backpack: Indian Heaven – Cultus Creek to Deep Lake
Two night backpack trip in Indian Heaven Wilderness, with day hikes to Lemei Rock and the Lakes Basin
- distance & elevation gain to Deep Lake: 2.7 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
My favorite place anywhere for fall color is Indian Heaven Wilderness. The entire area is filled with hundreds of acres of huckleberry shrubs, all displaying brilliant shades of red, purple, orange and yellow in late September. This was my fourth backpacking trip here, and this year’s color is the best I’ve ever seen! I may have gotten carried away with posting too many photos, but it was all so spectacular, I just couldn’t help it.
We started at the Cultus Creek campground and hiked in via the Indian Heaven Trail #33. The hike is steep right away, climbing 1,200 feet in about 1.5 miles before it levels out. About one mile in, there’s an opening in the forest with views of Mount Adams, Goat Rocks and Mount Rainier.
After the trail levels out, we passed by the first meadows near the base of Bird Mountain. We took the side trail to Deep Lake to look for a campsite.
Two years ago, I had camped on the south side of the lake so we checked to see if that site was available. It was, but we decided to hike all the way around the lake to see if we could find a better campsite. There were a few sites right on the trail, and they were in low spots where water would drain if it rained, so we kept looking. The trail is faint as it goes around the lake, and there are numerous side trails, so we stayed near the lake.
We were three quarters of the way around when we saw a group of day hikers taking a break in a campsite. They told us that it was the best campsite in all of Indian Heaven and they had camped here over ten times in the past, so we decided to camp here. The camp kitchen was next to the lake, with a small fire pit and easy water access. Behind the kitchen area was a large clearing in the forest for our tents.
After we set up camp and had lunch, we did a quick hike to Lemei Rock and the ridge above Lake Wapiki. It was getting late and we were hoping to make it back before it got dark. We took our headlamps, just in case. The trail passes through what seems like millions of huckleberry shrubs, most with ripe berries just waiting to be tasted. Note that wilderness regulations don’t allow for removing berries to take home or sell, so eat what you can and leave the rest.
Lemei Rock comes into view long before you reach it. After a long stretch of meadows, the trail switchbacks a couple of times in the forest and then passes a great view of Mount Rainier and the surrounding ridges.
A short distance later, there is a faint side trail to explore more around the base of Lemei Rock. However, we wanted to reach a viewpoint just past Lemei, so we continued for a short distance to an overlook with views of Lake Wapiki and Mount Adams. Continue across the cinder cone ridge to a higher viewpoint. Turn around for a great view of Mount Hood.
We headed back to explore a bit more around Lemei Rock. It looks different from every direction, with craggy jagged edges at the top. I’ve seen posts from other hikers who summited Lemei and saw mountain goats. We looked and looked, but couldn’t see any goats.
Back at camp, we had dinner and enjoyed watching the moon rise under a clear sky filled with stars. For the first time, I was able to capture them in a photo! I didn’t bring a tripod, so I held the camera on top of a tree stump.
The next day, we did a day hike around the Lakes Basin. We started on the Indian Heaven Trail and continued to the Lemei Lake Trail #179 (not to be confused with the Lemei Trail we had taken the night before). We passed through more meadows filled with bright fall color and sections with large grassy meadows before reaching Lemei Lake.
At Junction Lake, we stopped to eat lunch. We saw more people here than anywhere else so far during our hike.
After lunch, we took the PCT Trail #2000 north. This section of the hike was mostly in the forest. After about a mile, we passed Bear Lake and Deer Lake, then took the Indian Heaven Trail to finish our loop.
As we passed a talus slope full of rock, I mentioned to my friends that I hoped to see pikas. They hadn’t seen them before, so I started making the pika “meep” sound and soon one of them came out for a look at us. We ended up seeing about six pikas in all. What a treat! Then we passed Clear Lake and soon were back to Cultus Lake and our trail back to camp.
I’m so happy that I made it to Indian Heaven for a backpacking trip this year! I will definitely go back again and again.