Wild and Easy
Pristine wilderness featuring lake after lake.
This is a sample of the best of Indian Heaven Wilderness. Three connecting trails form a scenic loop beginning and ending at Cultus Creek Campground. En route, you pass several lakes, circle a mountain, and descend through a meadow. Don't be surprised to spot wildlife (or evidence thereof); my trip included deer tracks, bear scat, a timid snake, a friendly frog, and at least a dozen species of birds. The route is well-maintained, and the scenery is varied, with many opportunities to pause and reflect on the beauty of a few of this 20,400-acre wilderness' 175 lakes.
In the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. From Trout Lake, follow Highway 141 west. (If you're coming into Trout Lake from the south, you'll take the left fork at the gas station Y.) Pass the ranger station on the left side of the highway 0.9 mile past the Y; reset your odometer. Proceed 7.0 miles past the ranger station on this road, passing the signed turnoffs for Ice Cave and Natural Bridges. (Note that 4.5 miles past the ranger station, Highway 141 becomes Forest Service Road 24.)
At 7.0 miles, reach a signed junction. Road 60 continues straight ahead; turn right to continue on gravel Road 24. A sign informs you that Cultus Campground, your destination, is 9 miles away, which is pretty accurate. Pass the first CULTUS CREEK CAMPGROUND sign without turning; turn left at the sign INDIAN HEAVEN TRAIL 33. (If you were to continue a very short distance on the main road, you would come to the trailhead at which you will exit upon finishing your loop. You will then walk back to your vehicle via the route you are now driving into the campground.)
Enter the campground. Bear right at the information signboard. Wind around through the campground about a quarter mile, until you find the signed INDIAN HEAVEN TRAIL 33 PARKING AREA. Turn right, around the pit toilet, to this parking area; if full, you may park on the road across from the toilet, just don't park in or block any campsites.
This trail is part of the Indian Heaven Wilderness; fill out a permit at the trailhead. It is open to hikers, pets on leashes, and stock when surfaces are dry.
Begin on an attractive, medium-wide trail with a soft duff surface. You will cross your first stream within a few hundred feet, after which you begin ascending, through a mixed coniferous forest. Vanilla leaf, beargrass, and huckleberry plants crowd the understory.
Ascend steadily for the first two miles, gaining about 1300 feet. After the first mile, watch for stunning views of Mount Adams to your left. To its left (north) is Mt. Rainier. The jagged, snow-kissed peaks of Goat Rocks Wilderness fall between the two.
Lupine flank the trail as you near Cultus Lake; tall, green stalks of hellebore let you know you're nearing water. Just after 2.1 miles, you arrive at the lake. Social paths lead down to its marshy margins, and square-topped Lemei Rock looms a mile beyond its far shore, to the southeast.
Continuing past Cultus Lake, you reach a signed junction with Lemei Trail 34 just past 2.3 miles. Lemei Trail goes to the left; you continue straight ahead. The trail begins a descent.
At 2.7 miles, Lemei Lake Trail 179 intersects on the left. Again, stay right. (Don't be confused by the sign telling you that a left turn will take you to the Pacific Crest Trail in 1.5 miles. This is true, but our PCT junction is straight ahead, via Trail 33.)
Continue descending; Clear Lake appears on your left at about 2.8 miles. Little trails lead to picnic/campsites along the lakeshore. This is the optimum stop-and-have-lunch spot on the loop, in terms of both timing and scenery.
Trail 33 reaches a T-junction with the PCT just after 3.0 miles; straight ahead, through the trees, is Deer Lake. Turn right.
Follow the PCT north, contouring around the west side of Bird Mountain. Small, marshy lakes lie downhill to your left as the bulk of Bird Mountain rises to your right.
At 4.0 miles, Placid Lake Trail 29 intersects on the left. At 4.8, arrive at a four-way junction. Wood Lake Trail intersects on the left (a pleasant out-and-back excursion that adds a total of a mile to your hike) and Cultus Creek Trail 108 intersects on the right; PCT continues straight ahead. Turn right on Cultus Creek Trail, following the sign uphill toward Cultus Creek Campground.
Just before 5.0 miles, watch for a little, overgrown spur trail intersecting on the left. Take a moment to poke through the grasses and branches; within 30 feet, your reward is a breathtaking view of Mount Adams.
After the spur, the main trail begins its descent. Adams is visible much of the way, as is Rainier. Sawtooth is the bare, rocky mountain in the near distance, directly north (appearing to the right of Mt. Rainier). The descent is steep in places, and the terrain is much more open, consisting of meadows dotted with small conifers and scattered deciduous trees.
At 6.6 miles, you emerge at the Cultus Creek trailhead. Turn right on the road to find your way back to the Indian Heaven trailhead, following the route you drove when you originally entered the campground. The complete loop is 6.7 miles.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication