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Trails: Ape Canyon

Ape Canyon ascent Phil Orlowski Portland Running Company Trail Washington Gifford Pinchot Mount St. Helens

This stunning trail on the southeast flank of Mt. St. Helens offers great rewards for a relatively modest effort.

Climbing through old growth forest with occasional views of the Muddy River lahar (a gravelly mudflow produced by the 1980 eruption), it gains 2500 feet in 5.5 miles, where it joins the Loowit Trail (which circumnavigates the mountain).

The ascent on Ape Canyon Trail is gradual but steady, and is probably more hike than run for many of us. The trail crisscrosses the spine of the ridge, with expansive views on one side of Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier, alternating with in-your-face views of Mt. St. Helens on the other side.

As you near the Loowit Trail you’ll emerge onto the pumice plain, a vast, treeless, rock-strewn landscape that will have you thinking you’ve just landed on the moon.

You can extend your run by following the Loowit a couple of miles to the next trail junction to take in the full effect, and realize how puny you are in the grand scheme of things.

This portion of your run/hike is open to the elements, so expect lots of wind and (hopefully) sun; be prepared with the proper gear, sunscreen, and hydration. 

Getting there (about 1 hour 40 minutes from Portland): Drive I-5 north from Portland and take Exit 21 for Highway 503, Woodland and Cougar. Turn right onto Highway 503S after exiting. Drive 23.4 miles to the junction with the 503 Spur, where you keep straight for Cougar. Drive another 12.0 miles, passing through Cougar and over the Lewis River Levee (after 8.6 miles, the road becomes FR 90).

Make a left onto FR 83 for Ape Cave, Climbers Bivouac, and Lava Canyon. Drive 11.3 miles, passing the turnoffs for Ape Cave, Climbers Bivouac, and June Lake, before turning left into the small, paved parking area at the Ape Canyon Trailhead. It’s trail #234 on maps.

-Phil Orlowski