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News / Sports / Outdoors

Take a hike on a classic trail: Lewis River No. 31

Lewis River trail No. 31 provides lots of solitude along a big river

By ALLEN THOMAS, For The Columbian
Published: June 17, 2023, 6:06am
2 Photos
Bolt Camp shelter was built in 1931 at the location of a red cedar bolt processing site and restored by volunteers in 1991 and 2013.
Bolt Camp shelter was built in 1931 at the location of a red cedar bolt processing site and restored by volunteers in 1991 and 2013. (Allen Thomas for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

COUGAR — It sounds like a mini-jackhammer, but it’s only a woodpecker gouging out a cavity into a long-dead Douglas fir.

At times, in the gorge section of Lewis River trail No. 31 in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, there’s so little noise the woodpecker’s work pierces the silence.

Yet, elsewhere on the trail, when only a few feet from the North Fork of the Lewis River, the roar from the rushing water overwhelms attempts to speak to a hiking partner only an arm’s length away.

Lewis River trail No. 31 is one of the classic hiking routes in the 1.3-million-acre Gifford Pinchot National Forest. While it lacks the grandeur of the Goat Rocks or the majesty of Mount Adams, Lewis River No. 31 offers a long, low-elevation hike, pack or cycling trip with lots of solitude along an unspoiled, big river.

The lower portion of the trail, between the Curly Creek and Crab Creek Bridge trailheads, is more than 10 miles uninterrupted by road crossings or clearcuts. It can be snow-free from as early as mid-March until Thanksgiving.

“This is a beautiful, low-elevation trail that doesn’t get a lot of pressure mid-week,’’ said Jeffry Fisker of Washington Llamas, based in Castle Rock. “It’s an easy trail for beginners.’’

Fisker takes backpackers who want their gear and food carried by llamas on two- to five-day trips in select portions of the Gifford Pinchot including the Dark Divide roadless area, Vanson Lake area and Goat Rocks Wilderness.

Earlier this month, he had a trip from the Curley Creek trailhead on Lewis River trail upstream to about a half mile beyond Bolt Camp. His main season in the Dark Divide and Goat Rocks begins in late July.

Fisker has a U.S. Forest Service permit to operate only on weekdays.

Lewis River trail No. 31 has several fine, flat camping sites in the lower five miles. The largest of these is at Bolt Camp, which is 2.6 miles from the lower trailhead.

According to the Forest Service, Bolt Camp was built in 1931 as a red cedar bolt processing site for downstream communities. It was restored by volunteers in 1991, and again in 2013.

The trail leaves the edge of the Lewis River at about seven miles upstream from the Curly Creek trailhead on road No. 9039. It climbs approximately 300 feet in elevation above the water to a viewpoint at 7.49 miles where the Lewis has sliced a canyon through columnar basalt.

There’s a small, barely noticeable monument to a mountain bike rider at the viewpoint.

Early in the season, several side streams in this stretch cascade over the basalt in mini-falls that add a scenic touch.

From the viewpoint, the trail drops to cross Spencer and Cussed Hollow creeks before a final hump to the upper trailhead on road No. 90 at Crab Creek Bridge.

A parking reservation is required after June 15 to park along road No. 90 at Crab Creek trailhead. The reservations are available at recreation.gov.

Some history

Historical records of the upper North Fork of the Lewis River are a bit sketchy.

Government Land Office plats show the trail as starting in the Yale Reservoir area and going east to what is now Swift Reservoir. Oldtimers say that Camp Creek at milepost 12 on road No. 90 got its name as a camping spot along the old trail.

A 1917 map shows the Lewis River trail extending upriver only as far as Bolt Camp, where it crossed the Lewis and headed up Little Creek to Lone Butte Meadows. The portion upstream of Bolt Camp is believed to have been built between 1931 and 1935.

In the late 1950s, the trail followed the north bank of the Lewis River upstream all the way to Twin Falls, according to the late Russ Jolley in his 1976 book “Hiking the Gifford Pinchot Back Country.’’

Construction of road No. 90 obliterated most of the trail, Jolley writes.

The existing lower portion of Lewis River trail might have suffered the same fate as the western end — inundation — had history unfolded differently.

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Many years ago there were proposals for two more dams, identified as Muddy and Meadows, on the North Fork of the Lewis River upstream from Swift Reservoir.

Driving instructions

From Cougar, go east on road No. 90 to the Pine Creek Information Center. At the junction of roads Nos. 90 and 25, veer right (staying on No. 90) and cross Eagle Cliff Bridge. Drive 12.9 miles up road No. 90 to the upper trailhead. Parking for four or five cars is on the right side of the road just beyond the Crab Creek Bridge crossing of the Lewis River. Parking reservations available at www.recreation.gov are required after June 15. Head back down road No. 90 in the second car for 7.9 miles to road No. 9039. Turn right and follow road No. 9039 for one mile to trailhead parking at the bridge.

Trail notes

There are several potential camping spots in the Bolt Camp area. … Water is not an issue on trail No. 31, given all the small tributaries the route crosses. Just bring a filter and there’s no need to carry water. Sunscreen is not needed because the trail is so shady, nor is mosquito repellent, given that the bugs are minimal. … The lower five miles are on essentially flat bottomland, then comes about 2.5 to 3 miles in a gorge before returning to bottomland for the final 1.5 miles. Camping locations are not available in the gorge section.