Ever find yourself craving a night away from the city, unplugged and camping in beautiful nature, but short on time for the whole backpack/camping trip scenario? When I email a friend and grumble about my lack of camping this summer, he comes up with a concise plan, pronto:
“Cruise to Indian Heaven, hike ½ mile to a group of lakes. Leave Portland around 1:30 Sunday. 2hr drive, 1hr hike, make camp, swim, huckleberries, dine, sunset over lake. Monday rise early, on the road by 7:30.”
Indian Heaven Wilderness, which straddles the Cascade crest about 25 miles north of the Columbia River in south-central Washington, encompasses a beautiful forested alpine plateau dappled with over 150 alpine lakes and ponds. Over the past 9,000 years the local Indians, who called the area Sahalee Tyee, came here for hunting, gathering, and horse racing (in a large field known today as the Indian Racetrack). These days it’s a very popular destination and draws hikers, hunters, and horse packers from throughout the Northwest.
Matt has been eyeing some lakes in the western edge of the wilderness on a National Geographic map he found online and downloaded. His map doesn’t show a trail to the Thomas Lake area from the west, so the plan is to bushwhack in to the lakes. [Note: We tried right before we left to buy a Green Trails map, but the store was out.]
Turns out we don’t adhere to the plan exactly, but it gets us started. By the time we leave town (3:30), take a few wrong turns en route to our starting point, then get our packs on and ready, we start at 6:30. But we’re only hiking in a half mile.
We drive up a long dirt road (Forest Service Road 65) north of Carson with spectacular views of Mount Saint Helens along the way, and park up a worn turnout in scrubby forest just outside the wilderness. After spraying each other with DEET to ward off the ubiquitous and aggressive mosquitoes, we set off. While carefully watching our step and taking compass bearings often, we scramble along game trails, over downed logs, and through thickets of huckleberries.
For environmental and practical reasons, I’m a stick-to-the-trail kind of gal. But I do enjoy this short adventure, especially when we see a clearing in the forest just uphill after an hour of tramping. Lake!
Night in the Woods
Since it’s Sunday night, we easily find a camping spot near Thomas Lake, the largest of the lakes in this cluster. As the evening wanes to dusk, I cook up a tasty dinner of cous cous with sautéed veggies. Then something catches my eye in the eastern sky.
“Are you at all anxious about backpacking when thunder and lightning is predicted over the Cascades tonight?” I’d asked Matt earlier. After all, it is prime forest fire season now.
“Nah,” he told me with the nonchalant calm of an airline pilot. Us anxiety-prone types look to those around us for calm, and his response assuaged me a few hours ago. Now I get a little worried when I see the huge thunderhead boiling upward in the sky just beyond the eastern ridge of the lake.
Bright flashes light up the sky as we get settled for the night. “That last one was about 28 miles away,” I note after counting until we hear thunder rumbling in the distance. Soon the lapse between lightning and thunder shortens. I get more anxious but, as I say, “Well, here we are.”
Luckily the storm doesn’t draw closer and subsides after a few hours. Then the night becomes incredibly still.
When we venture a peek at the stars, the reward is brilliant. Directly overhead, the Milky Way crisscrosses the night sky, cutting a swath through one of the most vivid starry skies I’ve ever seen, cobalt blue punctured by zillions of white dots. Soon the night shift mosquitoes chase us back into the tent.
As often happens camping, we wake up at dawn and go explore. Initially the sky is clear, with mist rising off the lakes like steam rising from a cup of freshly brewed tea. But soon a silver fog descends, then rises again.
Save for a few bird calls here and there and a slight breeze, it’s blissfully, peacefully quiet. No one else is out here.
With several lakes to explore, we’re not on the road by 7:30 as planned. But that’s okay. It’s too beautiful to dash back to civilization, and the huckleberries are starting to ripen.
Wending around Lake Thomas, we find an interstate of a trail back down the way we came, so our hike out the .6 mile to the Thomas Lake trailhead is quick. Then we plod back along the road to where we parked, passing a huckleberry-picking party along the way.
Our quick trip is short but sweet--despite the skeeters.
Have you hiked in Indian Heaven? I'd love to hear about your trip in the Comments below!
When You Go
Here’s a map of Indian Heaven. I've done longer hikes here higher up, where we explored old craters and had stunning views of Mount Adams not far to the east. Although there is no fee for camping here, a Wilderness permit and Northwest Forest Pass are required. I recommend avoiding weekends if you can. I also suggest waiting until later September when the mosquitoes are past their peak because they are abundant and persistent little buggers. But you’ll be sharing the area with hunters then, so stay on the trails and be watchful.