Mount St. Helens Epic (Weekender)

  • Distance

    79 Mi.

    (127 KM)
  • Days

    2-3

  • % Unpaved

    73%

  • % Singletrack

    58%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    97%

  • Total Ascent

    11,861'

    (3,615 M)
  • High Point

    5,291'

    (1,613 M)

Contributed By

Ben Handrich

Ben Handrich

Guest Contributor

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.

The Mount St. Helens Epic Weekender features around 80 miles of diverse and rugged terrain, connecting some of the Pacific Northwest’s most well-known and unique singletrack — including the Ape Canyon Trail, The Abraham Trail (Plains of Abraham), and the Lewis River Trail — and making an excellent weekend escape into the heart of Washington state mountain bike country.
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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.

  • Highlights

    camera

  • Must Know

    alert

  • Camping

    home

  • Food/H2O

    drop

  • Trail Notes

    signpost

  • 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.

Additional Resources

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.

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • mikeetheviking

    This looks GREAT!

  • Davin Spridgen

    oh man i want this in my life.

  • Ernesto Iser

    This is amazing!!! Any tips for finding where to park the car in case we are planning on going the same route? Thanks

  • Jered Bogli

    We rode this route late July 2016 and it is a bit of a beast. We took off early on a Friday and rode from Swift up to ape canyon and camped in that area, next day was up Ape Canyon and over the plains – simply staggering and EPIC. Maybe my best day on a bike ever, there are no words for the feeling. Everything up to the Boundary Trail was 10000% epic. The Boundary Trail is where it all changed. The first few miles were great, but then it got tough. Maybe the Boundary trail had more moto use or run off than usual, but we were regularly pushing out bikes up ruts that were top tube deep, simply absurd ruts. Then the section of trail around shark rock was full of giant fallen trees, on one section of switchback we had to toss our bikes over the same tree 3 times. We ended up camping just past where Boundary Trail meets Craggy peak trail, we took a spur down into an amazing little hollow where there was still deep snow drifts on the north side of the valley. The next morning we did a bushwack/downhill run blue lake (freaking beautiful) and jumped on the road down to Wright Meadows trail which also proved to be top tube deep ruts and tons of moto traffic, we bailed onto a fire road and ripped down to the Lewis River trail which was beautiful as always. We did two nights 2.5 days and given the condition of the Boundary trail we were pressed for time. I’d budget 3 full days of riding/2 nights. Have solid maps as there are ample bail out options everywhere if you can find them. A totally amazing trip, but trail conditions can monkey wrench a plan.

  • RJ Monton

    Anyone ever attempt this on a CX rig?

  • RJ Monton

    I mean… survived it on a CX bike. :)

  • adamgnewman

    More info on the St. Helens Epic. https://ormtb.wordpress.com/2016-st-helens-epic/

  • Chris Wilson

    Did you do this recently? How was the condition of the trail?

  • Chris Wilson

    I did this solo on 7/15/2017 – 7/16/2017. I wouldn’t consider myself to be a very experienced bikepacker (3 trips under my belt before this one).

    Here are some notes that might help some people…

    Day 1:
    I overnight parked (not camped) at Swift Forest Campground for $5.
    I started around 9:00 which was way later than I wanted.
    I broke it up into two days like the GPS track shows, camping at Badger Lake. As some others have suggested, the trail is awesome…until you hit the boundary trail. Then it turns into a bit of a suffer fest, particularly the last 2-3 miles. This was mostly due to elevation gain and the big ruts. I didn’t encounter many blow downs. I arrived at Badger Lake around 6:30 PM. Lots of bugs if there is no wind.
    I spoke with a woman who said the rest of the trail has LOTS of snow and LOTS of blow downs and you cannot see the trail. I decided I better get an early start the next morning.

    Day 2:
    Broke camp and was riding by 6:00 AM. The first mile or so the trail was clear… so I was thinking maybe the woman was talking about another trail? WRONG! The next 3(ish) miles probably took me 2 hours. The snow + blow downs made it incredibly slow going. Some areas I would even describe as sketchy (maybe ~6 spots) because you have to cross hard packed reasonably steep snow with your bike and the run out isn’t good… Once I got through all the crap it was pretty smooth sailing, though I was thoroughly knackered! Got back to my car around 2:30 PM.

    There was A LOT of hike a bike going on. I walked a LOT during the up hills…

    My Favorite Parts of the trip:
    – Riding along windy ridge
    – Bombing down the forest gravel road
    – Awesome views from NF-99
    – Lewis River Trail

    In Retrospect:
    – I have a Salsa Fargo running 2.2 Race Kings. I think bigger tires would have been nice.
    – If I knew there was going to be as much snow as their was I would have brought Yak Tracks or waited until later.
    – Lots of type 2 fun and even some type 3 fun on the boundary trail!
    – Wouldn’t do this without a GPS!

  • RJ Monton

    No I have not done it yet… I am wondering if it would be do-able on a CX bike.

  • Kevin Machtelinckx

    Hey Chris, I’m gonna ride the first half of this (the section from Swift Reservoir through Windy Ridge, down to what Google says is a paved road that is “Closed Winters”, but I think it’s FS 25). However, I’m going to do it backwards, i.e. start at the paved road, up to Windy Ridge, then down to Swift Reservoir). Looking at the elevation profile, it seems this would be a pretty fun way to do this section, as it kind of minimizes the uphill and let’s you do the downhill portion through what seems like the most beautiful part of this route. What do you think? How is the trail condition on this section of the route? Water available anywhere? I’m on a Salsa Vaya with 2.0 tires, which isn’t ideal, but I’ve ridden singletrack with it without much of a problem before.

    Thanks in advance. Looks like you’ve been knocking these rides out at a good clip! Hopefully with your camera in tow.

  • Chris Wilson

    Hey Kevin, that sounds like a fine idea to me!
    The first half is definitely the prettiest in my experience, though day 2 was a bit socked in during the early hours so I didn’t get to see much.

    ** Trail Conditions **
    I thought the trail condition was in very good on this section. I have little mountain bike experience so even navigating through some sections of the Plains of Abraham were a bit tricky for me with 2.2 tires. If you have some competency you shouldn’t have a problem.

    ** Water **
    I carried two 1 liter Nalgene bottles and a filter. I didn’t have a problem finding places to fill up. I think in particular on the Ape Canyon trail there are some good spots. Basically if I had less than 1 liter I filled up at the next water spot I saw to make sure I always had plenty of liquid.

    ** Future Climbing/Bikepacking **
    We should connect sometime this summer and do some climbing or bikepacking. I am in desperate need of some partners! Let me know if you’re interested!
    Have fun!

  • Kevin Machtelinckx

    Hey Chris thanks for the info! I think I’m going to do this in the upcoming weeks. And yes, I would totally be down to get in some bikepacking and/or climbing this summer. Send me a message on Facebook (same name) if you have it and we can talk plans. I can’t figure out how to send a private message through this Disqus thing.

  • Braden Lenny

    Just did this last weekend 7/22/17-7/23/17. Rode a Kona Big Honzo with 27.5+ 2.8 tires, which was so clutch honestly having big tires. My comrade had 2.0’s and suffered a bit.

    Same as what @disqus_jVi3kY3ZlU:disqus said, conditions are great up until you hit boundary trail. We hiked most of the uphill to Badger Lake. We left at 9:30am and arrived at 7:30pm. and once we got past the campsite at Badger Lake it was about 5 miles of climbing over trees and snow that took 2.5 hours. I ended up falling once on a steep snowpack and my bike slide and tumbled a good 30 feet, so be extra careful with your footing. Once you reach the descent it is nearly unrideable due to massive ruts from motorcycles and also more downed trees. This route is rated at 97% rideability and with the current conditions i’d give it more of an 80-85%. So, be prepared to hike for a big portion of this ride.

    Also, the horse flies and mosquitoes were absolutely terrible, so be sure to bring bug spray! There was more places to fill up on water than expected which was good.

  • Earl Patrick

    I rode this with a friend on 7/29/17 & 7/30/17. We found the recent trip reports from Braden and Chris super helpful (thanks!), so thought I would give a rundown of our ride in hopes it might be useful for someone else. We both rode hardtail 29ers. My tires are 2.4s and worked fine for me, though my buddy has a plus size bike and the extra width certainly would have been nice at points.

    We broke it into two days, camping at Badger Lake as suggested. Below are some thoughts on the various sections. Our mileage and elevation varies slightly from the published route as we took a detour to try and cut out some of the Boundary Trail because of the descriptions of it in the comments below. We also missed a turn on Day 2 and rode the full Wright Meadow Trail.

    Day 1 | 47.7 miles | 7776 ft | 11 hours total time

    – The gravel road climb on 2588 up to Ape Canyon was a pleasant way to start. It’s fairly exposed and could get really hot as a good chunk of the lower section is clear cut.
    – Ape Canyon was awesome with only a few short stretches and tight uphill turns where I jumped off to push for a second. We filled up on water at around mile 18 (we each had at least 4 liters capacity), shortly after getting into the Plains of Abraham area. The early sections of the Loowit trail were pretty loose lava rock and there were sections of it I had to push. I continued to jump on and off a bit all the way to Windy Ridge.
    – Windy Ridge offers the most spectacular views and is one of the best trails I’ve ever done on a mountainbike. I wished it was longer.
    – The paved road from Spirit Lake to the start of the Boundary Trail was closed to cars. We saw no one. It felt surreal.
    – At Bear Meadow we decided to drop down 99 and climb 25 to Elk Pass to cut out the first 5 miles of the Boundary Trail. We had dead legs by this time and were a bit scared by the reports for this section of the Boundary Trail. The detour was 8.4 miles w/ 1300 feet. All paved and the first 4.25 miles were fun downhill cruise, but I’m not sure if this really gained us anything.
    – We considered cutting over on NF-28 (2800) to Mosquito Meadow Trail from 25 before reaching Elk Pass. Mosquito Meadow intersects the Boundary Trail 2 miles from Badger Lake, but ultimately chose not to because we were unsure of the Mosquito Meadows trail conditions. It might be easier than the Boundary Trail.
    – The Boundary Trail is as hard as advertised below. Maybe harder. It’s a lot of pushing and a lot of getting on and off the bike.
    – Badger Lake is beautiful. We got there pretty much at dark and there weren’t many bugs. Until morning…..

    Day 2 | 34.1 miles | 2300 ft | 9.25 hours total time

    – It took about 2.5 hours to finish the final 4.4 miles of the Boundary Trail before the intersection with Craggy Peak. I lost count of how many blowdowns we had to huck our bikes over or drag under. There were still snowdrifts hiding portions of the trail that had be crossed as well. As hard as it was, the views are beautiful in spots and there’s a gorgeous high alpine meadow below a large cliff wall that was a highlight of the trip for me. Also great views of Adams, Rainier, Hood & St. Helens at various points.
    – Craggy Peak is not as rutted out as the Boundary, but still pretty difficult in spots. Lots of small drops built into the trail and lots of roots.
    – Wright Meadow trail has A LOT of tree roots. Lots. So many roots. We missed the turn at mile 56 on the published route and took Wright Meadow all the way down. SO MANY roots…..
    – The first bit of Lewis River feels like a magic carpet. Once you cross NF-99 however, the next 10 miles of it were pretty hard for me. The final few are smooth sailing, but this chunk of the ride was honestly much harder than I expected – probably in part because I was so worked from everything that came before it. I found myself hopping on and off the bike almost as much here as anywhere else. On a good day, if I was fresh and on a non-loaded bike, I think it would have been much more rideable for me.

    Overall, I would say it was super challenging but fun and I would agree with Braden below that, for me at least, it’s probably in the 80% rideable range and not 97%. The views are totally unbelievable and some of the sections of trail are as good as it gets. I would say just don’t go into it lightly. It’s hard. Super hard in fact, but totally worth it. Thanks to Ben and bikepacking.com for an unforgettable weekend!

    Our pics from the trip, for whatever they’re worth.
    https://www.instagram.com/p/BXN5C6Bg-ib/?taken-by=ordinaryorange
    https://www.instagram.com/p/BXPA5mPnlmzYJ6GmJKC7m-gpphdQPpWeh_3byM0/?taken-by=jasonfreed
    https://www.instagram.com/p/BXPAMFcH3sr-452QwuMDTFTeNwqw0VmHyttP6s0/?taken-by=jasonfreed

    I also found this map from OEMB pretty useful.
    https://ormtb.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/sthelensepicmap-ng-highlighted.jpg