Recently I spent a weekend in Cougar, South of Mt. St. Helens, in an area I've only driven through. Four of us stayed in cozy propane powered cabins that would have brought tears to ol' Hank Hill's eyes. Lights, heat, stove, hot water - all powered by propane, and incredibly effectively. I was expecting a rustic and chilly abode but it was much more like glamping.
While sitting around the fire our first night, Claire suggested we take on the Ape Canyon trail the next day. A new trail for all four of us, plus Mango the dog, so why the hell not? We didn't have internet, no AllTrails or WTA to check for recent conditions or reports, but we had Claire's uncanny memory for directions and a hiking book she brought with her.
Thus, I didn't know until a later Googling of the trail specs that Ape Canyon was named after a supposed Sasquatch sighting in 1924. Regretfully, we saw only hare and elk tracks in the snow. The area does have a perceptibly haunting quality to it, though. We hiked until the sun began to set and coyotes howled somewhere in the distance- that time when light stops filtering through the trees and you sense predators awakening out of daytime slumber. There's a particular sensation to the woods at 4pm in Winter- hard to describe, aside from the way your senses heighten in response.
[Note: if Sasquatch lore amuses or intrigues you, I highly recommend the movie The Dark Divide with David Cross]
The Ape Canyon trail begins alongside the Muddy River lahar flow, which is lined with new growth in every shade of green. After a few miles it transitions into one of the only old growth areas left at St. Helens post-blast. Gigantic pine cones littered the ground, and somewhere around mile 4 we began to encounter snow. Claire's book put the trail at 9.6 miles round trip, but most sites I looked at later said 11-11.2. It was a wooded, quiet, and somewhat overcast climb to the top. Once we got within about a mile of Ape Canyon the clouds began to part as if for us alone, exposing stunning mountain views.
Eventually the trail emerged out of the forest and onto a wide plain of soft yet jutting volcanic stone. The canyon was finally in view, along with Helens, Rainier, Adams, and a volcanic monitoring station. A fair reminder that we were in fact recreating on an active stratovolcano, hiking earth that erupted a mere 40 years ago. The sky screamed blue. It was frigid but fantastic, and fully worth the climb.
We stopped to devour sandwiches before turning back down the way we came. The trail's official end is about .2 miles further where it intersects with the Loowit trail, which circumnavigates St. Helens.
FR83 closes annually on December 1st, so we made it just in time to explore the area. I've always been someone who leans into over-preparedness for a false sense of comfort, but saying yes to trails and places that I know nothing about is becoming more common practice. Like my trip to Idaho this Summer, going after something with close to zero expectation makes it pretty easy to be impressed and delighted.
More blogs featuring the St. Helens wilderness: