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Merrill Lake Conservation Area - Kalama River Falls

South Cascades

Location

South Cascades -- Mount St. Helens
View map below

Length

7.6 miles, roundtrip

Elevation

Gain: 500 ft.
Highest Point: 2120 ft.

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Parking Pass/Entry Fee

Discover Pass, Northwest Forest Pass
 
 

There are two routes to Kalama Falls. One is a single-track forest trail that is 3.8 miles long and the other is a two-track road that’s 1.9 miles long. The forest trail is for hikers and horsemen, and the gravel road is for casual walkers and bikers. Both are easy to walk, with some elevation change, and both reach the same destination: Kalama River Falls.

Forest Trail

The forest trail to Kalama Falls begins at the Kalama Horse Camp off Forest Road 81 (closed from December to March but parking is available outside the camp). From this campsite, five Gifford Pinchot NF trails radiate. Take the Cinnamon Trail which crosses the Kalama River on a wooden stock bridge and ascends along the bank of the river, heading east for a quarter mile to a primitive campsite.

At this site, the Kalama Falls Trail begins south on an old two-track clay road. There is no signage but take the only route heading south as the old road wends past a few dispersed camping sites. At the south end of the dispersed campsites, the route becomes a single track.

After a mile on the single track, the paved Forest Road 81 is reached. Crossing the road, the trail parallels the river with a worthwhile spur to an overlook. For the most part, the tread is pumice, relatively flat, and traverses a replanted Douglas Fir forest (ca. 1999) with little elevation change for 2 miles where it crosses a gravel road (#7500).

Remain on the footpath (and enter an older forest) as it passes pahoehoe type lava formations. This smooth, stacked magma looks like layers of arrested molasses and flowed approximately 1200 years ago damming up a stream that created Merrill Lake.

At mile 3.5 the trail crosses road 7500 once again (near a concrete bridge) and enters an old-growth forest of Douglas Fir and Western Redcedar. The falls are a quarter mile south on this footpath. 

Road Route

A shorter 1.9-mile route begins at a gated two-track gravel road (#7500). The location is at milepost 6 on Forest Road 81. The road goes through the WA Department of Fish and Wildlife - Merrill Lake Wildlife Area. This road route ends just before a single lane concrete bridge. A sign leads into the forest where a 0.25-mile footpath goes to Kalama River Falls.

The Falls

Kalama River Falls is a two-tiered, plunge type waterfall, and a worthwhile destination viewed from two upper bank levels with an old-growth forest in the background. The geology suggests the lava ended here before it pushed further south forming the north bank of the Kalama River downstream.

Beyond the falls the Kalama River heads west as a wild and scenic river eventually reaching the Columbia River. The falls are active year-round, and the river’s origin is spring-fed McBride Lake on the south slope of Mount St. Helens. The Merrill Lake stream that converges with the river the bottom of the falls doubles the volume. The trails from the bluff overlooking the falls are primitive and difficult to traverse. 

The Kalama River Falls and trails are public access and part of the 1448 acres acquired by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) between 2015 and 2019. The WDFW does not maintain trails so the forested paths are overseen by the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington. The longer forest trail spans three land managers: The Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the WDFW land bordering the east side of the river. 

 

 

Merrill Lake Conservation Area - Kalama River Falls

Map & Directions

Trailhead
Co-ordinates: 46.1198, -122.3337 Open map in new window

Trailhead

South Cascades -- Mount St. Helens

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Gifford Pinchot National Forest

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Guidebooks & Maps

https://wdfw.wa.gov/places-to-go/wildlife-areas/merrill-lake-wildlife-area-unit

Getting There

For the Forest Trail:

From Woodland, take Highway 503 east for approximately 28 miles to Forest Road 81. Take a left on Forest Road 81 towards Kalama Horse Camp Recreation Area. Follow Forest Road 81 north for approximately 8 miles, then turn right into the Kalama Horse Camp parking area.

For the Road Route: 

From I-5, take exit 21 in Woodland and head east 27 miles on State Highway 503 towards Cougar. Turn north on USFS Road 81 towards Merrill Lake and Kalama Horse Camp, drive seven miles to a large, gated pullout on west side of road. This is the old Weyerhaeuser 7500 Road. There is no vehicle access onto the Merrill Lake Unit. Park here and walk in on the road. 

Parking Pass/Entry Fee

Discover Pass, Northwest Forest Pass
 

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Merrill Lake Conservation Area - Kalama River Falls

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