Words fall short in an attempt to aptly describe the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. It's truly one of the last great places—thundering cascades carve massive amphitheaters out of old-growth forests, sweet huckleberries proliferate alongside placid lakes, and sometimes, views of Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens are so triumphant, it's hard to avoid feeling a little emotional (or is that just me?).
Below ground, the topography is just as varied, storied, mysterious, and magical. Mount St. Helens is one of the most active volcanoes in this corner of the world, and thus, she's asserted herself as one of the most notable influencers on its topography. Subterranean lava tubes inconspicuously wind their way beneath your feet, surfacing for air, and letting in intrepid visitors. There are even some with a maintained circumference wide enough to fit a Greyhound bus for miles. Let that sink in for a moment.
The forest's namesake, Gifford Pinchot, is the surprisingly relatively unknown man who served as the first Chief of the Forest Service. He's principally remembered by the critical role he played in planting the idea of environmental conservation in the minds of citizens and politicians at an extremely impressionable time in America's industrial era. His conviction: "The forests should be managed for the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the long run." So, as you weave your way through old-growth forest, passing several logging trucks and breathing in the fresh, misty air, take a moment and pause to thank the men and women that work so hard to protect the important places.
As always, it's critical that every last person that visits these wild places leaves them better than they found them. Diligently practicing the principles of Leave No Trace is a good place to start.
Note: There is very limited cell phone service here, and many of the roads in the Gifford Pinchot are dirt and pocked with potholes. Be sure to bring along a spare tire and let friends/family know your general itinerary.
Two hours. That's what it takes to get to one of the most spectacular campgrounds in southern Washington. And trust us, it's worth the drive. Forty-three spacious and private sites await along with potable water, vault toilets, and a number of sites large enough to accommodate groups. Take note that there are no nearby towns to rely on for picking up forgotten necessities. Check, then check again!
Day 1 "to-do's": check into your campsite, set up camp, make a tasty camp meal, crack a beer, and enjoy time with friends.
We're hard pressed to think of a better way to start a day than with a strong cup of coffee…paired with views of one of the most beautiful waterfalls we've ever seen. No matter which campsite you choose, you'll be within a short paved walk to the observation platform overlooking Lower Lewis Falls. The best views come in the early morning when all other campers are sleeping and the soft, golden light ignites the amphitheater of cascades. Drink it in.
Then, a meandering 2.5-mile walk earns access to the middle and upper falls, which don't boast quite as much height as Lower Lewis Falls but are just about as spectacular. Glacial melt straight from Mount Adams feeds the Lewis River, so water is pretty dang cold. You'll quickly discover that there are quiet swim spots aplenty. As an added bonus, the banks are chock full of flat rocks that are perfect for skipping. What's your record?
Even though a 5-mile hike might not take you all day, we'd highly recommend bringing along a big bucket and challenging yourself to fill it with huckleberries (they are best mid-August to late September). Pack a dutch oven and a box of angel food cake mix, sprinkle your huckleberry bounty into the batter, then place your dutch oven into the fire for an after-dinner sweet treat that will blow your socks off.
If you find yourself with extra time in your day, take a camp chair and a book straight down to the river from your campsite and soak in the lush woods and quiet river. Even if the campground is packed, there always seems to be a swimming hole open.
Wake up early to seize your last day in the Gifford Pinchot. Truly, it's hard to find an ugly hike within this incredible forest, but the most iconic is the Ape Caves. It's the longest known lava tube in North America, and it's not for a person with weak ankles…you'll be traveling for over a mile on very uneven basalt. Don't forget your headlamp—get to the terminus of the hike (you'll hit a wall that's impossible to get over) and turn your light off…there's nothing quite like the profound silence and darkness. It's incredible. On your way out, don't skip the Natural Bridges Interpretive Trail across the parking lot. It's a short walk over fascinating terrain and informational placards that shed light on the area's tumultuous history.
If subterranean adventure isn't your cup of tea, a great alternative adventure is the short, super steep 2.2-mile hike to Soda Peaks Lake and back. The incredible basin is quiet, still, and privy to sweeping views.