backpack: Indian Heaven – Lakes Basin
I’ve backpacked at Indian Heaven almost every year and thought I’d skip it this year. But I couldn’t stay away – and this time, it completely stole my heart as I showed my young friend the beauty of this place.
- day 1 – East Crater trailhead to Junction Lake: 2.7 miles, 675 ft. gain + old trail explorations: 4 miles, 340 ft. gain
- day 2 – Lakes Basin loop + old trail explorations: 7.5 miles, 750 ft. gain
- day 3 – hike out to East Crater trailhead: 2.7 miles, 675 ft. loss
- best months: September – October
- location: SW Washington; nearest towns: Carson, Trout Lake
- land management: Gifford Pinchot National Forest: Indian Heaven Wilderness
- trail conditions: East Crater Trail #48
- hike description: Washington Trails Association | Oregon Hikers
- permits: self-issued at the trailhead
- trailhead pass: none required
Day 1 – East Crater trailhead to Junction Lake
I was able to take a good friend on another backpacking trip this summer before she returned to college. She had never been to Indian Heaven Wilderness, and it’s one of my top favorite locations so I decided to show her why I love it so much.
The hike in via the East Crater trailhead is the shortest distance option to reach the Lakes Basin. The forest roads that lead to it are a bit rough but do-able in most vehicles. I prefer the route from Trout Lake, Washington even though it’s slightly longer than the route from Carson since the section of road road is shorter via the Trout Lake route.
At the trailhead, we filled out the self-issued wilderness permit and began our hike in. Everything was still wet from the previous day’s heavy rain, and the forest was quiet. We didn’t pass anyone on our hike in.
Mosquitoes are pretty much gone, huckleberries are at peak, and fall color is just getting started.
In 2017, a wildfire that began at East Crater burned part of the forest for this section of our trip. Fireweed has filled in a lot of understory with bright pink flowers that make it a pretty scene in spite of the burn.
We passed by several small ponds and tarns, some dried up and some with water remaining in them.
Past the burn area, we started seeing open meadows beside the trail.
When we reached the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), we turned right and continued a short distance to Junction Lake to begin looking for a campsite.
Starting our trip on a Friday during Labor Day weekend made me worry that we might not get a campsite. However, the previous day’s heavy rain and a forecast with more rain likely contributed to fewer people being here than I anticipated. Once we reached Junction Lake, I looked to see if the same campsite I stayed at last time was available, and it was. : ) I liked this spot due to it being farther away from other campsites and not visible from the trail.
Loop hike on the Old Cascade Crest Trail and Pacific Crest Trails
After we setup camp and had a quick lunch, we set out on the Old Cascade Crest Trail (a precursor to the PCT) and explored this unmaintained trail as it traveled through meadows and past more tarns and small ponds.
The Old Cascade Crest Trail ends when it reaches the Thomas Lake Trail. From here, we turned left and headed to Blue Lake. There were a lot more people here than we’d seen so far and it looked like every campsite was already taken. We took a short break and then continued our loop hike, heading north on the PCT at the end of Blue Lake.
This time, we hiked through more of the East Crater burn that we did on the hike in. The line of bark-stripped trees up the hillside shined in the sun. We met two PCT long distance hikers (trail names Pinup and Rocket Fuel) in this section and stopped to chat with them for a bit. I hope the rest of their journey to the Canada border goes well!
Day 2 – Lakes Basin Loop + additional exploration
On the second day of our trip, we set out to hike to Lemei Rock but decided to explore more of the lakes and additional unmaintained trails. From our camp, we started on the Lemei Lake Trail next to Junction Lake. After passing the lake, the trail switchbacks up through forest, then travels through meadow after meadow before reaching Lemei Lake.
Huckleberries were at peak and my friend was set on collecting as many of them as she could on this hike. Note: there is a limit on how many huckleberries you are allowed to gather inside the wilderness area, with a maximum of one gallon per day and limit of three gallons total.
Fall color was just getting started on the huckleberry shrubs in the meadows.
We crossed over several dry stream beds on this trip and it made me wonder how this place looks when they are all flowing full.
Tarns that had recently dried out showcased bright green grass where water lingered.
Lemei Lake is similar to Junction Lake, shallow in spots and grassy on the edges.
Very few wildflowers remained, so this lone lupine stood out.
I’ve always loved this view of Lemei Lake from its outlet.
When we reached the junction with the Indian Heaven Trail #33, we decided to go to Deep Lake, passing by Cultus Lake on the way there.
At Deep Lake, we decided to take the trail all the way around the lake, which isn’t always clear and involves a small amount of bushwacking, but we made our way around it and stopped to take a long break at the shore of the lake with a view of Bird Mountain.
We headed back on the Indian Heaven trail to complete the Lakes Basin loop, stopping at a large talus slope next to Clear Lake to see if we could spot any pikas. After “meeping” at them for several minutes, a curious pika came to check us out.
From Clear Lake, we continued on the Indian Heaven trail until it ended at the PCT, then turned left to head to Bear Lake (seen below).
From Bear Lake, we took another unmaintained trail for more exploration as we headed back to our camp. This trail heads downhill steeply at first and required climbing over (and under) several downed trees, then it lead through meadows and past more lakes. This trail continues all the way to Rock Lakes, but we needed to get back to Junction Lake so we turned on a less traveled portion of trail that required paying more attention to the faint trail to find our way through.
Day 3 – hike out to East Crater trailhead
It rained for about 30 minutes on our last morning and the entire area was enshrouded in fog for our hike out.