St Helens Ape Canyon- Windy Ridge- Smith Creek- Lava Canyon loop

Lupines-eye-view of Mt St Helens

Mt St Helens is beautiful, distinctive, and convenient from Portland. But its circumnavigating trail, Loowit, is... well, too much. Despite being shorter, the one time we did it, it took about the same time to run as Timberline around Mt Hood. The rocky lava fields to start, the lack of water, the relentless exposure, and the numerous washouts at the end of our clockwise route made me not want to do it again anytime soon. 

Slot rock near the junction with Plains of Abraham

This loop on St Helens' east side, however, is much nicer. The first/previous time we ran this, back in 2014, we got lost when the very obvious trail suddenly dumped us into Smith Creek. We followed mountain bike tracks in an attempt to figure out where we were supposed to go, and spent about an hour in the creek bed, searching for the trail. 

Ann tying her shoe at a rock cairn

This time, despite a cloudy start and high winds around the aptly named Windy Ridge that made us cold enough to put on long sleeves, we had a great time because we knew what we were doing and didn't get lost. Also, the wildflowers were spectacular.

Red paintbrushes match Susan pointing at the mountain

This time, when the trail disappeared, we headed toward the west bank of the creek, crossed at a massive, convenient log, and scaled a short, ridiculously steep, sandy cliff to catch up the trail again. This section of Smith Creek Trail might be my favorite of the loop. It feels like an old forest road: wide and flat, nicely graded, bordered by aspen trees on one side. There are a number of steams that make for great water sources.

Windy Ridge view of the trail ahead

At the junction with Lava Canyon Trail, conditions got dusty and rocky again. Seeing the wide-open washout of the Muddy River gave me some anxiety that we'd have to cross it-- luckily that's not true. We started to see more people: proof that we were getting close to the trailhead. 

These ladder/stairs make the descent reasonable

A lush, wooded section of this trail has lots of offshoots to vantage points, all of which we explored last time. This time, we ignored them, knowing that the loud sounds of rushing water belie the rather disappointingly blocked views. Plus, it let us skip one of the ladders-- the main 30-foot one is enough for any trail!

The beautiful Spirit Lake

I was sad to see the suspension bridge closed-- although it's due to damage, not the current global pandemic, so I am perfectly fine with not using a damaged bridge strung high above a rocky canyon. Instead of the delightful loop that crosses back and forth over the clear water of the Muddy River, we had to take the other side, which features a neat series of wooden walkways. After a handful of switchbacks and we were at the Lava Canyon trailhead-- with just 1/10th of a mile on the road to our start at the Ape Canyon trailhead. It was a perfect, not-too-hot day filled with wildflowers, peekaboo mountains, and great company. 

Log jam in Spirit Lake

Green valley, hidden mountain

A cloudy view of Mt Adams

Crossing an idyllic stream under foxgloves

First view of Smith Creek and a spectacular waterfall

Ann crossing Smith Creek

Remnants of an old bridge across the Muddy River

Part of the rather intense Lava Canyon Trail

Big waterfall signals we're near the end

Finished, back at the start

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