If you’re visiting the Pacific Northwest, you’ll definitely want to explore Lava Canyon at Mt St Helens. Nestled in the southeastern hills of Mt St Helens, the trail is accessible for all skills levels and is a fun “choose-your-own-adventure” half-day hike. You’ll explore the beautiful two-thousand-year-old volcanic landscape, an impressive suspension bridge, and
- Distance: ~8 km (5 mi) return
- Duration: ~2 hr 30 min
- Pricing: Free, but you need a Northwest Forest Pass to park
Lava Canyon’s history
Today, Lava Canyon is a great hike with lots of rock formations and natural beauty to see. However, this wasn’t always the case. Prior to Mt St Helens’ famous eruption in 1980, the landscape we can explore today was buried beneath centuries of dirt, mud, and solidified lava.
Mt St Helens has been shaping the landscape around her for 40,000 years. Thousands of years ago, the Muddy River flowed through the area and slowly carved a deep gouge in the volcanic rock. When Mt St Helens erupted 2,500 years ago, the gouge filled with lava that eventually solidified into a layer of new stone. Over the next few thousand years, the new lava was covered by layers of mud and dirt. It stayed buried until the 1980 eruption ripped it apart.
When Mt St Helens’ erupted in 1980, snow melted rapidly on her south side and created a powerful mudslide. The rush of mud and debris pummeled through the canyon and ripped apart everything in its path. Trees were leveled and the newer stone torn up. Suddenly, the ancient volcanic rock was revealed and over time the canyon came alive with sparkling waterfalls, new growth forest, and impressive rock formations.
What to expect
The entire Lava Canyon hike is roughly 8 kilometers (5 miles) and can easily be completed in a few hours. The hike is split into three sections that are distinguished by increased difficulty. No matter which section you decide to explore, you’ll be rewarded by beautiful views of the dramatic landscape.
Even if you’re only planning to explore the short section of Lava Canyon, make sure to bring a small daypack with the essentials. It’s always better to be over prepared than under.
A word of warning: fatalities have occured here and many signs will remind you of this. The rocks can become very slick and treacherous, so make sure to always stay on the trail, watch your step, and be wary of your kids and pets.
Section 1: Easy + Accessible to Everyone
The first section of the trail is designed for all experience levels; it’s well-maintained and paved the entire way. You’ll follow gradual switchbacks for a half mile and enjoy interpretive signs as you descend 100 feet. The trail is quite gentle, although can be a little bumpy in a few places.
After a few minutes of walking, you’ll come to a boardwalk and a large wooden viewing platform. You’ll have a decent view of the Muddy River from here but it has nothing on the views waiting for you farther ahead. Once you leave behind the trees and come to a collection of signs, you’ve reached the end of the upper viewing area.
You’ll be treated to a great view of the river and canyon from the viewpoint here, although the best views of the upper canyon are actually down at the bridge. There, you’ll stand over a windy section of the river as it tumbles over the rocks and into the large waterfalls farther along. To reach the bridge, you’ll have to navigate rugged terrain by climbing into the canyon and over natural rocks. Reaching the bridge isn’t hard for casual hikers, but it’s definitely not accessible to everyone.
Section 2: Moderate + the Lava Canyon Suspension Bridge
The second part of the Lava Canyon hike is a loop that brings you on both sides of the canyon. Compared to the previous section, the trail is substantially rougher and steeper, but still manageable for the casual hiker. Both trails descend 400 vertical feet and can become quite slick from water or snow. Be extra cautious here and use your hands to steady yourself as you head down.
On the far side of the canyon, you’ll climb a large steel staircase and descend a ladder. You’ll also play peek-a-boo with amazing rock formations and catch glimpses of the Lava Canyon Suspension Bridge through the trees. The river drops substantially here and you’ll no longer be walking right beside it.
The middle of the loop is marked by the famous Lava Canyon Suspension Bridge. The bridge sweeps majestically across the canyon and offers unparalleled views of the two-tiered waterfall farther up the canyon. It was built in 1993 and 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 by two cables and sink a few inches with every step. It’s a bit unnerving but the bridge is in great condition and the netting and steel cable won’t let you fall. Even if you’re afraid of heights, it’s a fun experience and the views from the middle of the bridge can’t be beat.
Section 3: Difficult + a 30’ Ladder
If you’re feeling adventurous, the final leg of the Lava Canyon trail continues after the suspension bridge on the near side of the river. The trail begins easily enough, but soon it becomes quite narrow, steep, and exposed on the edge of the canyon. You’ll hike down roughly 1,300 vertical feet in the span of a few miles and eventually come to the bottom where the Muddy River flows out of the canyon.
The trail is less crowded than the others and offers truly incredible views of the waterfall as it tumbles down the canyon. However, the trail here brings you along the very edge of the steep canyon and can be extremely unnerving. Always watch your footing and use the cables where provided.
After hiking along the edge of the exposed canyon, the trail heads into the forest. The trail here is very rough and full of obstacles that can easily twist an ankle. The forest itself, however, is beautiful and a welcome respite from the heat. You’ll climb down a 30-foot vertical ladder into a small gully and walk through a grove of delicate trees that are reminiscent of a fairytale.
You’ll soon reconnect with the Muddy River as it flows out of Lava Canyon and onto flat plains. A bridge passes over the Muddy River here and once you’ve reached the end, you’ll return by retracing your steps. Make sure to bring plenty of water and snacks to keep you fueled on your adventure!
Try a Delicious Molten Nutella Lava Cookie Inspired by Lava Canyon
This delicious recipe is inspired by the volcanic eruption that shocked the people living around Mt St Helens. 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. Luckily, they also pack well if you need a refuel on a hike.
The Lava Canyon hike offers three levels of difficulty and is a perfect adventure for everyone regardless of your skill level. There is a fair sized parking lot, a few pit toilets, and a trail sign at the trailhead. There’s no water or food, so make sure to bring your own!
Starting from Cougar, head northeast on Lewis River Road (Road #90) for just over 6 miles. Turn left onto NF-83 with signs for Ape Cave. Continue on NF-83 for 11 miles until the road ends in the parking lot for Lava Canyon.