backpack: Mount St. Helens – Ape Canyon & Plains of Abraham
Two night backpacking trip on the southeast side of Mount St. Helens, hiking in through old-growth forest before reaching a barren volcanic plateau filled with wildflowers in early summer
- distance & elevation gain to campsite: 5.8 miles, 1,870 ft. gain
- day hike options: Plains of Abraham
- best months: June – July (depending on snow levels)
- location: Mount St. Helens; nearest town: Cougar
- land management: Gifford Pinchot National Forest: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
- trail conditions: Ape Canyon Trail #234
- hike description: Washington Trails Association: Ape Canyon
- permits: none required
- trailhead pass: NW Forest Pass required
5.8 miles, 1,870 ft. gain
We started our hike in at the Ape Canyon trailhead. The first four miles are through an old growth forest with occasional views of the mountain scenery we were headed towards. Mount St. Helens was visible at the start of our hike in, enticing us to keep going so we could enjoy her splendor up-close.
After the forested section, the rest of the hike is open and exposed.
At the trail junction with the Loowit Trail, we headed to the right towards the Plains of Abraham camp area.
We were the first to setup camp in the area, so we had our pick of campsites. I was happy to find a nice spot with trees for shade.
The only water in this area is a spring that dries up later in the season. The water collects next to the trail in small pools on the side of rocky slope.
Views from our camp area with peaks shown using the Peakfinder app
We scouted the area for night photos of the Milky Way using the PhotoPills app, then we went on a short hike in the Plains of Abraham to get a preview of where we would spend most of the next day. After dinner, we hiked back to the Ape Canyon trail junction to take photos at sunset. A marmot was making its way through the rocks and stopped to watch us for awhile. There wasn’t much color in the sky for sunset so we didn’t stick around for long.
After a quick rest in our tents, we got up to take photos of the night sky full of stars with the Milky Way visible for a short time. Two of the brightest spots in the sky are the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Just before the moon rose, it colored the horizon with a band of orange. I’ve been taking a landscape photography class to learn how to take better photos and spent the previous two weeks studying the night photography section. I never thought I’d want to carry a full tripod on a backpacking trip, but it’s the only way to get shots like these.
On the second day of our trip, we hiked through the Plains of Abraham to take photos of the wildflowers. We were here during peak wildflowers – penstemon filled the normally barren plains with bright purple color, and surrounding hillsides were carpeted with fields of red paintbrush.
This year is the 40th anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ eruption. The tree trunks on the ground in this photo are from the blast, half buried in ash and still in the process of decaying.
The best light of the day was after sunset so we went back to the Plains of Abraham to snap a few shots.
The camp area filled up on both nights. Although I haven’t shown it in the photos for this trip, we saw a LOT of people all weekend. Day hikers, backpackers and trail runners doing the full Loowit loop around the mountain, and tons of mountain bikers. We probably saw at least 100 people over two days.
There was a 10 percent chance of rain on our last night and the next day, so of course it rained. It started around 4:00 am and continued off and on until around 11:00 am so we waited it out, cooking breakfast in our vestibules and taking our time to get packed up. When it finally let up, we hiked out. Foggy conditions in the exposed areas gave the area a surreal feel. Once we reached the forested section, the fog cleared out and we had no rain for the remainder of our hike.
Overall, I was blown away by the scenery on this trip and plan to return again to explore more of this area.