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Lava Canyon

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This hike begins with the wide, paved Lava Canyon Interpretive Trail, which leads to a viewing platform overlooking a stunning canyon-a deep, jagged cut through a thick layer of ancient lava. From the viewing area, the trail loops down to the canyon rim in a long series of steep (for wheelchair users) switchback turns offering excellent views. The Muddy River cuts through the heart of this basalt canyon, which was scoured clean by the rushing mudflows during the 1980 eruption. The main Lava Canyon Trail continues east along the wild gorge of the Muddy River. You won't find grand vistas or sweeping panoramas here. You will find a remarkable lesson in geological change-this valley was carved in part by a massive lahar, or volcano-induced mudflow of massive proportions.

Start off your hike with a warm-up along the 0.5-mile-long Lava Canyon Interpretive Trail. This barrier-free trail is designed to be accessible to wheelchairs and anyone with mobility issues. The interpretive trail offers an excellent lesson in the awesome power of nature. Numerous benches line the route, offering welcome rest stops on the climb up the 8-percent grade back to the trailhead.

From the end of the paved route, head out along the main trail. The trail starts on a few metal stairs through the fields of broken lava, then leads across a springy suspension bridge. From the far end of the bridge, descend a steep 0.5 mile to the very edge of the heart of the Lava Canyon Gorge. A long ladder leads down about 30 feet to the gorge floor.

Walk the bottom of the gorge as the trail winds through clumps of fern and bracken and alongside the small creek. The trail soon loops back out of the inner gorge and continues down the valley, staying up the canyon wall above the inner gorge.

A bit over a mile past the suspension bridge, you'll find a small side trail marked "The Ship," referring to a tall fin of lava. A stand of trees atop the fin appear to be masts rising from a ship of rock. The spur trail leads to the crest of this formation, offering views of a series of small waterfalls in the lower Muddy River canyon.

The main trail continues down the canyon, weaving through dense forest growth along the steep canyon wall. The exposure here is extreme at times, as the path runs along the edge of the gorge now and then. Use extreme caution. The trail leaves the forest and bursts out on a broad plain of rock and flood debris. This is the junction of Smith Creek and Muddy Creek. Turn back here.
Driving Directions:

From Cougar, drive east on Forest Road 90 just 1 mile beyond the Swift Dam, and turn left (north) onto FR 83. Drive about 12 miles to the road end and trailhead.

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Recent Trip Reports

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There are 17 trip reports for this hike. See all trip reports for this hike.
Lava Canyon — Oct 05, 2013 — mandi
Day hike
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Gate is closed and locked at the Marble mt ski snowpark parking lot due to the river going over the ...
Gate is closed and locked at the Marble mt ski snowpark parking lot due to the river going over the road. We weren't able to get to lava canyon trail head. We still enjoyed the mt. We hiked to June lake.
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Lava Canyon — Sep 15, 2013 — RocketQueen
Day hike
Features: Fall foliage
Issues: Water on trail
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We hiked the full Lava Canyon trail after reading about it on this site. It was a wet day, but it ...
We hiked the full Lava Canyon trail after reading about it on this site.
It was a wet day, but it was not as slippery as we were fearing.
The trail splits are NOT marked as written up in this article!! After the suspension bridge, take a RIGHT towards the Smith Creek trail head. This is where the trail gets a bit hairy. It's a Steep trail that i would NOT take children under 10 onto.
The hike is SOOOOOO beautiful. It's really breathtaking. The river is cutting through the lava crust making beautiful waterfalls and views. Amazing.
Once you get to the bottom of the Canyon there's the 30' ladder to climb down. It was wet for us so the climb down was slippery. We never saw any trail or signs leading us to the ship or spur trail. At the end of the trail you'll see a steel bridge to your right, or a trail so the Smith Creek Trail to your left. We turned around here but i believe the Lava Creek trail continues on the other side of the river as well.
The hike back up is burly. It's almost all uphill. Be extra careful if you get tired, it's easy to slip. Go straight up the hill at the suspension bridge to complete the loop and head back to your car.

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Lava Canyon — Jul 07, 2013 — stoppinby
Day hike
Features: Wildflowers blooming | Ripe berries
Issues: Mud/Rockslide | Water on trail
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Superb hike down the waterfall-filled gorge formed of lava. Quite an intense challenge for those ...
   Superb hike down the waterfall-filled gorge formed of lava. Quite an intense challenge for those wary of heights! Take it slow and stop in your tracks to enjoy the views. There was some water on the trail in places, although not necessary to get your feet wet. The trail beyond the third bridge was too muddy to access the other trailhead at Smith Creek.
   Plenty safe ON THE TRAIL for children under supervision ONLY TO THE SUSPENSION BRIDGE! I cannot stress this enough. Beyond the far side of the bridge, the trail becomes a very narrow and somewhat sloping cut into the cliffside with no handholds. We encountered a fearless young teen boy, barreling down the path as if invincible, followed by about a six-year old girl and then Mom. One of our party got the girl by the hand and blocked her feet as she lost footing on one of the most severe sections of the trail. While she and her brother were undauntingly escaping certain tragedy WHILE ON THE TRAIL, Mom was warned to turn them back. Another of our party caught up to the son, to tell him to return to his mother, so Mom would not leave the daughter to wait on the trail while she would go retrieve him. After refusing an offer to hold her daughter's hand back to the bridge, she reluctantly took her by the hand and turned back. That was the scariest part of our journey, although it took me several minutes to initially get the nerve to climb down the big ladder very very slowly.
   We saw a chipmunk, several larks, slugs and a snake, a few wild flower patches, ferns and a variety of trees, and shared the trail beyond the suspension bridge with about 8 or 10 other parties, although we met no one on the trek up the Ship. The hike in is mostly downhill, but the uphill trail out was mostly shaded from the summer sun.
   Again, the trail beyond the suspension bridge is not suitable for children, or even pets, nor are bicycles allowed. The waterfalls and geological terrain are magnificent.
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Lava Canyon, Smith Creek — Jul 05, 2013 — Wobbly
Day hike
Features: Wildflowers blooming
Issues: Blowdowns
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This trip was absolutely gorgeous! We hit this trail shortly after going through the Ape Caves. It w...
This trip was absolutely gorgeous! We hit this trail shortly after going through the Ape Caves. It was a great day, sunny and everything was perfectly green.

It was a great steady hike, not too steep. If you are scared of heights I'd stay away however, first there is a really great suspension bridge that gives you a great view, second a ladder that you have to climb (kind of scary going back up since your boots are a little damp from crossing creeks) and there are narrow portions of the trail where you are close to the canyons edge.

So much fun!

There were a few blow downs that had been cut and actually helped in climbing down the steeper bits.

Only one portion of the trail is safe enough to get close to the beautiful river. The water is so crystal blue, cold and beautiful. Don't try to go in though! There are signs posted everywhere pointing out the obvious danger.
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Ape Caves, Lava Canyon — Jun 30, 2013 — Niko Niko
Day hike
Features: Wildflowers blooming
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I went up to the Ape Caves with a friend of mine. It was going to be a really hot day, so we were lo...
I went up to the Ape Caves with a friend of mine. It was going to be a really hot day, so we were looking forward to the cool 42 degrees of the cave. We chose to hike through the upper cave and then back on the trail above the caves.

The caves were fantastic! We took a bit of a detour that I don't recommend because the ceiling gets shorter and shorter until it ends. The wall was fun to climb. If you're nervous about it, then I suggest climbing up it, rather than starting at the other end and having to climb down it. Going up is a lot easier.

There are lots of ledges throughout the upper caves as well, and you can get up onto some of them. My friend and I got up on one and sat with the lights off for a few, just taking in the "cave experience." :) And there were no bats! Though I still don't recommend licking the walls...

After that, we drove about 8 miles up to Lava Canyon and did a short 1 mile circuit over the bouncy bridge of awesome. Be sure to hold on tight to your camera on that bridge. You can hike further on that trail, but we didn't since we had to get home. The rest looked like it would have been a blast though!

If I could have done one thing differently, it would have been to hike Lava Canyon first, then the Ape Caves to cool down. It was about 90 degrees up there and absolutely beautiful! Lots of flowers and blooming plants, as well as gorgeous views of the Mount St. Helens. Also - headlamps are the best! If you can get one, do it, because having to carry a flashlight while climbing those walls is harder than it looks :)
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muddy river lava canyon deep past.jpg
View from Base of Canyon. 2010 - T. Varela Photography
Location
Lava Canyon (#184)
South Cascades
USFS Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Statistics
Roundtrip 5.0 miles
Elevation Gain 1600 ft
Highest Point 2800 ft
Features
Rivers
Waterfalls
User info
Good for kids
Northwest Forest Pass required
Guidebooks & Maps
South Cascades
Green Trails No. 364 Mount St. Helens

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