backpack: Indian Heaven Wilderness

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.

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.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

trailhead signage with wilderness permit box

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

Indian Heaven Wilderness sign

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

almost to the viewpoint!

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

first signs of color along the trail

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

pretty meadow with a tarn

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.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

Cultus Lake

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

mostly dry stream beds wind through the meadows

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

talus slope above Clear Lake

 

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.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

view of Bear Lake through the trees

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

our campsite at Elk Lake

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.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

Bear Lake

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

my tent at Bear Lake

To do the loop hike, we headed south on the PCT for a mile to Junction Lake and the Lemei Lake Trail.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

heading south on the PCT

Fairly shallow and grassy on the edges, Junction Lake sits below East Crater – the site of a wildfire in 2017.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

Junction Lake

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

color along the trail with Lemei Rock in the background

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.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

heading to Lemei Lake

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

Lemei Lake

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

Lemei Lake

After Lemei Lake, the trail winds through more meadows before ending at the Indian Heaven #33 trail.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

 

At Clear Lake, we next to the lake for a short break before heading back to our camp at Bear Lake.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

Clear 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.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

back on the PCT, heading north to the Indian Heaven trail

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

talus slope next to Clear Lake

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

Cultus Lake

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

on the Lemei Trail

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

getting closer to Lemei Rock

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

so much color!!

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

the rocky side of Lemei Rock

The trail switchbacks up through the forest and has fantastic views to the north along an open ridge.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

view of Mount Rainier along a ridge

We passed the side trail to Lemei Rock and continued a short distance for big views above Lake Wapiki.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

heading across a cinder cone to a view of Mount Adams

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

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.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

side trail to Lemei Rock

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

looking for mountain goats

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

exploring side trails at Lemei Rock

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

when I reached this point, it took my breath away

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

 

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.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

campfire at our Bear Lake camp

After dinner, I walked around the lake shore to capture a few scenes.

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

 

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!

Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip Indian Heaven Wilderness - Bear Lake backpacking trip

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