Hiking in winter is special, white snowy mountains are so beautiful. Great pictures!

  5. Another amazing hike! Love those goats. I once did see Mountain Goats up in B.C. years ago.

  6. Wow, how gorgeous! Nothing like being outdoors.

  7. Wow, what a beautiful trail!

  8. Beautiful! Take mittens! I wear those brown farmer cotton gloves in the Fall and almost always have to use a right for a left, feels funny but works in a pinch!

  9. It took me a minute to see the goats!

  10. Oh me! Oh my! Just a simply perfect day on your 'top mountain' trail. The views always make the slog totally worthwhile. Treadng in your footsteps as I read, was very special indeed. Thanks!


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