Lava Canyon Trail Washington hike Mount Saint Helens National Monument Gifford Pinchot National Forest

With a name like Lava Canyon, you aren’t likely to overlook this trail in the blast zone of Mount Saint Helens. What can you expect from this hike? For starters, you’ll travel down a narrow canyon with precarious edges and exiting waterfall views. Then you’ll cross the canyon on a suspension bridge that bounces and sways a bit too much for comfort. If that sounds good, get ready for an adventure on this 1.25-mile loop with 250 feet of elevation loss.

Begin down a series of long gradual paved switchbacks that take you through a pine forest to the rim of the canyon. When you reach canyon, the diameter of the trees suddenly shrinks. This is the first sign that you are entering an area that received a makeover from the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens. When the famous volcano ruptured, snow on its southern face melted rapidly, creating a rush of mud and debris. The powerful mixture coursed down the canyon, tearing through everything in its path. When the river returned to its usual flow, it had a colorful canyon of exposed bedrock to pass through, which it decorated a ribbon of pools and cascades.

Lava Canyon
The top of Lava Canyon

You will get your first good perspective of lava canyon after 0.15 miles at a wooden overlook. From here, the pavement ends and the real hiking begins. Less than a quarter mile past the overlook, the trail splits. To the right there is a sturdy bridge crossing the river, which you will use at the end of the loop. For now, stick to the left, proceeding down the west side of the canyon.

Along the way, there are several signs warning about the danger of falling. Stay on the trail and away from treacherous edges as you traverse the canyon rim over the next quarter mile to a daunting suspension bridge. As you step from plank to plank on the suspension bridge, it will wobble and wiggle. This is not a good bridge for anyone afraid of heights, but the views up the canyon from the center of the bridge are worth the agony.

Lava Canyon
The suspension bridge

Lava Canyon
Lava Canyon from the suspension bridge

Once you make it across the bridge, take a deep breath and loop up the east side of the ravine. You will use a ladder and stairs to get through rock left here by older lava flows. After a quarter mile, you will reach the sturdier bridge at the top of the gorge and complete the loop. From there, hike back the canyon the way you came. If you would like to extend this hike, Lava Canyon Trail continues below the suspension bridge for a couple miles to a lower traihead, but becomes more difficult to travel.

Lava Canyon
Water flowing down Lava Canyon

Lava Canyon Trail is located in Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead. You may self-register for the $5 day pass at the trailhead. An annual America the Beautiful national parks pass can also be used in lieu of the regional national forest pass.

To get to the trailhead: From Interstate 5, 140 miles south of Seattle and 25 miles north of Portland, take exit 21 on to Route 503 East toward Cougar. After 35 miles, turn left on Forest Service Road 83 and drive ten miles to the trailhead on the right at the end of the road.

Trailhead address: National Forest Road 83, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Cougar, WA 98616
Trailhead coordinates: 46.165878, -122.088824 (46° 09′ 57.16″N 122° 05′ 19.76″W)

Use the map below to create your own directions:

Photos

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These photos were taken in September of 2011. Click to enlarge.
Nearby Trails
June Lake TrailJune Lake in Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
This 2.6-mile hike visits a small lake and a waterfall on the southern slopes of Mount Saint Helens.
Ape Cave Lava TubeApe Cave in Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
This adventurous underground hike travels through one of the longest lava tubes in the world.
Trail of Two ForestsTrail of Two Forests in Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument
This short nature trail tours a landscaped that was transformed by a molten lava flow. For extra fun, crawl through a 50-foot long lava tub beneath the trail.
Multnomah FallsMultnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge
This 0.4 to 13.6-mile hike visits Oregon’s tallest (and probably most visited) waterfall, offering something to hikers of all abilities.
Wahclella FallsWahclella Falls in the Columbia River Gorge
This 2-mile visits a sublime waterfall in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.
Washington HikingMore trails in Washington
Explore other hikes in the Evergreen State, including Mount Rainier National Park.
Camping
Mount Saint Helens CampgroundCamping around Mount Saint Helens
Beaver Bay Campground and Paradise Creek Campground are two of the places to camp a convenient distance from this trail.
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Distance: 1.25 miles – Elevation change: 250 feet

2 Comments on Lava Canyon in Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument

  1. Bobby says:

    Heading up that way to do some camping in about a week and we have a six year old. I was wondering if this trail would be appropriate for a family with a small child? It sounds like fun!

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