2-Day Bikepacking Trip in Cougar, WA: The Mt. St. Helens Epic
Want the GPX version of the map or just more detail? Click here.
A Washington (Almost Oregon) Bikepacking Gem
I wish I could take full credit for putting together this ride, but the truth is, I stole it. While skimming the interwebs for my next trip, I stumbled upon a little gem of a site: Oregon Endurance Mountain Biking. On it is a ride called the St. Helens Epic. After looking over the route, reading over the scouting report, and downloading the GPX file, I realized that this was a must ride before winter weather hit, so I decided it should trump the other rough draft rides in my mental arsenal and move to number one. My riding partners Andrew and Dan quickly decided that the October 24th weekend would do nicely for the ride, and the beginnings of what I would consider to be the best of the northwest rides I’ve done so far materialized.
Since this is a route done primarily by those few elite endurance athletes who think they can ride it in a day (I’d like to see that), I knew that bikepacking in with a loaded 50+ pound bike would be a challenging endeavor. This different approach to the route also meant that I needed to find a good campsite somewhere around the midway point of the ride (the 40 mile mark in this case). Leave it to the ever-faithful google maps. It only took me about two minutes to find what looked like campable material just after the 44-mile mark at a place called Badger Lake. Route check. Campsite check. What else is there, really?
Vistas Swarming with Fall Colors and Only One Yellow Jacket’s Nest
We all left for the starting point, Swift Forest Campground, on Friday, our new ritual. We used to take off Saturday mornings at the crack of dawn, but getting at the site the night before is way better, not to mention it extends the camping experience by one night. After setting up camp and catching up, we all went to sleep ready for whatever the morning would bring.
What the morning brought was overcast skies (ideal) and a slowly ascending forest road for the first 4 miles. From there, we took a gated forest road (NF 2588) for an additional 8 miles of gravel-grinding climbing. This again popped us out on another forest road for about a mile until we finally reached our first singletrack of the day: the Ape Canyon Trail. The Ape Canyon Trail was a beautiful forested ascent that gave us sneak-a-peek views of Mt. St. Helens, as well as some of the jagged ridges that make up the surrounding Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
After about six miles, we got onto the Plains of Abraham Trail; incredibly unique riding, since it snakes through the aftermath of the 1980 eruption.
The Plains of Abraham Trail eventually turns into a road, which we rode up a ways before stopping at a viewpoint for a quick lunch. Then it was onward and upward (or in this case downward) to the Boundary Trail, about thirteen miles later.
The Boundary trail was… meh. Since it’s a trail shared with dirt bikes, it was pretty torn up and loose, and often there were tight channels we had to ride through, made by the thick knobby tires of dirt bikes. I think we would all agree that this is a section you just have to get through, on an otherwise incredible route.
We only rode on the Boundary Trail for about 10 miles before calling it a night at Badger Lake. In total, we biked 44 miles and climbed over 10,000 feet in elevation, a new record for me. We set up camp, built a small fire, and then hiked up a nearby ridge to check out the sunset. The view from the ridge was disappointing. So was the fact that I stepped on a yellow jacket nest whose vigilante justice was administered not to me, but to Dan, who was hiking up directly behind me. He was swarmed and stung around 10 times on the back of his calves and leg. Sometimes life is so unfair. But on the bright side, he isn’t allergic, so at least he wasn’t going into anaphylactic shock in the middle of nowhere. Glass half full, right?
The next morning, after scarfing down some food and realizing we were all a bit short on water, we suffered on along the Boundary trail for another 5 miles or so before getting onto the Craggy Peak Trail. Although this trail is likewise shared by dirt bikes, it was less torn up and had some great little built in jumps for us, which was a lot of fun even when your bike weighs over 50 pounds.
It was on the next trail, the Wright Meadow Trail, where the GPX map provided by the St. Helens Epic site was just a bit off. After being on the Wright Meadow Trail, you eventually turn left onto trail 80B. The location of this turn, however, is marked incorrectly on their site. My map actually has the updated 80B route, FYI.
After some thrilling forest road gravel descents, we got back onto the Wright Meadow Trail, and then on the Lewis River Trail, which was the best manicured singletrack of the entire trip. It was midday at this point, and the forecasted rain finally decided to make its presence known. But a little bit of rain never hurt anyone, and we all still had smiles on our faces, mostly because the last bit of this ride was the tamest portion of singletrack we’d ridden the entire trip; a great way to end.
The last 7 miles was spent on NF90, all of us talking with raised voices to be heard over the hum of fat tires on pavement and patter of rain on helmets. We loaded up and headed out in search of the greasiest diner we could find. It didn’t take long. The first restaurant we ran into in Cougar was a greasy looking bar and grill; just what the doctor ordered. The rest of the day was spent reminiscing about the ride while listening as the steady rain cleaned the mud off our dirty bikes outside.