Distance: 6.6 miles
Elevation gain: 900 feet
Trailhead Elevation: 4,450 feet; High point: 4,780 feet; Blue Lake: 4,640 feet
Location: Southwest Washington, Indian Heaven Wilderness
Hike from Thomas Lake to Blue Lake with fall colors in beautiful meadows, with a stop along the way to see Panther Creek Falls.
ABOUT INDIAN HEAVEN WILDERNESS
Located between Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Indian Heaven Wilderness is almost 21,000 acres. A high plateau with elevations from 4,500 – 5,500 feet, this area contains over 150 lakes and ponds scattered amongst the open forests and many subalpine meadows.
For over 9,000 years, Native Americans gathered here to pick huckleberries, fish the many lakes, hunt elk and deer, trade goods and celebrate this area’s bounties. In the southern part of the wilderness, they raced horses frequently enough to create tracks that are still visible.
Indian Heaven receives 90-100 inches of annual precipitation, mostly falling as snow from November to April with accumulations of 4-6 feet. The snow is usually melted out by mid-July, and all of this area is thick with mosquitoes through the end of August.
On the way to the Thomas Lake trailhead, we stopped for a quick look at Panther Creek Falls. It’s not well signed, but look for a large gravel pullout on the right side of the road. Directly across and down from the pullout a short distance is a small sign on a tree for the waterfall. Follow the short trail down to a platform with great views of two creeks coming together to form Panther Creek Falls. The creekside is a lovely place to explore as well.
After driving for two hours from Portland, the last 8-10 miles on good gravel roads with views of Mount St. Helens, I didn’t expect the parking lot to be at full capacity. I guess that a lot of people know that late summer and early fall are the best times to experience Indian Heaven Wilderness. Some of the best fall color I’ve ever seen is in this area. Wanting to see more of Indian Heaven, I chose this trailhead due to its location on the western side of the wilderness area with an easier trail into the beauty of the subalpine meadows and lakes that this area is famous for.
The first section of trail is through open and then gradually denser forest, with huckleberries filling the understory.
Popular with families, Thomas Lake is a short and easy 0.7 mile hike from the trailhead without much elevation gain. Designated campsites are located throughout the area, good for beginning backpackers and families with small children. There are plenty of other lakes to explore, with Dee and Heather Lakes just across the trail, and Eunice Lake accessible via a short spur trail not far from Thomas Lake.
At the trail junction with the Eunice Lake spur trail, stay to the right and head up Trail #111 towards Blue Lake. The trail gains a bit of elevation before leveling out at the first section of meadows. If you are visiting in early fall, this is where you’ll start seeing shades of red and orange in the many huckleberry shrubs, with yellowing grasses and purplish heathers. Elk and deer are known to frequent these meadows, but I’ve never seen them while hiking here.
At about two miles in, the trail turns sharply to the right at a junction with a short spur trail to Rock Lake and Little Rock Lake. The main trail passes through meadow after meadow, with open forest of hemlocks and firs and smaller ponds. East Crater, a rounded and tree-covered hill, is visible to the east.
The trail begins to head downhill slightly for awhile, then Lake Sahalee Tyee soon appears to the north. A short distance ahead, Blue Lake can be seen downhill and through the trees to the south. The color of the water immediately lets you know that you’ve arrived at your destination.
Continue on the trail to an open area beside the lake’s shore with views of Gifford Peak towering above, directly across the lake. Near the eastern end of the lake is a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. Turn right and just ahead is another open area beside the lake. Visible from here, and accessible via a short distance, is a peninsula that juts into the lake. Continue on a trail along the southern shoreline to reach this scenic spot. After relaxing beside the lake, or perhaps taking a dip into the water, return the same way you came.
On our return trip, as we got closer to the trailhead, we noticed distant views of Mount Adams through the trees that we had missed on the way in.