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.
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.
The suspension bridge
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.
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 view the trail and get directions:
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