Best Hikes in Gifford Pinchot National Forest (WA)

Gifford Pinchot National Forest Overview

Located in southwest Washington State, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest encompasses 1,312,000 acres and includes the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The forest is bordered by Mount Rainier National Park to the north and Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to the south. It is also one of the oldest national forests in the United States. On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted and dramatically changed the surrounding landscape within moments. In 1982, Congress created the National Volcanic Monumentwithin the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, for research, recreation, and education. Many of the forest’s best hikes are located near Mount St. Helens. Recreational opportunities are endless. Sites are grouped into 3 ranger districts: Cowlitz Valley, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Adams. Although it is difficult to rank nearly 1,500 miles of amazing trails, the best hikes in Gifford Pinchot National Forest are located below.

StateWashington
Nearest Metro AreaPortland, OR
Area Size1,321,506 acres
EstablishedJuly 1, 1908
Hiking Trails1,475 miles

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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Best Hikes in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

(*** = best hikes in Gifford Pinchot National Forest)

Ape Canyon Trail #234 – 11.0 miles out and back (Mount St Helens)
Mt. Adams at Ape Canyon Trail in WA
Mt. Adams at Ape Canyon Trail, Photo by Jeff Hollett

Beginning next to the mudflow that traveled down the Muddy River drainage, the trail climbs steadily through a plantation of young trees before entering groves of giant Douglas fir, silver and noble fir. The trail then emerges on an open ridge top with views east into Ape Canyon and in the distance, Mount Adams.

Ape Cave Trail #239 – 3.0 miles out and back (Mount St Helens)
Ape Cave in WA
Ape Cave in WA, Photo by Jeff Hollett

Underground cave trail through an old lava tube makes this probably the most unique hike on this list of best hikes in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Visitors will need to bring their own headlight as there are no guides. Also keep in mind that the temperature below ground stays a chill 42 degrees. This is a great family-friendly hike for those with children.

Boundary Trail #1 to Harrys Ridge Trail*** – 8.2 miles out and back (Mount St Helens)
Spirit Lake at Mt. St. Helens NM in WA
Spirit Lake at Mt. St. Helens NM in WA, Photo by Jeff Hollett

Beginning from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, this trail travels along Boundary Trail #2 to Harry’s Ridge overlooking Spirit Lake. There are excellent views of Mount St Helens and Mount Adams. This is one of the most popular and best hikes in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. To add miles on to this hike, you can either start from the Hummocks Trailhead before you get to the Observatory. Or, you can continue on Boundary Trail after Harrys Ridge until you reach Coldwater Peak!

Falls Creek Trail #152 – 5.8 miles out and back
Falls Creek Falls Trail at Gifford Pinchot NF in WA
Falls Creek Trail, Photo by Jeff Hollett

The full length of Falls Creek Trail is 9 miles which will take you to the Falls Creek Horse Camp. However, around 3 miles from the trailhead marks a good turnaround point. Falls Creek surges over rocks and timber cascading from a height of 100 feet, creating a gentle mist below. Approximately 3 miles from the trailhead a large clear pool about 50 feet wide and 10 feet deep, provides a lovely picnic spot. Falls Creek Falls Trail #152A provides an alternative route to the waterfall and another great hike if you have some more free time in the area.

Lava Canyon Trail #184 – 3.6 mile loop (Mount St Helens)
Suspension Bridge on Lava Canyon Trail in Washington
Suspension Bridge on Lava Canyon Trail, Photo by Jeff Hollett

There are three sections of the Lava Canyon Trail distinguished by increasing difficulty. The upper trail is accessible and paved to a waterfall viewpoint. Below the waterfall viewpoint the trail becomes more difficult; it is no longer paved and skirts high cliffs. This segment forms a loop, crossing the canyon on a 125-foot cable suspension bridge. The lower trail is most difficult as it descends steeply into the canyon.

Lewis River Trail #31*** – 15.0 miles one-way
Lower Lewis River Falls Trail in WA
Lower Lewis River Falls, Photo by Jeff Hollett

Popular with mountain bikers and hikers the 15 mile Lewis River Trail #31 remains within sight or sound of the Lewis River as you ride or hike through this valley laced with abundant side streams, springs, and waterfalls. The trail follows a gentle uphill grade through a magnificent Douglas fir, western red cedar and big leaf maple old-growth forest.

Mount Adams South Climb Trail #183 – 12.0 miles out and back
Mount Adams Summit Area, Photo by Xpda

The South Climb up Mt. Adams is considered to be a primitive, alpine climbing route that only experts should consider. Even then, hikers will need to be lucky with conditions and weather if they hope to make it to the top. Most complete the roundtrip journey overnight as you will gain more than 6700′ in elevation in about 6 miles. Some take advantage of the relatively gentle slope to ski down. As you can imagine from the 2nd highest peak in the state of Washington, the views along the way on a clear day are unmatched.

Mount St Helens Summit via Climbers Bivouac Trailhead*** – 10.0 miles out and back
Mt. St. Helens Summit Trail in WA
Mt. St. Helens Summit Trail, Photo by Jeff Hollett

This trailhead provides the best summer access to summiting Mount St Helens along Ptarmigan Trail #216A and Monitor Ridge Climbing Route. The hike can be divided into 3 sections: a 2 mile wooded trail section, boulder field section, and then the last mile of loose ash. A climbing permit is required above the timberline. This is a non-technical climb but very strenuous; not recommended for beginners. Coming prepared with the proper equipment is imperative if you wish to make it to the top. 

Packwood Lake Trail #78 – 9.4 miles out and back
Evening
Packwood Lake, Photo by depo17

The trail starts at the end of Forest Road 1260 and climbs gently through old-growth. Two small harvest areas are passed within the first 3/4 mile, offering views of Mt. Rainier.  The trail then enters Wilderness and continues toward Packwood Lake. Within a short distance of the lake, the trail leaves the wilderness and descends to the lake. 

Silver Star Mountain via Grouse Vista Trail #180F – 6.8 miles out and back
Silver Star Mountain
Silver Star Mountain, Photo by Evan Lovely

Silver Star Mountain has some of the best panoramic views in the area. Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens and Mount Rainier can all be seen from the top. It is recommended to take the Grouse Vista Trail from the southwest albeit challenging and rocky. The approach to the top of Silver Star Mountain from the north via the Silver Star Trailhead is shorter with less elevation gain but you will need a 4WD vehicle to access it. Forest Road 4109 leading to the trailhead is one of the roughest in the state with numerous potholes and trenches.

Snowgrass Trail #96 + Goat Ridge Trail #95 – 13.1 mile loop
Snowgrass Flats in WA
Snowgrass Flatts, Photo by Jeff Hollett

Using Lily Basin Trail #86 to combine the 2 trails above makes a great loop through the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Snowgrass Flats is a 10-plus acre subalpine meadow in a bowl near the headwaters of Snowgrass Creek.

Featured Image: Tatoosh Lakes, Photo by Jeff Hollett

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