Finding the Abandoned Apex Mine
Date of Adventure: October 6, 2014
The Apex Mine had been on our bucket list since August. We attempted it the weekend before, only to get turned back by weather. With a sunny day in the forecast, we knew exactly where we were headed.
Money Creek Road is sketchy for the average sedan, but the Packhorse, our Subaru XV Crosstrek took it like a champ.
The trailhead is not a trailhead. It's just a wide spot in the road. If you didn't know where to look, you would never guess what coolness awaits. For more details on the trailhead and first leg of this trail, read the Finding Apex Mine Lower Tram Ruins page >
As cool as the lower tram ruins are, we swept pass them quickly on this day. We knew there was a lot of elevation to gain before hitting the other highlights. A very short trail cuts down to Money Creek just past the machine. We hopped across it easily. This is one of those spots that changes dramatically during the year. A few months later we would visit this spot and see raging water ready to kill.
Just across the creek and to the left, we found a small foot path up the slope. We took that and quickly found where the trail resumed. We also found something exciting: a puncheon road, sometimes also called a corduroy road. These wooden roads were a staple of transportation all across the early northwest. An area would be cleared and leveled, upon which split logs or planks were laid. This one was probably laid around the turn of the 20th century.
A few hundred more feet and the path widened further. This is likely the old road that connected the upper and lower tram sites. In our research we found the original plan was to have a steam donkey engine used on this path. However it proved far too steep for engines. Instead they modified carts to be pulled uphill by horses, and managed the carts with gravity and a hand-break on the way down.
We came to a very deep and narrow creek that cut the old road. Someone had kindly nailed traction strips to a log bridge. We've found this type of kindness in many places, including others on this trip. If the person who put these handy items in place ever reads this, I hope they know we are thankful!
Just a few feet later we saw the rusted wire ribcage of a penstock, or wooden water pipe used in producing hydropower.
Then we came to the mid tram site. It has become so colonized by plants, you could almost miss it.
At this point Julie made the mistake of saying, "I heard this trail was really steep. It sure hasn't been that hard so far." Not more than 3 minutes later the trail changed dramatically. Between the mid and upper tram, there were several moments when we considered turning back because of dangerous trail conditions. The first spot wasn't too scary. It was just a rocky seasonal creek crossing.
At this point we were out of the woods and could see nothing but blue sky and cotton clouds in all directions. We then passed through an island of forest and through another rocky slope. In this area we also found toilet paper. Why people don't bury it, we don't know. Next we crossed a much smaller stream and headed into heavy brush.
The brush along this stretch of trail has been trimmed, but it's sill treacherous. It's more of a mud slide than trail, with a very steep drop on the downhill side. Kevin takes one heart-stopping fall on every trip, and he did it on this stretch for Apex. Luckily it was a slip toward the uphill side. It was at this point we decided from now on, we will carry trek poles.
We followed this path as it cut across the slope through brush for little more than 600 feet before it hit forest again. At this point the terrain also became much steeper, and small vertical rock faces erupted from the surface. That's when we met our next challenge.
Once again we sent our thanks out to the kind people who had secured the ropes we were about to use. We stopped to put on our rubberized gloves, carried just for these types of situations. While neither of us was ever in the scout program, we like the motto "always be prepared."
First we climbed the thick rope up a rocky ledge. Then we used the yellow electrical cords to pull ourselves up through the forest duff. Believe it or not, it's actually steeper than it looks in this picture.
Once we both made it to the top of that section, there was a narrow and rough path to a clearing. Kevin went first. When he arrived, he turned around with a particular look on his face. It's a look we've both gotten to know well - it means something totally awesome has been discovered.
Once we were both out on the shelf, we realized we had arrived at the upper tram site. It was a bonanza of artifacts, including the tram pulley wheels and cart parts.
It usually takes a lot of imagination to visualize people living in these places. But at this site we found boots and gloves. Standing there wearing our own boots and gloves, it was easy to picture the miners going about their work.
Walking farther along the shelf, we found a giant crushed culvert. We had heard that two culverts were flown in here sometime during the 1960s or 1970s as part of an attempt to reopen the mine. This one had felt the burden of many heavy winter snows. When Julie peaked in, she could see it had once been a sort of cabin. A small wood stove, chair and bed were inside.
Beyond this culvert the trail curved with the slope. We couldn't see the creek, but we could hear a waterfall.
The water was coming down a steep canyon. Within the canyon we could see timber-crib framing. Based on our research, we think tunnel 4 was above this framing.
At the end of path was another culvert. This one marked the entrance to a tunnel with a 90 degree turn. We believe this tunnel was created to intersect tunnel 4 behind the cave-in, but it never made it that far.
We had trouble locating the path up to the cirque and tunnels 1 - 3. At first we thought it was just above the second culvert. Eventually we found the safest path to be just above the first culvert. The distance was not far, but terrain was very steep. There is no real trail, so we had to find our own way among the boulders and blueberry bushes. In areas like this we always make sure to climb side-by-side rather than in a line. That way if one person gets ahead, they won't accidentally knock rocks or debris in the other's face.
At the top of the slope, we could see the cirque, a beautiful glacier-carved valley. Based on historic maps, we knew the tunnels were close. When we looked carefully we could see the tell-tale features of mines. The very flat area midway up the slope was most likely flattened tailings, which is rock debris from inside the tunnel. Above it in that a dark spot in the rock crevice looks like an adit, or mine entrance.
Distances in this type of landscape are deceiving. We had to climb much farther and higher than we guessed to reach those sites.
Once at the flat tailings, we realized it was a landing for tunnel 3. You can see wood-framed entrance in this picture.
Upon closer inspection we saw that it was nearly sealed with debris. Julie was just able to shimmy through on her belly. While the inside looked very cool, we decided it was too dangerous to explore. If more of the rocks should slide down while were inside, our emergency contact would have to call search and rescue for us. And we would be lucky to be found at all.
We still had that promising looking hole up higher, so we climbed to it. Sure enough, it was a mine entrance. We had found tunnel two.
After gearing up we went inside. The tunnel clearly followed the angle of the rock we had seen from the outside. Just 100 feet inside we found a ladder, which appeared to lead up to tunnel one. As tempting as it was,we did not climb it.
Just after the ladder, we discovered the floor was timber - not rock. We could glimpse another level far below. Historic maps of Apex Mine show that all levels were connected extensively underground.
Back outside we thought we could glimpse the entrance to tunnel one, but the early autumn light was looking ominous. It had taken us nearly five hours to get this far. And this was no place to be hiking in the dark. So with a promise to ourselves to come back another year, we made the trek back downhill.
At the bottom of the cirque, just above the lake, we found the remains of the miners cabin. It was quite the climb between tunnel four and three, so it would have been nice to have an easier place to rest. But there was no aerial tram for hauling the heavy rock between the two, so we could only imagine how tough that job would have been.
Their beds looked awfully narrow, but we found fresh egg crates, and other food containers mixed in. Hopefully they got to eat well at least.
Thank you for reading about our adventure finding the Apex Mine. If you choose your own adventure to this spot*, we hope you will drop us a line.
*Entering mines poses many more dangers than hiking. If you plan to enter a mine - and we are not suggesting you do - then make sure you are prepared.