Trail details updated June 2017. Lava Canyon is now open for the season!
Reaching an incredible view does not always mean a long hike, heavy pack or 2am start. In fact, many of my favorite views are located within a few minutes of the car, if you know where to look. Mount St. Helens’ Lava Canyon combines the best of both worlds with a viewpoint that’s almost perfectly accessible and the option of a far more extensive adventure that’s anything but quick. With stunning river views, incredible waterfalls and one terrifyingly awesome suspension bridge, Lava canyon is truly one for the bucket list no matter what your adventure level may be.
A Little History On Lava Canyon
Until the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Lava Canyon was apparently not worth much of a visit. Centuries of mud and dirt had filled the narrow channel we see today in but after the Volcano’s devastating eruption all of that changed as the Muddy River was redirected pushing the debris out of the way. What the water reveled is something I will keep describing as incredible because any other adjective just doesn’t do it justice. Seriously, today’s view (including those from that fairly accessible viewpoint) include jaw dropping waterfalls as the stunning blue waters flow down the canyon’s walls. All told, the hike to the bottom of the canyon plunges down some 1,600’ with river views at nearly all points so you can see why it’s a great adventure up top or far further.
Reaching Lava Canyon and Near By Facilities
To reach the canyon, simply head towards the South Side of Mount St. Helens along Lewis River Road / highway 503. As you near the National Monument, you’ll pass through the town of Cougar and then out into the woods. Turn left onto FR 83 which is marked with a sign post for Ape Caves / Lava Canyon / Climber’s Bivouac and simply continue to down the same road until it ends.
The trailhead is located at the very end of the road about 35-45 minutes from Cougar and while it starts out well covered by trees, you’ll find a great view of the mountain just a few minutes before reaching the trailhead (not to mention passing right by the Ape Caves and many other trails.) The trailhead is surrounded by a moderate sized parking lot with a few dozen spots, a couple rather well used vault toilets and an information sign. There is no water or food available at or around the trailhead and not likely to be any cell signal either!
Hiking to the Lava Canyon Viewpoint
Heading out from the parking lot, the initial trail is paved and well built to gracefully switchback down about 100′ over a half mile. There are a few bumpy spots along the way so do be careful if you’re approaching this as an accessible or stroller friendly adventure but otherwise it’s very tame going. Of course that does not mean you should throw all caution to the wind, bringing a small day pack with essentials is always a good idea even on a quick outing.
After a few minutes of walking, you’ll reach a large wooden viewing platform with a nice perspective on the Muddy River but nothing nearly as impressive as what’s to come. There are also numerous benches and rest spots along the trail as the upper area really has been designed for all experience and access levels. To reach the canyon, just continue down until you break free from the trees, a large collection of sign posts and warning signs will mark the edge of the upper viewing area.
From the top of the viewing area, you should be able to get a good sense of the river and canyon though the best views are a bit further down. Unfortunately the terrain becomes more rugged from this point on though it should not be a problem to reach the upper bridge for most casual hikers. Of the entire upper canyon area, my favorite view is actually just a few yards down from the viewing area at the upper bridge. Here you’ll stand right over a fast moving, windy section of the river with several stepped waterfalls that twist and turn as they head towards the bigger drops below.
Do be sure to pay attention to the warning signs and impart them to any children with you; people have died from trying to cross the river or slipping on the cliff edges so stay on the trail!
Hiking to the Suspension Bridge
The upper stretches of the canyon are accessible on either side offering a loop trail options which I of course suggest. Both trails are fairly rough, steep and often slick from water or snow as they head down around 400 vertical feet so be extra cautious hiking around and don’t be afraid to use your hands for a third or fourth point of contact as you go. There is no shame in backtracking around to the otherside if things feel unsafe.
Taking the trail down on either side of the canyon will reveal several incredible viewpoints with perspectives of the river as it continues to cut its way downhill. There’s a steel staircase on the far side of the trail and another viewing platform on the near side that you’ll encounter as well along with some tremendous rock formations and other natural features beyond the river. In late season, this part of the trail is likely to have some snow on it which gives the canyon an incredible feel though obviously ups the risk of a fall.
As the trail descends the canyon walls, it weaves in and out of direct view of the river until reaching a wide spot where you’ll find famous Lava Canyon Suspension Bridge. This 125’ long wooden (and metal reinforced) creation stands high over the canyon with the waters at least 100′ below if not more. The bridge was built in the 1990s and is an impressive sight and an even more impressive experience… if you like heights.
Crossing over is certainly a bit unnerving (or just outright fun depending on how you handle these things) as the wooden slats bounce around under your weight. Rest assured that there is a well built netting and steel cable hand-hold on both sides to keep you from going anywhere however.
After getting your fill of bridge photos, you can return back towards the trailhead from either side. I’ll generally walk down on the parking lot side of the trail, cross the suspension bridge to the far side and come back up that way as there are a few slick, rocky spots to contend with that are easier to address going up than down. Of course if you’re not a fan of the bridge, just return the way you came to get back to your car!
Adventurers: Continue the Hike Down Lava Canyon
For the much more adventurous explorer, a difficult trail continues beyond the suspension bridge on the near side of the river. While it’s not a mountain climb, this narrow, steep and often rather exposed trail quickly climbs down another 1,300 vertical feet over the course of a couple miles as it follows the canyon down.
It’s a rough trail that when wet can be extremely unnerving as you walk right along the side of the canyon much of the way and even the switchback design can’t stop some sketchy spots. Of course the view is incredible at times and far less crowded than the accessible trails above, just remember, that going down first means you have to come back up!
Even if you don’t want to go down the entire trail, consider walking a few hundred vertical feet further to get a view of the Lava Canyon falls as it towers over the rocky canyon and down several hundred feet. Trees and bushes have obstructed my attempts at a great photo but I assure you, the views were worth it… just be sure to avoid getting too close to the edge!
Once you’re done with the hike, return the way you came and drive back the same. On a clear day you’ll have a great view of Mount St. Helens’ along the road at least for a few minutes before you re-enter the forest. Bring a map, plenty of water & snacks and make a few more stops along the way back towards Cougar and home.