Residing in the Indian Heaven Wilderness at 5368 feet is Gifford Peak. It lies along the north-south line of shield volcanoes and cinder cones between Sawtooth and Bird Mountains/East Crater, and, Berry and Red Mountains. The Indian Heaven Wilderness is an amazing little almost unknown gem that itself lies within the "Cascade Diamond" of Rainier to the north, Adams to the east, Hood to the south and St. Helens to the west. The area is characterized by smaller shield volcanoes surmounted by cinder and spatter cones (about 60 eruptive vents in total here). Within these are numerous scenic lakes and ponds interspersed with meadows and fir/hemlock forests and probably the most abundant huckleberry bushes you will find. Native Americans gathered here to harvest these tasty berries and hunt. There is an area just south of Gifford Peak called the Indian Racetrack where horses were raced while taking a break from the harvesting.
The Indian Heaven volcanic field is different from the typical Cascade volcanoes in that typically the vents here did not erupt more than once. Each vent built its own small volcano so over time they overlapped with each other. These vents are also on average much younger than others in the area and have been dated to as recent as 8200 years ago. This volcanoic field is a Quaternary center (from 1.8 million years ago to the present) and as you can imagine, is mostly comprised of basalt. (Big surprise!) Most of the eruptions came from the center of the field so it appears the whole area may be one large shield volcano fed by a central reservoir.
Gifford would be representative of the other shield volcanoes here (Sawtooth, Bird, Lemei, East Crater, Berry and Red) in that it is deeply glaciated retaining the shield structure. Gifford has a cliffy east side overlooking beautiful Blue Lake. The other sides are more gentle and forested but the main structure is a north/south ridge. The summit area is mostly small reddish cinder and lava rock. Views of the four stratovolcanoes are to be had on clear days as well as most of the surrounding Indian Heaven Wilderness peaks.
The peak is named after this guy. The Indian Heaven Wilderness falls within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
There is no trail to the summit so bushwhacking is called for and would be easiest from either the north or south ends. The forest is not as brushy so it's fairly easy going although there are some areas you need to push through the brush. It doesn't appear a whole lot of people summit this one as most end up wanting to do Lemei Rock, East Crater or Red Mountain in this area, however, someone has at least camped on the summit at some point making a nice square sandy area lined by lava rocks (now with weeds taking over). There is no summit register I could find. That said, this peak makes a great summit to get while enjoying one of the little treasures in south central Washington.
To access the closest trailhead to Gifford Peak (the Thomas Lake Trailhead), from Portland, take I-84 east to Cascade Locks, OR (take exit 44) and cross the Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods ($1 toll each way). Once in Washington, turn right onto State Road 14 for about 5.7 miles to Road 30 on the left to Carson, WA. Go about 5.8 miles (going through Carson) to a right turn signed to Panther Creek Campground. Go about a block and turn left (following signs to Panther Creek Campground). This becomes Road 65, take this 10.7 miles to a four-way junction signed as "Four Corners." Continue straight (north) for 1.8 miles where the road changes from paved to gravel. Fork to the right, continuing on Road 65 for 6.7 miles to the Thomas Lake Trailhead and park here in the lot. There is a restroom at the trailhead.
If you are coming from the east, the same directions apply from I-84 or State Road 14.
Red TapeA Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at the trailhead. You are also required to fill out a Wilderness Permit from the box near the trailhead on the actual trail.
There are about 15 designated camp spots around Thomas, Dee and Heather Lakes which are about .7 miles into the trail from the trailhead. Ther are additional campsite around most of the lakes in this area. They are first come first served and are quite popular (Thomas Lake area especially with families with small kids since it is near the trailhead and very scenic. Something to keep in mind if you are looking for a quiet camp spot.)
When To ClimbThe trailhead is at about 4050 feet so access is going to be determined by snow levels. Most years it is not clear until June or into July. Mosquitos are quite horrendous in July and into early August. They will drive you mad so either DEET up heavily or avoid this time of the year. Later August and September are your best bets and are when you are going to be able to enjoy the berries. Snows usually start falling in October (I said "usually," sometimes it's September and sometimes you can sneak into November.).
Mountain ConditionsMt. Adams Ranger District
2455 Hwy 141
Trout Lake, WA 98650
Gifford Pinchot National Forest