From Evergreen Trail Guide
This is an epic ride with some unique scenery, difficult and interesting routefinding, varied terrain, and a wild sense of remoteness. It's a 23 to 26 mile (round-trip) ride with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. There were two ways to do this ride--starting from either the top of Smith Creek Trail(near Windy Ridge viewpoint) or from the bottom of Ape Canyon Trail.
If beginning with Smith Creek, you start by descending into the Smith Creek drainage on a steep, rocky and easy to lose trail roughly following the creek through dangerous and unstable washouts and river crossings. There is a dangerous 50 foot washed out section of trail between Smith Creek and Ape Canyon creek that goes across an unstable ridge, with sharp drops off to either creek on both sides. Parts of the trail are on old overgrown logging roads and THEN there is the bust out climb (1,300 ft) up to the start of the Ape Canyon Trail. Then you take this trail up and finally cross the Plains of Abraham. A few miles of road riding and you are back to the car.
How to find it
Smith Creek Trailhead
I-5 to Route 12 East to Randle to SR-131 South. Then basically, follow the signs to Mt. Saint Helens and the Windy Ridge Viewpoint (FS road #25 to FS road #99). 2 miles before the Windy Ridge Viewpoint see the trailhead and parking on the left. (Note: the Smith Creek viewpoint with bathroom and the trailhead are two separate pull-outs.)
Ape Canyon Trailhead
I-5 to 503 East to Cougar. From Cougar 503 becomes the Lewis River Road which becomes FS Road #90. Turn left on FS Road #83 and follow it to the end. The Ape Creek trailhead and Lava Canyon trailhead are separate paved spurs at the end of FR-83. You want to bear onto the spur that goes left to find the (signed) trail entrance. This takes 1.5 to 2 hours driving time from I-5.
Smith Creek trail #225 is often narrow, has some exposure, and lots of loose pumice. Beware of tumbles, perhaps wear long sleeves + tights here. No shade.
Ape Canyon trail is generally buff and forested. Plains of Abe trail goes through pumice but is mostly flat and mostly easy to ride. There's one stretch of stairs to get down steep pumice slopes.
7/16/12 Snow free and in good condition. Smith creek crossings straightforward, narrow ridge still difficult. Ape canyon and plains of abraham in great condition.
Lots of recent trailwork, so it's impossible to get lost. Upper pumice section is extremely loose. R1de 22:54, 27 August 2011 (PDT)
This ride can be done two ways, either starting with Smith Creek or with Ape Canyon.
Smith Creek Trail
Start at the upper Smith Creek trailhead on FS Rd 99. The crux for this ride is getting down to the river. The steep pumiced trail is thin in places and non-existent in others. Seems like you never quite make it all the way to the valley but after about 4 miles you will hit a fork of Smith Creek. This next part is riding between forks of the river and is fun and more like a regular trail. However, there is a very dangerous washed out section between the two forks that travels approximately 50 feet over a very unstable ridge with very steep dropoffs on either side. There are no ropes here - just you, your bike, and gravity pulling. This is the worst part of the trail, and it is dangerous enough that you might want to consider not riding this trail. After 5 miles you will cross the main fork of Smith Creek and the trail becomes more technical and harder to follow. Just keep your eyes open looking for flags and cairns. As you cross Ape Creek Canyon keep looking for the trail on the other side before slogging across. Route finding is very challenging here. At about 7 miles the trail becomes a regular easy to follow trail. At 8 miles you will hit an old road and the trail becomes even becomes fast.
Here's where this description differs from the Zilly book. There is a "secret" trail/road out of the canyon. It will shave 3 miles off the road grind and some of the elevation too. When you empty out onto the WIDE overgrown road (past the stretch of old road in the alders that you follow for a few miles after Ape Canyon Creek) in the "grassy section" look for an old road to the right -- you will see a large cairn with a stick -- this marks the start of the trail -- it is VERY indistinct at first although there is a temporary orange sign to mark it presently (like riding into a big field) but as soon as you enter the trees (few hundred yards) it becomes A LOT more pronounced - you follow this old roadbed (in great riding shape, BTW) for 3.2 miles and 1,300 feet. When it ends at the road - make a right and you are 50 feet from the Ape Creek Canyon parking lot. This old roadbed may appear on some maps. (It's on the USGS topo (in Topo!), but not on the Green Trails map.)
The other alternative (Zilly) is to continue on the wide road until you hit the confluence of Lava Canyon creek and Smith creek. Do NOT ford the river to get to FS road #8322, instead use the bridge! Fording the river can be dangerous, it displeases the forest service, and you will lose bragging rights to say you completed the ride if you skip the section with the bridge. You will descend on this before you eventually climb out of the Smith Creek valley. When you hit FS road #83 turn right to the Ape Canyon trailhead; take the paved split to the left to find the Ape Canyon trail. If you get to the Lava Canyon TH, backtrack to the paved turnoff.
Ape Canyon/Plains of Abraham/Windy Ridge
See Ape Canyon for more information.
The trail climbs in forest for about 4 miles then it breaks out onto the Plains of Abraham. Good luck trying to stay on the trail as the views keep getting better and better. Stay on the main trail and finally reach a crossroads at 6 or 7 miles. Some use this as an out and back turn around but there is still lots to see and experience so keep going! This new trail (#216) is slightly more technical with some ups and downs until you reach a knife edged ridge. Enjoy the run down this ridge and you will come to the stairs. Once you reach the dirt road turn right for 2 miles of very gradual uphill. You should now be at the Windy Ridge Viewpoint. Retrace your steps back to the car 22 miles round trip, or continue on to Smith Creek to do the full loop.
Download the KML file here: File:Smith creek.kml
Local Points of Interest
There were different ideas about how to do this loop. Should you start at Smith Creek or Ape Canyon? If you live in Seattle, the advantage to starting at Smith Creek is you'll probably save about 2 hours of driving. But an Ape Canyon Trail start will get most of the climbing out of the way early on. You'll be cooler crossing the Plains of Abraham in the morning. You can camp and do the Lewis River ride another day. Either way, this is a worthy adventure ride.
Do not expect to have cellular phone service in any of the remote sections of these trails. There is an emergency telephone at Windy Ridge. Expect to be self sufficient on this trail.
In 2005, the Pedal the Pinchot tour had Smith Creek as one of it's mountain bike rides. Right before the ride they did quite a bit of trailwork and flagging. In recent years, trailwork here has been done via partnerships with Evergreen, NWTA, Growlers Gulch, Mt St Helens Institute.
An overview map of the area may be found at US Forest Service Maps & Publications
Senator Maria Cantwell has proposed turning Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument (administered by the Forest Service) into a National Park. PUMP, IMBA and BBTC have been actively working with our Congressional delegation to ensure that whether Mount Saint Helens becomes a National Park, or not, all existing mountain bike access is maintained. See Mount St. Helens for more information.