The mist clings to the trees as we unzip our tent and let in the cool morning air. The fire spits, struggling to take life as we coax scraps of paper into the tiny flames. The world sleeps around us, warm in their blankets as we tear the packets of our sickly-sweet oatmeal. The crunch of an apple and crack of V8 complete our pitiful breakfast. As the fire slowly warms our tea, we sit back and prepare for a morning of exploring Lava Canyon at Mt St Helens which will test our resolve as we navigate the terrain.
Goosebumps adorn my arms as we pack our bags, ensuring we have enough food and water to keep ourselves fueled throughout the morning. We layer in the hopes that the mist will burn off to reveal a gorgeous sunny day.
We pile into the car, giddy with excitement over the lava-carved canyon we’re about to explore. The road is ours and reveals itself a foot at a time as we wind our way through the thick, almost suffocating, forest. We pass the fork for Ape Caves, the two-mile long lava tube that draws thousands of visitors annually. We continue on and enjoy the serene emptiness as we careen across the hole-studded road.
The trees briefly part and Mt St Helens gingerly peeks her head through the early morning fog. Like a magnificent mama bear, we’re enthralled by her beauty and the power billowing beneath her sleeping skin.
The ten miles pass faster than we thought possible and we arrive at the trailhead, ready for an adventure. We have our pick of the parking lot because of the early hour. I dig out our Northwest Forest Pass, the permit required to park here and display it on our dash.
Lava Canyon offers something for everyone
We begin the 8-kilometer (5-mile) round trip hike by leisurely strolling along an interpretive trail. The trail is well maintained, framed by a beautiful rock retaining wall. It’s lined with pavement and gently descends before winding its way along the creek bed.
The trees shrink in diameter as we near the canyon and we’re suddenly aware we’re in the blast zone, the area transformed by the famous 1980 eruption. When Mt St Helens erupted, the snow melted rapidly on her south face which created a huge rush of mud and debris that pummeled through the canyon, ripping apart everything in its path. Because of this, the creek suddenly had a canyon of bedrock to flow through.
As we walk, the pavement transitions into a gorgeous boardwalk where it splits around a tree before presenting us with our first view of the canyon. While the canyon is undeniably beautiful, it’s not quite what we expect. The sweeping valley — perhaps reminiscent of a small Grand Canyon? — I had imagined is nowhere to be found. Instead, a dried-up, rocky riverbed greets us. We continue along the trail, hoping for a more impressive vantage point.
As the trail gets harder, the view gets better
As we leave behind the first section of the hike, our disappointment is utterly washed away. The trail turns to rock, formed by lava thousands of years ago, and we carefully climb over and down it as we hike towards the rushing, originally unnoticed creek.
Plants are slowly breaking their way through the small cracks in the rock and we can’t help but inspect them up close. The sharp contrast between the foliage on the edges and the dark rock of the canyon is very impressive.
A sturdy bridge passes over the creek, which gives us an unhindered view of the water as it tumbles over the rocks and into a small waterfall. The bridge turns into a set of stairs as it ascends to the other side of the canyon. The trail skirts the canyon as it leads us through the thick forest and down a set of rock stairs before meeting back up with the creek. The difficulty change is apparent, yet not unmanageable for the average hiker.
The Lava Canyon Suspension Bridge
The suspension bridge, which is one of the major draws for this hike, timidly plays peek-a-boo with us through the treetops as we approach. We pass behind a large rock before suddenly coming face-to-face with it. The bridge sweeps majestically across the canyon and beckons us with its beauty.
Built in 1993, the Lava Canyon Suspension Bridge spans 30.5 meters (100 feet) across the Muddy River and is known as a Pacific Northwest engineering marvel. Each board of the suspension bridge is bound only by the two cables it hangs from, leaving them free to sink a few inches with every step. It’s a bit unnerving, partly because it’s only wide enough for one, but offers unparalleled views of the two-tiered waterfall farther up the canyon. The bridge is in great condition and we feel safe, if not a little scared, as we cross it.
Taking the road less traveled
After braving the suspension bridge, the trail forks; the left heads back to the boardwalk and the right marks the beginning of the less traveled and more difficult section of the hike. Because we’re here to explore, we go right.
The trail begins easily enough as it meanders through the trees and towards the canyon’s edge, but soon we come to a small stream crossing our path. It looks innocent enough, but as we try to cross it we almost fall flat on our faces. The rocks are extremely slippery and covered in clear slime which makes the footing precarious.
The trail narrows and skirts the edge of the canyon; suddenly we’re high on a cliff and I’m too scared to look over the edge. I slide along the inner edge of the trail and avert my eyes because of the dizzying height. I’ve never experienced such a fear of heights before and it unnerves me. Only on the return trip do we realize there’s a gorgeous view of a waterfall from this exposed section.
When the trail finally heads back into the forest, my mind is set at ease. The path is rough and narrow, full of obstacles that can easily twist an ankle if we don’t carefully watch our steps.
A vertical descent down a cliff
Peering over the edge, we can’t believe this ladder is legal within a National Park. The vertical cliff descends 9 meters (30 feet) into the canyon and has no safety equipment whatsoever. The ladder is only fastened by two anchors near the top, with the bottom jutting a few meters from the base of the cliff.
Surprisingly, the ladder doesn’t scare the living bejesus out of me and the hardest part is getting onto it at the top. It wiggles a little near the bottom because it’s not secured, though. The ladder brings us into a small gulley-like area and the trees block the sun, casting us into a cool, refreshing shadow.
We pass through a grove of delicate trees and a small creek trickles along the forest floor, transporting us into a fairytale. We gingerly cross the creek, hopping over flat rocks to reach the opposite edge. Our imagination runs wild, imaging gnomes poking their head over rocks and elves peeking from behind trees.
Ending our hike in the sweltering sun
Now level with the creek, we pass over one final bridge as the canyon ends, effectively ending our hike. We rest and enjoy our snacks before heading back. We’re tired, sweaty, and hot when we finally make it back to our car. The mist from this morning has long since burned off, leaving the hot sun fully exposed. We collapse into our seats, downing water and massaging our tired feet.
Twenty minutes later, we’re ready to do it again.
Delicious inspiration, Molten Nutella Lava Cookies
Inspired by the volcanic eruption that shocked the inhabitants of Skamania County, my friend Alexandra from The Globetrotter Cookbook has created a recipe with a slightly sweeter surprise. With a spoonful of nutella hidden inside, these cookies release a flow of chocolatey molten lava. Served straight out of the oven with a cup of milk, they’re to die for, but they also pack well if you need a refuel on a hike.
Molten Nutella Lava Cookies
- 2 cups flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup butter softened at room temperature
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup white sugar
- 2 eggs room temperature
- 1 tsp espresso poweder optional
- ¾ cup cocoa powder
- 1 cup dark chocolate chips
- 1 jar Nutella or peanut butter
- Coconut oil or other neutral tasting oil (canola or vegetable) optional
Spoon nutella into an ice cube tray (circular forms are best). If you are not using one made of silicone, I recommend first coating with coconut or canola oil so that the cubes come out easily. Freeze for a minimum of 30 minutes.
In one bowl, cream together your softened butter and sugars. This is most easily done with an electric mixer, but if your kitchen’s bare, get in your arm workout and beat together with a whisk or fork.
Combine eggs, vanilla, cocoa powder and espresso powder (if using it will intensify the chocolate taste). Mix well, then fold in chocolate chips.
In a second bowl, prepare the dry ingredients by sifting together your flour, baking soda, cornstarch and salt.
Gradually add the dry mixture into the wet, about ⅓ at a time, and mix until well combined. I recommend chilling the dough in the freezer for a minimum of 30 minutes for easier handling and chewier cookie texture.
Preheat oven to 175 degrees C (350F). Prepare a baking sheet and line with parchment paper.
Slam your nutella cubes onto a cutting board or clean counter. Take a small chunk of dough and form into a disk approximately 3-4 inches in diameter. Place the nutella in the center, and fold the sides over until it’s completely covered. Roll into a ball and place on tray 3cm apart. You will have to work quickly or the nutella will melt and become messy.
Bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes. The edges should be firm, but it’s normal if the tops are soft. Let cool for 5-10 minutes. Serve with a cup of milk!
Trailhead Location & Information
The Lava Canyon hike offers three levels of difficulty which makes it a perfect adventure for everyone regardless of your skill level. The Suspension Bridge, located on the second section of the hike, offers spectacular views of the canyon and the waterfall. Of the entire hike, the Suspension Bridge was the highlight.
To view more photos of Lava Canyon, visit our SmugMug gallery.
Distance: 8km (5 mile) return
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Trail Notes: Separated into three levels of difficulty, this hike is perfect for everyone
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