Friday, July 30, 2010

Smith Creek/Plains of Abraham/Ape Canyon Mountain Bike Craziness

While I was planning the previously mentioned road bike ride near Mt. St. Helens, it came to my attention that there is quite a bit of good mountain biking in the area too, including the IMBA-designated epic ride up Ape Canyon to the Plains of Abraham. Given that we drove to WA, it was easy to thrown the mountain bikes on the top of the car in addition to the road bikes we now have stashed at my parents' place.

This one turned out to be even more of an adventure :)

The original plan was to drip up Forest Road 83 to the end and do and out-and-back ride up the Ape Canyon Trail to the Plains of Abraham. We got up there reasonably early, and found a trailhead near the end of the road heading vaguely in the right direction, so headed off into the woods headed for the mountain.

Naturally, this was the wrong trailhead. I was a little suspicious right off as it started going down, but the apparent old logging road we were on in the forest was pretty and kind of fun with the occasional not-too-big tree down across it, so it wasn't until a couple miles later when we stopped and consulted the map after dropping 1000 feet that it was clear that we had headed off on the wrong track. In typical Anna fashion, I did not want to backtrack, plus I remembered from my reading about the area that one could actually do a loop, including the neighboring Smith Canyon trail with the Ape Canyon and Plains of Abraham trails. We like loops! Never mind that I also had a vague memory of reading that there was a general consensus that one should do the loop in the clockwise direction rather than the counterclockwise fashion that we found ourselves on. Never mind that we had seen the great gaping maw of a steep-walled Smith Canyon from Windy Ridge on the road bikes a few days before... How bad could it really be?

Note to self: Don't attempt new log-hopping techniques at the beginning of a mountain bike ride that is escalating in scope. Not even on weenie small 8" logs. I crashed hard and whacked my hip on a lump on said log at about mile 3. Ouch. Fortunately nothing worse than a big colorful bruise (I didn't know one could get a goose-egg on one's hip!), but it did give me the heebie-jeebies and slow me down a bit for the next few miles.

As the old road we were on levelled off into the canyon bottom, we intersected a trail sign indicating the Smith Canyon trail. Yay! On the (new) right track.


You'll see lots of pictures with me in them, as Chad took over the camera. All photo credits go to him this time :)

My reading of trail descriptions indicated that there was the possibility of some complicated route finding needed along the Smith Creek drainage, but fortunately this was not the case for us. The trail was generally pretty easy to follow, with well-placed cairns marking the creek crossings. There was only one instance in which we had to look around for more than a couple of minutes; we built a new cairn there to help anyone else coming through. Later, I read that there had been a work party of mountain bikers out in the area the previous weekend; I suspect we have them to credit for the good shape the trail was in so early in the season.

Me, crossing the creek in a spot where I was too chicken to ride across the big log overhead. Note the wacky oxidation coloring where the creek has run through the ash.

There were quite a number of seldom-seen waterfalls plummeting from the sides of the canyon. Most scenic.

The trail was still pretty gentle for quite a while, though it occasionally was a bit treacherous along the unconsolidated and rapidly eroding ash-deposits.


I knew payback time had to come though -- we had dropped almost 1500 feet into the canyon, and I knew the top was a couple thousand feet above our starting point. As the canyon wall at the top approached, we knew we were in for some hike-a-bike action. Surely not more than a mile or so, right?


Wrong. Steep hiking on squirrelly loose pumice for almost 3 miles, including one slid-out section where Chad said "This is just stupid!" right before we ran across the remains of an old fixed rope someone had left out there. That's gotta be the toughest drag-the-bike-up-the-hill experience yet.

I suspect we could have ridden more of the top section had we not been tired and hungry from the bottom section of the climb. Somewhere in there, we spotted the only other mountain biker we saw all day -- he was headed in the other direction (the "smart" direction); he assured us we were close to the top and we assured him that the route-finding at the bottom of the canyon wasn't as bad as some make it out to be.

In the end, we did quite enjoy the views on the way up, and topped out at the Smith Canyon Viewpoint on the road with smiles on our faces and sore tired feets. You can see the giant hole we climbed up out of in the background.


A short ride up the road to the Windy Ridge viewpoint followed by a short section on dirt road brought us back to more singletrack on the pumice. This section along Windy Ridge at the top was pretty spectacular, as one really was on the knife-edge of the ride, with close up views of Mt. St. Helens on one side and the canyon and Mt Adams on the other. And it was actually rideable. Woo-hoo!



You can see the ridge we rode along the top of in the background below:

At one point, the trail got steep again, but there were ladders installed to help our footing in the pumice.

There were still some patches of snow present, even in July, and quite a number of wildflowers. The singletrack was fun, and mostly rideable through this section, though I was getting tired enough that I wasn't taking any chances.



We quite enjoyed riding through the plains of Abraham, a flat section near the top. If it weren't for all the plants, the flat landscape punctuated by black lava rocks would look like a moonscape; as it is, it struck me as a landscaped moonscape with a volcano looming in the background.



After crossing the plain, our photos stopped. Why might you ask? It's simple: at this point, we hit the actual Ape Canyon trail that was the original goal of the day, and it so exceeded all expectations that we just rode it and enjoyed it. The trail wound its way through old-growth forest along a ridge that hadn't been blasted in 1980, and exhibited all the characteristics one might hope for on a Pacific Northwest trail: a curvy flowing trail at a reasonable grade on a predictable pine-needle and dirt surface through the big forest along the top of a ridge as it wound down the mountain. The silence of riding on the needle-strewn dirt after all the pumice was stunning. The bugs couldn't keep up with us. What an amazing descent after all the earlier work.

We finally emerged at the bottom about 8 hours after we started, having used up all of our food and almost all our water. We both cracked up on discovering that the trailhead was only about 50 yards down the road from the place where we had mistakenly started. In retrospect, I'm glad we did it the way we did it, for two reasons: (a) we LIKE loops, and (b) I find it easier to get the hard stuff like route-finding and hike-a-bike done and over with in the first half of the ride before anyone (i.e. me) starts getting tired and grumpy. That last descent down the Ape Canyon Trail was really saving the best for last!

The route and profile:
Somewhere approaching 25 miles and cumulative 3000+ feet of climbing, but this one really felt like more than that...

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