Mount St. Helens Epic (Weekender)
Ben is a High School Counselor, Vegan, exercise addict, and mountain biking enthusiast who uses the dark and dreary days of winter to dream up future bikepacking trips for the spring and summer, with a few winter bikepacking mistakes thrown in for good measure. Follow Ben’s blog at Pedals Packs and Pinots.
While the Pacific Northwest offers a veritable plethora of singletrack in both Washington and Oregon, some of the most scenic and unique riding can be found near Mount Saint Helens, an active volcano that erupted in 1980 and left in its wake a rocky, barren wasteland. While much of the trails surrounding Mount St. Helens still lack vegetation, new growth can be found within close proximity, and older growth as well as sweeping vistas of the Cascade Range are constantly in the periphery of the ride.
The route itself is part of the Oregon Endurance Mountain Biking series, a grassroots organization that puts together three or four challenging endurance-oriented rides each year. This particular ride gets very few participants each year, due in part to the demanding terrain covered along its route. However, broken up into two days, with a starting point of Swift Forest Campground and a midway point of Badger Creek, it works flawlessly as a bikepacking trip.
79 Mi.(127 KM)
% Rideable (time)
- Must Know
- Trail Notes
- Ape Canyon is a challenging but rewarding ascent with peek-a-boo views of St. Helens interspersed throughout.
- Abraham Trail and the Plains of Abraham provide one of the most unique landscapes for riding in the Pacific Northwest.
- Badger Lake is a great spot for dispersed camping, with little to no traffic even in the busy summer season
- Craggy Peak Trail is a surprisingly fun and thrilling ORV trail worth the pain and suffering that precedes it (The Boundary Trail).
- The Lewis River Trail is a beautifully manicured trail with numerous waterfall viewpoints.
- Much of the area sees relatively low traffic despite the aesthetic visuals provided throughout the ride
- When to go: The best time to do this ride is sometime between mid-July and late September, before the first snowfall hits. If weather permits, doing this ride in October is preferable because it means your campsite is free at Swift Forest Campground.
- Swift Forest Campground Fees: Between Memorial Day and November 30, Swiftwater Campground has an $18 fee for camping. However, after October 1st, camping is free, albeit no services other than Port-a-Johns are provided.
- Directions: From Cougar, take the Lewis River Road (Road 90) for 7.4 miles, then turn right on National Forest Development Road 90. Take NFDR 90 for 11.1 miles to arrive at Swift Forest Campground.
- Bears? Although unlikely, there are black bears in the area and if that’s the kind of thing that makes you lose sleep at night, consider bringing a bear bag to hang your food.
- Difficulty: This route climbs almost 12,000 feet of elevation in 80 miles, so it is not designed for a first time bikepacker. Instead, attempt this ride if you’re an experienced bikepacker with well-seasoned climbing legs.
- Rideability: With a few exceptions along the Boundary Trail and one short section on the Abraham Trail, almost all of the ride is rideable, it’s just STEEP.
- Swift Forest Campground is the most ideal campsite for this bikepacking trip; however, dispersed camping is permissible along much of the route if for some reason Swift Forest Campground is unavailable.
- Water can be found at mile 12, mile 43.5 (Badger Lake), and then all along the Lewis River Trail (miles 60-72).
- Not many food stops in the area, but Cougar has a couple greasy diners worth trying out if you’re not worried about legitimate food handling licenses.
The route starts at Swift Forest Campground and traverses gradually ascending pavement to forest road 2588, a primitive dirt and gravel road that snakes its way up to the Ape Canyon Trail, which is at the foot of Mt. St. Helens. From there, you climb over 1,200 feet in 4 miles along the Ape Canyon Trail, before leveling out along the loowit trail and Abraham Trail, all while enjoying diverse landscapes that range from dense forest, to new growth young pine, to barren rock, not to mention the ubiquitous Mt. St. Helens within view at various angles throughout.
The trail then turns to pavement for 12 miles before traversing onto the Boundary Trail, an ORV trail that is a bit torn up and VERY steep. This section will require even the most athletically gifted rider in your group to practice a lesson in humility and hike-a-bike, as there are sections of trail that are hard even to walk up, due to the loose soil and 20%+ gradients interspersed throughout. Badger Lake comes as a welcome respite to a challenging final few miles, and setting up camp near this lake almost guarantees privacy.
The second portion of the ride consists of a more rideable section of the Boundary Trail, followed by a rather hidden gem of a trail called the Craggy Peak Trail, which is an ORV trail that rides much like regular singletrack, with a few modest jumps built in for those bikepackers looking for a bit more of an adrenaline rush. Eventually the ride crosses over a major forest road before finishing on the best manicured singletrack of the trip along the Lewis River Trail, finally ending on pavement for the last 5 miles, the perfect opportunity to chat about the highs and lows of your trip with your riding partners and begin planning for the next epic weekend trip.
For a detailed trip report of my own experience on this route, see my write-up at Pedals, Packs and Pinots.
Oregon Endurance Mountain Biking Series has some good resources on the ride as well, although the map of the route is a bit inaccurate, so I’d advise using my GPX route rather than theirs.