Dan and Hannah Hike Lava Canyon in Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument, Washington


After a morning hike of Ape Canyon (August 24, 2013 blog), we drive just a half mile to the parking area for our hike into Lava Canyon.  At noon, ten to twelve cars and RVs are already in the parking area, which charges $5 per vehicle per day.  Having Senior Passes (one is eligible at 62) for all National Parks, we get in free.  Ah, to be 65!

Lava Canyon trail

Lava Canyon trail

In the Volcano Review, A Visitor’s Guide to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, we learn that the Lava Canyon Trail explores an area scoured by mudflows from the eruption of Mount St. Helens back in 1980.  There are three sections to this trail for all levels of hikers: (1) a paved wheelchair accessible path, (2) an enjoyable packed dirt trail along the canyon which includes a walk across a suspension bridge, which the guidebook describes as exhilarating, and (3) the hike from hell.

Lava Canyon story

Lava Canyon story

Section 1:  With plenty of fellow tourists, we take to the switchbacks of the paved first half mile.  The descent is significant, but the switchbacks make it easy on our knees that have long since given up running (which we did for 30 years).

Into Lava Canyon

Into Lava Canyon

The overcast sky is lightening, but we will not see Mount St. Helens today.

Section 2:  After climbing along the canyon-side trail, where we never felt threatened or ill at ease, we see the suspension bridge across the steep canyon.  The guide book says this suspension bridge is not recommended for those afraid of heights.  Dan steps fearlessly forward for what he hopes is an exhilarating experience.

The first video (45 second) records our first steps on the suspension bridge.  Click on this YouTube link below.


 The second video (46 seconds) completes the harrowing crossing across the abyss.  One hand on the rail and one on my iPhone, I am showing my faith in this suspension bridge architect.  Click on this YouTube link below.

View from the Suspension Bridge

View from the Suspension Bridge

Section 3: At this point we decide not to hike the final part of the trail.  The guide pamphlet says DANGER – Stay on this trail.  People that have left the trail have been swept over the falls to their deaths.   Here’s a review that confirmed our decision.

After crossing the suspension bridge we did turn right where the sign posted says “difficult.”  It really should have read “treacherous.”  There was one spot in particular where the narrow trail was so slippery with loose rock/sand that keeping one’s traction without sliding off the cliff was tough and pretty nerve-wracking.  Our grandsons can certainly handle a “difficult” trail without a problem.  However, in hindsight, I wish we had not taken them there…I rated the trail conditions poor only because of a couple sections where your personal safety is truly comprised.

Fortunately, we turn back up river.

Completing the second section loop going back up the canyon

Completing the second section loop going back up the canyon to the trailhead

These first two sections of the trail are a leisurely loop of 45 minutes tops.

The erupting Mt. St. Helens redirected the river down this canyon.  The eruption melted 70% of the mountains glaciers in an instant and scoured the canyon to its present state.

The canyon's rushing waters

The canyon’s rushing waters

Upstream video of Lava Canyon (18 seconds)


The climb back is at an 8% grade, but there are many benches for relief.

The suspension bridge is a thrill worth not missing, especially since you may have driven across the country to see it.

lava suspension bridge 2

And speaking of driving, if we had left from Maine yesterday morning, we would be driving into Iowa as we finished hiking Lava Canyon this early afternoon.

Another Iowa cornfield

Another Iowa cornfield

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