backpack: Indian Heaven Wilderness – Cultus Creek to Bear Lake
Indian Heaven Wilderness is my favorite place to backpack in the fall due to the brilliant display of color in the grassy meadows and huckleberry shrubs. On this four day backpacking trip, we hiked the Lakes Basin loop and explored around Lemei Rock.
- distance & elevation gain to Bear Lake: 4.5 miles, 1,200 ft. gain
- day hike options: Lakes Basin loop; Lemei Rock
- best months: September – October
- location: SW Washington; nearest town: Trout Lake
- land management: Gifford Pinchot National Forest: Indian Heaven Wilderness
- trail conditions: Indian Heaven Trail #33
- hike description: Washington Trails Association – Indian Heaven Trail | Oregon Hikers – Indian Heaven Trail
- permits: self-issued at the trailhead
- trailhead pass: NW Forest Pass
Day 1 – hike in to Elk Lake
4.5 miles with 1,200 ft. gain and 470 ft. loss
From Portland, we drove to Trout Lake via Hood River and followed gravel forest roads to the Cultus Creek campground. On the drive in, colorful vine maples lined the sides of the road, so I was hopeful that we were going to hit peak color in Indian Heaven. The weather was unusually warm and dry for the first week of October, with highs in the 70s and overnight lows in the 50s.
We started our hike in on the steep Indian Heaven Trail #33, which wastes no time in going up – gaining 1,200 feet in 2 miles. At the viewpoint at 1.3 miles, the views were obscured by haze. Continuing on the trail, we hiked up the last steep section and reached the first meadow.
We passed Cultus Lake and continued on the Indian Heaven Trail until it ended at a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). On the way, we stopped at the talus slope above Clear Lake to see if we could spot pikas on the rocks. It was late afternoon with full sun on the slope, so I think it was too hot for them to be scampering about.
We intended to camp at Bear Lake, just over half a mile south on the PCT, but the campsites there were full so we continued on the side trail to Elk Lake. We found an okay site above the lake that was big enough for four tents, so we set up camp and had dinner, then went to bed not long after it got dark.
Day 2 – Lakes Basin loop hike
5 miles with 550 ft. gain
In the morning, we planned to do a loop hike around the Lakes Basin, but when we reached Bear Lake and saw that a much better campsite was available, we decided to go back to Elk Lake and pack up our gear to move camp before the hike.
To do the loop hike, we headed south on the PCT for a mile to Junction Lake and the Lemei Lake Trail.
Fairly shallow and grassy on the edges, Junction Lake sits below East Crater – the site of a wildfire in 2017.
After passing Junction Lake, the trail heads up through forest on a couple of switchbacks, then goes through several large grassy meadows lined with colorful huckleberry shrubs. At Lemei Lake, we stopped for a long lunch break.
After Lemei Lake, the trail winds through more meadows before ending at the Indian Heaven #33 trail.
At Clear Lake, we next to the lake for a short break before heading back to our camp at Bear Lake.
Day 3 – day hike to Lemei Rock
8 miles with 1,120 ft. gain
My favorite hike in Indian Heaven is to its tallest point, Lemei Rock (5,925 ft.). We took the PCT north to the Indian Heaven trail, and then turned onto the Lemei Trail (not to be confused with the Lemei Lake Trail that we took yesterday). The trail winds through meadows thick with huckleberry shrubs, all displaying spectacular color.
The trail switchbacks up through the forest and has fantastic views to the north along an open ridge.
We passed the side trail to Lemei Rock and continued a short distance for big views above Lake Wapiki.
After the viewpoint, we headed back and took the side trail to explore around the base of Lemei Rock. There were quite a few people here, including many that were scrambling up the loose scree on Lemei Rock.
Back at camp, we built a campfire for our last night on this trip. There were a lot of people in Indian Heaven over the weekend. We kept seeing more and more backpackers hiking in, searching for empty campsites but most were taken.
After dinner, I walked around the lake shore to capture a few scenes.
Day 4 – hike out to trailhead
4 miles with 1,200 ft. loss
On the fourth day, we hiked out, stopping at Cultus Lake for a break before the steep descent back to the trailhead. I’m so glad I was able to spend four days in my favorite fall destination. I love you, Indian Heaven!