Mt. St. Helens offers a wide variety of adventures for those who are looking to get away from the claustrophobic northwest trail. Nine miles from Ape Caves and just a quarter mile from the very popular Lava Canyon trailhead, the innocuous Ape Canyon trailhead is typically overlooked for more publicized trails and viewpoints. However, this trail offers a beauty and solitude that some of the area’s popular hikes lack. Winding up towards the mountain’s base along the site of the 1980 lahar, this spectacular trail offers spectacular views of a landscape that is both desolate and brimming with life.
The Ape Canyon trail parallels the old mudflow for roughly the first mile, winding along the forest’s bank and offering numerous paths out to the rocky remnants of the Muddy River (now lacking, for the most part, mud). Travelers have several opportunities to carefully step out onto the rocks to snatch a stunning view of the mountain from below. While many hikers decide to turn back after this viewpoint, those that continue onward will be rewarded with far better views.
The well-traveled trail winds along the wooded hillside, offering only limited views of the lahar for the next two miles as it stretches through the forest. The path is a patchwork of old, weathered firs and spindly new growth, offering a firsthand view of the ecological impact of the 1980 lahar. After a long stretch in the woods, the trail begins to climb in switchbacks, steadily gaining elevation as it makes its way around a knobby ridge. Here hikers can catch a quick view of Mt. St. Helens through the brush before the trail winds downward, before climbing again along a ridge. The views only get better from here. As the trees disperse, hikers begin to see the mountain in its enormity.
The trail stretches along a narrow ridge adorned with the skeletons of dead Douglas firs, still standing after the eruption. After a quick climbing sprint to the finish, the trail winds around the top of Ape Canyon. Perched upon the mountain’s shoulder, the trail’s end offers awe-inspiring views of the mountain, the mudflow and the picturesque panorama. At this junction hikers can choose to follow the Loowit trail to view the Ape Canyon, or simply relax on one of the ridges.
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Length: 5.5 Miles Each Way
Elevation Gain: 1300 feet
Highest Point: 2800 Feet
Directions: From Cougar, WA follow Forest Road 90. Turn left onto Forest Road 83, following signs to Lava Canyon. Continue along Forest Road 83, taking a left following a sign to the Ape Canyon Trailhead after a bridge that crosses the lahar. The turnoff is located approximately .25 miles from its end at the Lava Canyon Trailhead.