The Gifford Pinchot National Forest, in the northern Cascade mountain range, became famous when one of its permanent residents, Mt. St. Helens, blew its top. Although the volcano is the centerpiece of the area, there are a multitude of other reasons to visit. Follow a path along the Lewis River to see the reservoirs, dams, and lakes in the southern region.
The route begins from the Interstate 5 freeway in southern Washington, Woodland Exit 21. Follow Highway 503 East along the Lewis River. This route travels past a string of three reservoirs, separated by water dams, and used for electric power. Obtain an official map and verify with the US Forest Service the exact directions of the places listed.
The closest water reservoir to Woodland, and therefore, is very popular among the local residents. In the summer, arrive early in the morning to find a parking spot. The recreation area has a designated swimming section, picnicking, fishing, and boating activities here. Powerboats can dominate the lake during the heat of the summer. For fishing, you may snag a tiger muskie in this reservoir (nice sizes, I have seen them).
A long stretch of water sandwiched between Lake Merwin and Swift Reservoir. The water is very open to wind, with few quiet spots. Very popular for powerboats enthusiasts. Beaver Bay has a sheltered, designated cove for swimming.
This small, quiet lake is near Yale Reservoir but on the opposite side of the road. A four-mile trip, with many switchbacks as it rises upward in elevation, is a great lunch spot. After lunch, go for a swim.
Ape Cave & Lava Canyon Trail
To get a better understanding of Northwest geology, visit the Ape Cave. This is the third longest lava tube in North America. The Lava Canyon Trail offers a view of a canyon cut by lava flow hundreds of years ago.
The furthest body of water, about two hours from the Interstate 5, it is also my favorite. Swift is popular among fisherman, canoers, and kayakers. Waterskiing is also common in the summer. Lots of unique stumps, complete with their main roots, emerge on the shore when the water is low.
Stop at this viewpoint. It is worth the time to take a wonderful breather. As you drive into the parking lot, a fantastic Northwesterly view of Mt. St. Helens emerges, especially on a sunny day. Awaken all of your senses by hearing the call of a raven, a distant waterfall, and feeling a slight breeze in the trees.
Hemlock Lake Recreation Area
Hemlock Lake is a small area, created by a dam, that is popular for sunning and swimming. Note: a waterfall and the dam are a quarter mile down river. Scout it out before jumping in. The river runs swiftly. On Wind River Highway, turn at the Staber Store, and continue for several miles to the Wind River Ranger Station. The Hemlock Lake entrance is the driveway next door.
You can travel this entire route easily in one day but camping would make the experience more memorable.
Editor's Note - Avoid any logging, gravel, or unmarked roads, as you can travel for hours and never find an exit. As on all Northwest day trips, travel with a full tank of fuel, map, lots of water, snacks, and lunch. Carrying a compass and a nature guidebook are fun for tracking your surroundings. Many roads have multiple switchbacks, so be prepared if you are prone to carsickness. Cell phones do not always receive reception in the mountain ranges. Some small local stores are on the route but always travel prepared.