The Other Mountain|
Tuesday, May 18, 1999
The tension in my stomach grew as the side angle and the softness of the trail surfaced increased. You would think after years of mountain biking that I wouldn't feel this much fear just riding on a narrow, loose surface trail. As I rounded a corner I was relieved to see my buddy Bob and my brother David standing on the hillside next to a big tree. I heard Bob say, "this trail is really scary." I responded, "hey I'm glad you feel that way, I thought it was just me." While this scene was not the norm of our four days mountain biking and hiking around Mount St. Helens, it WAS part of each ride.
Almost a year before, Dave and I had the opportunity to ride part of the Ape Canyon Trail on the southern slopes of Mount St. Helens. The trail and views were outstanding and we began to examine this area for our next bicycle adventure. As a group we have ridden the roads and trails around Mount Rainier so often we tend to take the views for granted. If you venture to the Mount St. Helens area don't take anything for granted. You will see some of the most spectacular scenery Washington State has to offer and experience riding that is exceptional and sure to challenge all skill levels.
I was familiar with the Cougar, Lewis River area and had the opportunity to ride many of the roads on skinny tires. But while researching this years mountain bike adventure, we discovered a number of trails that were reported to be some of the best in the Northwest. Geoff Hines describes the Lewis River Trail as "the finest single mountain bike ride in the state." Now I'm not sure if it is, but as our group road away from the Lower Falls campground our first day, on a trail I thought could only exist in my dreams, we were hit with our biggest dilemma. Do we ride fast because the trail is so great, or do we ride slow to enjoy the views. We never found a solution - at times we rode fast, at times we rode slow, at times we just stopped and looked in awe.
Starting at the Lower Falls campground the Lewis River Trail is a great down stream, one-way trip, to the road crossing near Curly Falls. As the trail meanders along the Lewis River it earns its four-wheel rating from John Zilly. The trail is a roller coaster of beautiful single track in dense forest with magnificent views of the river. The technical ups and downs of each drainage provided us with white-knuckle descents and a few hike-a-bike climbs. We had our share of minor falls, lots of fun, and lots of laughs. The trail can provide hours of relaxed riding, or hours of technical challenge, or as we approached it, a little of both. Take plenty of food and water, as the stops to enjoy the area will increase the length of your day. The final section from the Bolt Shelter to the road is fast, flat, and fun. We found ourselves pushing the teens in speed as we traveled around old-growth trees and along the clear water of the river. This ride met or exceeded anything we had read about the area. But Bob and I both agreed the best way to really experience the Lewis River trail would be once on foot to enjoy the views, and many times by bike for the all-out challenge and fun.
Our base of operations was at the Cougar RV Park and Campground in the small hamlet of Cougar. The owners are wonderful people and the regulars in the park stopped by each day to visit with the "old guys" who were in their area enjoying the mountain bike riding. There are two small stores in town, gas, restaurants, and even lattes. It was amazing to me that many of the locals had never heard of the trails or areas we were visiting in their own backyard. Cougar sits on Yale Lake, one of three reservoirs created for hydro-electric power and recreation on the Lewis River. These reservoirs, the day use areas, and campgrounds, on Lake Merrill, Yale Lake, and Swift Reservoir are managed by Pacific Power. The campgrounds are excellent but were not available for this trip as they close after the Labor Day weekend each year. With the summer of 1998 being the driest on record, this year's early September dates for our adventure gave us sunny skies all week.
Our second day of riding was going to be rated lower, a three-wheel ride on the Norway Pass section of Boundary Trail #1 (I think John Zilly needs to reevaluate this one). The drive around Mount St. Helens from Cougar to the Windy Ridge access has great views of the mountain and surrounding area but is well into a two-hour drive. Our comrade and support driver, Jim, who has been traveling with our group since our first annual bicycle adventure in 1994, was again a true wonder in providing support and comradeship. We had hoped he would get a chance to ride this year, but a knee injury earlier in the summer kept him in the van. He again earns our thanks over and over for moving us from ride to ride.
The Norway Pass trail leaves the Windy Ride road (Forest Service Road 99) at the Bear Meadow Interpretive Area. This trail has spectacle views of Mount St. Helens as it traverses the forest hillsides and moves closer and closer to the blast zone. The blue sky, forest green, and majesty of Mount St. Helens in the distance is so vast and awe inspiring that pictures nor words will do it justice. The trees in the distance that are still standing, stark and alone, mixed with those fallen in unison as the force of the blast scorched the earth, raised questions in our minds about what it might have been like at that moment in 1980.
The steeply sloping trail surface had been rutted by elk and riding on a surface Dave described as "Captain Crunch" we found fear gripped us all from time to time. The trail slopes with steep hillsides on each side and we found it best to not sightsee while riding but stop to enjoy the views. The highlight of the ride was a mile long side trip to Ghost Lake, about the mid-point of the ride. This small lake is nestled against the backside of a hill that gave it some protection from volcanic devastation. Today it is alive with fish, tadpoles, frogs, water insects, and has signs of other forest visitors. The south side of the lake is adjacent to a large slide that moved tons of material to the lake's edge in winters past. Relaxing at the lake gave each of us a chance to survey what nature had taken away and how the new growth was again changing the landscape.
As we traversed and climbed the ridges above Ghost Lake heading for the Norway Pass trailhead, discussions turned to who would ride the road back to Bear Meadow - none of us were about to ride this trail both ways. The final descent to the trailhead parking was full of technical challenges including switchbacks, soft ash, and water bars that looked like cyclocross obstacles. Those of us belonging to team gravity (you know, us heavier guys) found the soft ash a challenge. We would be riding great until we turned just a little to sharp and we might find ourselves laying next to the trail, rather than riding on it. As we regrouped at the trailhead Bob and I volunteered to ride the road back to get Jim and the van. Despite the surface this is a good ride. If there had been any rain at all a few days before we arrived I'm sure the surface would have been better and the first part of the ride would have involved a lot less tension. If you choose to try this ride consider taking two vehicles, leave one at Bear Meadow and one at the Norway Pass Trailhead, the road is not much fun and very steep in places.
A true mountain bike classic, that best describes our third ride. Knife-edge ridges, a feeling of riding on another world or the moon, incredible forest singletrack, and a feeling of foreboding. This route combines exciting riding with the best that Mount St. Helens has to offer in dramatic and unique scenery. This ride is rated for intermediate to seasoned riders and would not be for the faint of heart, but it is one of those "must see it to believe it" places in the Northwest. Most books suggest riding this from Ape Canyon up to Windy Ridge. We choose to do the opposite and found it to be what we considered the best way to ride this incredible area. While the ride in this direction is generally "down" it is not a downhill ride. They are plenty of uphill obstacles and challenges to overcome and it avoids the long climb out of Ape Canyon.
After riding out to the Abraham Trail from Windy Ridge we get our first glimpse of the trail snaking along the top of the knife edge ridge. With the ever present Mount St. Helens trail surface, and a keen sense of self-preservation (no, we are not part of Generation X and we do have mortgages) we road and walked along this entrance to another world. We watched what we are sure were steam clouds rising from the clearly exposed crater on the mountain and marveled at the Truman Trail far below traversing the devastated area that forms part of the dam for the new Sprit Lake. The views to the East and South are dominated with blue skies and the snow covered peaks of Mount Adams and Mount Hood. These dormant volcanoes are distant in sight, but standing next to Mount St. Helens we tended to view them with a different set of eyes.. We pushed ourselves and our bikes up two sets of stair/ladders, the first with 162 steps and the second with 110 (we were all amazed that Dave would even bother counting but now I'm glad he did) as we climbed to the next part of the ridge. After traversing a series of ridges that were fun and challenging, we arrived at the Plains of Abraham.
Riding, walking, or just standing anywhere on the Plains is like being at ground zero of the 1980 blast. You gaze in any direction and the blue sky meets the stark ash and grey landscape with vivid reminders of where you are. The trail meanders across the bizarre scene with stone cairns built to mark the way. The trail is easy to follow and as we spread out, each enjoying its unique beauty in our own way, I could see puffs of ash and dust in the distance as the others moved ahead. The vastness of Mount St. Helens on our right as we traveled kept drawing us to view the slopes and small snowfields as we wondered about the upcoming descent into Ape Canyon.
The descent into Ape Canyon is 5 miles of great downhill, wonderful trail surface, views of the adjacent mudflow, and a chance to visit with other riders heading up the trail. The views back at Mount St. Helens drew our attention and our conversation includes plans of coming to this incredible area again soon. We decide we have so many friends and relatives who should never miss this Northwest treasure.
Our final half-day in the area was spent hiking in the Ape Canyon area. Even if you are here to ride, don't miss a hike in Lava Canyon, the Ape Caves, or June Lake. As our riding partner Bob said, after living in the shadow of Mount Rainier for 60 years he never realized what the Mount St. Helens area had to offer. Neither should you, visit the other mountain!
Resources for the Cougar and Lewis River, Mount St. Helens area:
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
42218 NE Yale Bridge Road
Amboy, WA 98601
Cougar R Park and Campground
16730 Lewis River Road
Cougar, WA 98616