Backpacking Through Indian Heaven Wilderness – Cultus Creek to Deep Lake

Home / Trail Guides / Backpacking Through Indian Heaven Wilderness – Cultus Creek to Deep Lake

For almost 10,000 years this region was sought out by native people for its abundant natural resources. Fishing and hunting was prevalent, but the main event was the huckleberry harvest which tribes far and wide traveled to participate in. We were not here for the berries though. Ours was a journey to explore the wondrous beauty of this land and make it back to share the tale.

This guide is specific to the relatively modest hike from Cultus Creek Campground to Cultus and Deep Lakes in the Indian Heaven Wilderness.

In 1984, Indian Heaven was set aside by the U.S. Forest Service as a protected wilderness. At 32.75 square miles the region has an old Indian race track, at least 150 lakes (some stocked with fish), several climbable peaks, ancient volcanic monuments, and over 40 miles of trails. In any case, it’s a multifaceted suite of adventure waiting to be tapped.

Deep Lake is one of the more popular destinations in Indian Heaven due to it’s relatively close proximity to Cultus Creek Campground. The campground is also a trailhead for Trail #33 which heads straight in to the wilderness.

Technology can fail us. In case you lose cell service it is wise to have backup directions in the form of a printed map or a solid GPS device.

Depending on which route you take, Cultus Creek Campground is not as easy to find as some other destinations. The recommended route from Portland, OR through Carson, WA is the most straightforward, however as you make your way deeper in to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest it becomes increasingly important to be aware of the turnoffs. There are many side roads that lead to dead ends.


Our party of eight would start from Cultus Creek Campground (4,000′) and ascend nearly 1,100′ to Deep Lake (5,100′) over the course of 2.75 miles. Many in our group were beginner backpackers testing out new gear and methods of sustained travel in the wilderness.

The hike would take a matter of hours but our plan was to spend Labor Day weekend camping at different locations around the lake – eating, fishing, relaxing, exploring, and enjoying being disconnected. Fortunately, we had a member of the party who knew the area well and would act as our lead for the trip.


Trail #33 is consistently uphill right up to the point where it splits to Trail #33A heading east to Deep Lake. Despite the elevation gain the trail is straightforward to follow and well-marked.

Halfway to your destination the trail rewards you with a high perch from which you can look out across Gifford Pinchot National Forest and witness an unobstructed view of Mt. Adams to the northeast. To the north you can even catch a glimpse of Mt. Rainier. This makes an excellent location to relax, have a snack, and rest up for the remainder of the trek.

The view of Mt. Adam's west side is arguably one of the best parts of this hike.
The view of Mt. Adam's west side is arguably one of the best parts of this hike.
  • During the spring and summer, standard hiking and overnight gear is sufficient.
  • In the late summer and early fall bug spray is useful to repel mosquitoes.
  • In the winter, significant snowfall and make roads impassable while lighter snowfall can turn this hike into a snowshoeing adventure.
  • Your waste becomes toxic after it leaves your body – Carry a portable trowel or shovel and bury your meadow muffins 6-8 inches below ground and at least 200 feet away from water sources
  • Invest in a water purifying device – The last thing you want is to catch a debilitating virus in the middle of nowhere.

At a glance

Distance (miles)
Elevation gain (feet)
Hike time (hours)

NW Forest Pass

When to go


Relative difficulty

Beginner 65%
Intermediate 45%
Experienced 25%


The Experience

This is a continuing recount of my travels in the Pacific Northwest. After backpacking through Elk Meadows I was optimistic about finding a location for a three-night, group backpacking expedition to round out the summer of 2012.

We were somewhere around Swift Reservoir scooting along the winding road of highway 90 when the realization started to sink in that this would be an unusually remote section of the Gifford Pinchot to be backpacking through. However, looking at the location marker from Google maps I can see now that virtually every square inch of its wilderness border was logged at some point over the past hundred years. So I suppose humanity was never really that far away.

Regardless, we had done our research and were committed to the objective. We chugged on against the darkness of night on what seemed like an endless slithering strip of gravel road, intent on meeting up with another member of our party at Cultus Creek Campground. It was noticeably cool for early September, not because the season had begun to change, but because of the elevation. Being a plateau Indian Heaven has an average elevation of 4,500 feet with the highest point being Lemei Rock (5,925′).

Upon arrival our senior group leader recommended that we store any food items requiring refrigeration in the nearby creek to keep cool. Since that day whenever I’ve camped close to a small stream I’ve practiced this technique with temperature sensitive foods. Camp preparations were in order so that our party would be well rested for the hike up to Deep Lake the following morning. I had been pleasantly irritated by my lack of quality gear at Elk Meadows. This trip was an opportunity to use the lessons from my first experiences backpacking and apply them to new gear purchases.

That first night I worked on setting up camp while biting down on the cold, hard aluminum of a flashlight handle and trying not to drool all over the fibers of my brand new tent. With a few exceptions, I would re-use this gear on numerous trips over the next few years.

The next morning as I made my way up the side of the plateau along Trail #33, I realized that the Osprey Ace was a bittersweet win as a core backpacking item. Looking back this was ultimately a poorly researched decision. A 6’ 5”, adult male wearing a backpack designed for a child is like trying to chop logs with a Swiss army knife. A quick search for a top backpacks would have provided much needed guidance on what to pick. At the same time though, this was a massive improvement over the old high school backpack, which was like trying to chop logs with a fake, rubber, clown knife. To its credit, the Osprey had additional straps for the waist and chest, additional compartments, and a multitude of pockets. Despite the poor fitment to my long frame it was extraordinarily handy on this trip due to its versatility.

The elevation gain will be quick and fierce initially. As far as hikes go, Trail #33 from Cultus Creek Campground to Deep Lake isn’t severe but it’s also not a true beginner hike. 2.75 miles with 1,100 feet of elevation gain may seem daunting, but halfway there you get the opportunity to rest and let your eyes drink in a full view of Mt. Adams from the Southwest.

As you approach the end of the hike, seeing that shimmer of blue through the trees is existentially satisfying. Deep Lake is no exception to the rule of destination pre-nostalgia. The trail continues to loop full circle around the lake with various campsite locations around the perimeter. We found that it was curiously busy, with most sites already having been claimed. So we took up residence at a high point along the south end of the lake where the wind was especially chilly and persistent. Despite this unfortunate position, I recall putting the Osprey’s rain fly on the ground in an attempt to snuggle up close to the fire and snack on bits of jerky. It was nighttime when the other part of our group arrived and I was contently sprawled out on the ground enjoying what little creature comforts were available. Nobody seemed to mind that I wasn’t wearing any pants, just some khaki shorts.

The next day our objective was to secure a more ideal campsite. A member of our group had brought along a pair of binoculars which he slyly used to scout out the other lakeside positions. Recognizing the movements of fellow hikers is important during a situation of campsite jockeying. If their movements suggest that they are packing up to leave the opportunity to occupy their location presents itself. This was one of those times.

Our new site was level and flat. It felt open and had an all-encompassing view of the lake. There was even a tiny little patch of land that jutted out into the water which a few staked out for their tents. I opted for the soft inland grass since I did not yet own a sleeping pad. Some folks even did a little fishing and caught a meal that day. This would all be short lived however.

That afternoon our group was told by a pair of patrolling forest rangers that we could camp next to the lake at established campsites, but any fires or expulsion of human waste needed to be done at least 200 feet away from the water’s edge. Our crimes against nature denoted, our final night would take place in a meadow about an eighth of a mile away. Being that this was my third and final night in the back-country, I was beginning to feel just primitive enough that I could take up residence in almost any random dried up creek bed.

Showing 2 comments
  • Anonymous

    Great photographs and trail description info; very well written. I enjoyed your stories and trail tips. Thanks and good hiking !

    • Aaron

      Thank you and you’re very welcome. More to come!

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