Adams to St. Helens on the Boundary Trail: Epic Extraordinaire

If anyone tells you they’ve cleaned every hill and obstacle on the Boundary Trail between Adams and St. Helens, they’re full of shit. This 50+-mile mountain biking trek is an epic on steroids, far more difficult than any ride I have previously attempted.

We started at Council Lake near Mount Adams on Tuesday morning and finished at Coldwater Lake north of Mount St. Helens on Wednesday afternoon. In between, we followed the Boundary Trail through the Dark Divide, one of the largest and wildest undeveloped areas in the West. The route takes riders over Snag, Craggy, Badger and St. Helens peaks; Shark and Hat rocks; Mount Margaret; Table Mountain; Strawberry and Langill ridges; Yellowjacket, Norway and Bear passes.

U.S. Olympic Team member John Platt.
U.S. Olympic Team member John Platt. Laugh now. Cry later.

The ride team and I were poster children for AARP.  My partners included outdoor extremist Brian Mahon, 49; former U.S. Cycling Team member John Platt, 50; and my incredibly fit brother, Dave, 52.

As Mahon described it, the plan was simple – “First, we’ll go up; then we’ll go down.”

There was no need to write it on a recipe card. The scenario soon became obvious. Start at 3,500 feet. Ride up to 4,700 feet. Ride down to 3,300 feet. Climb back to 5,500 feet. Repeat. Ad infinitum. John and Dave came up with a mantra – “It could be worse – but not much.”

I’ve been on 30- to 50-mile rides before. But those rides didn’t include these miles. In a 1995 book titled 50 Choice Single-Tracks, author and rider Michael Orendurff described the Boundary Trail as “a CAT tour – Constant Anaerobic Threshold.”

Has to be early in the ride since I'm still smiling.
Near Langill Peak. Has to be early in the ride since I'm still smiling.

Orendurff rated the trails in his book as Easy, Intermediate, Advanced, or Absurd. He tabbed the Boundary Trail as “triple-plus” Absurd. “The surface is all the worst of everything you could imagine -,” Orendurff wrote, “sharp rocks, big boulders, scree fields, washouts, blowdown, unrideable up- and downhills, snow late into the summer . . . complete hysteria.”

Under “trail conditions,” Orendurff warned riders to expect steep climbs or descents, narrow trail, loose rocks, and roots or large rocks “Almost Always.” Risk of falling off a cliff qualified only as “Often.”

The stretch between Council Lake and Norway Pass features 11 climbs of 700 feet or more, all above 4000 feet. Some of the ascents are so steep and rutted by motorcycle traffic that they are ridiculously unrideable. I pushed my bike so much I started referring to it as “a walker.”

Don't think, Dave. Just keep climbing.
Shark Rock. Don't think, Dave. Just keep climbing.

Orendurff failed to mention that there is virtually no water source during a brutal 10-mile stretch from Hat Rock to Badger Lake. We started the day with more than 100 ounces each and that wasn’t enough. I started to cramp up about four miles from the lake, and John was running on empty. We were fortunate the temperature was in the 60s.

We filtered water at Badger and staggered on to Elk Pass, where our support crew provided fuel and fluid. We gutted out the last 10 miles of the day from Elk Pass to Bear Meadows and then on to the trailhead at Norway Pass on the eastern edge of the blast zone where we spent the night.

No two trail guides listed the same mileage for various legs of the ride. We calculated the first day at 35+ miles – please note that these felt like nautical miles – with 12,000-15,000 feet of climbing.

Day two. St. Helens in the distance.
Day two. St. Helens in the distance.

It was very tough to roll out of bed on Wednesday morning.

There was ice on the picnic tables when we left the parking lot at 8:00, but none of us wore heavy clothing. We knew that exposure was ahead and that we would be plenty warm once we started climbing.

We hit Norway Pass and cranked on up to Bear Pass. From there, we ran into several large snowfields. We worked our way up and down through the Mount Margaret backcountry. It was challenging, but nothing like the agony we’d experienced in the Dark Divide. We passed Mount Margaret and the Dome, before descending near St. Helens Lake and pedaling up to the intersection with South Coldwater Trail 230A. The last six miles to the parking lot were all downhill, but I wasn’t thinking about speed. I was just hanging onto my bike.

Near St. Helens Lake. Mt. Adams (in the distance) was our starting point
Near St. Helens Lake. Mt. Adams (in the distance) was our starting point.

When we reached the trailhead, we popped a Black Butte Porter and posed for photos before diving into lunch and storytelling. It had taken us six-and-a-half hours to cover the final 16 to 20 miles from Norway Pass to the South Coldwater Trailhead.

Incredibly, we did not have any physical or mechanical breakdowns. And it’s a good thing. On the first day, we left before 6:00 a.m. and reached Norway Pass after 6:00 p.m. We didn’t see a single person during that time.

My therapist and I will be discussing the Boundary Trail for some time, although I suppose it wasn’t all bad. I got to see some of the most spectacular terrain imaginable, came away with incredible photos, and, even at 55, was able to survive the ride. That said, I have no plans to do it again.

I’m probably too whacked out to rationally estimate how much climbing we did during the entire ride, but I’d put the quad-popping, two-day total at 15,000 to 20,000 feet.

John Platt, D. LeMonds, Brian Mahon, J. LeMonds
John Platt, D. LeMonds, Brian Mahon, J. LeMonds

If you decide this is something you really want to do, be prepared. Orendurff recommends allowing three days for the ride, as well as a support vehicle to meet you at Elk Pass and Norway Pass. Also, no one is giving bonus points for riding obstacles. A broken bike part or body part will ruin the ride for everybody. There is no cell phone reception, so proceed with caution.

“Excellent physical condition, flawless equipment and sound planning are mandatory,” Orendurff said.

A little luck wouldn’t hurt either.

Postscript: I posted a review of the Boundary Trail ride on MTBR in 2006 and have received several inquiries from people who think it would be “a rad ride.” One rider insisted that he and his buddies would need only one day to complete the entire trip. I’ve asked for follow-up a few times but, amazingly, I have heard nothing back.

As I said above, part of it is luck. In 2008, the snowpack would have made the trail impossible to traverse in many places. Also, no matter how much you train, if someone in your group has a severe physical or mechanical problem, you are screwed because there is no easy way to get out of the Dark Divide. 

The final six miles of single-track weren’t open when Michael Orendurff took on the Boundary Trail in the mid-’90s. So, to the best of my knowledge, we’re the only ones who have completed the entire thing.

8 thoughts on “Adams to St. Helens on the Boundary Trail: Epic Extraordinaire”

  1. Great article! Amazing pictures. Just a slight bit jealous.

    I’m training now… I hope to be in good enough shape by the time I’m 55 to be able to do it.

  2. As one of the four participating AARP members on this ride I can tell you it was incredible. Stunning views of a remote backcountry virtually only a handfull of people see. It makes you realize we pretty much live in a “civilization bubble” within our respective communities. After this ride my attitude toward any other rides was…”it can’t be any more difficult than the Boundary Trail.”
    Great job on telling the story!

  3. I am interested in this ride. It looks extremely difficult to say the least. Do you think it would be passable this summer? AKA are there any very large washouts that are impassable etc. When is the best time of year to attempt it?

    Also are 4 wheel drive required to get to the passes?

    I think I met you a last year when we were doing trail work on the Smith Creek Trail on Mount St. Helens.

  4. I didn’t realize until later that we were very lucky to hit a window in late July. If we continue to get real warm weather, you might have a chance at about that same time this year.

    Hot weather would really take a toll because there is no water source from the Adams side until you get to Badger Lake.

    You don’t need four-wheel drive to get to Council Lake or to Elk Pass or Norway where we had support.

    I would do as much recon as possible in advance. Call anyone and everyone who might know what the conditions are. Because the Dark Divide is so remoted, only hardcore motorcycle guys usually get back in there. I haven’t heard of any huge washouts, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be problems.

    Keep you ride crew small but don’t attempt this by yourself. There is a high level of risk involved. No cell reception and no hikers trotting by to lend a hand if you have problems.

  5. Awesome story! I guess the portion between Elk Pass and Ghost Lake is the easy part.

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