Located within the ever-impressive Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the 20,782 acre Indian Heaven Wilderness manages to live up to its lofty title. The sub-alpine volcanic plateau is home to about 175 swimmable/fishable lakes, vast wildflower meadows, and in late summer and early fall, huckleberries! Lots and lots of huckleberries—more huckleberries than you can shake a stick at. Because of these and a long list of other attributes, the area that is now known as Indian Heaven has been a gathering place for native tribes for the last 10,000 years or so. Known as Sahalee Tyee, the area was where tribes would meet to pick berries, hunt, fish, and more recently, race horses. Indian Heaven continues to have significance to local tribes, with some of the wilderness closed off to the public.
Late summer/early fall is the consensus “best time” to visit Indian Heaven. The area’s legendary mosquito population has faded, the fall colors are coming into prime, and huckleberries, as well as blueberries, are everywhere. Because the Wilderness is located on a plateau, once you’ve gained access from one of the area trailheads, the primary chunk of elevation gain for most of the hiking trails has been dealt with, making it ideal for hiking and backpacking with kids.
There are many access points into Indian Heaven, but one of the most lake-laden and closest to Portland is the Thomas Lake Trailhead. To get there take I-84 east to exit 44. Cross the Bridge of the Gods ($1 toll) and turn right onto Highway 14. Travel 6 miles and hang an odd and somewhat dangerous left following signs to the town of Carson. Drive through Carson for 6 miles and then turn right onto Old State Road (this will be the 2nd chance to turn onto OSR, do not take the first). Make an almost immediate left onto Forest Road 65 and drive for 11 miles. Continue straight through a 4-way junction and after 2 more miles the pavement ends. You’re in the home stretch. Drive carefully on the single lane, gravel road for another 6.5 miles to the Thomas Lake Trailhead on your right. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.
For a nice day hike, proceed 2 miles to a trail junction at Rock Lake. You will have passed no fewer than 6 named lakes, all with access—and gained about 700 feet of elevation. Head back the way you came for a 4-mile out and back day hike. Make sure you save some huckleberries for the ice cream stop on the way home. For longer sojourns, there are numerous camps and backpacking route options. I recommend getting an Indian Heaven Wilderness map from the US Forest Service and picking the route that suits your family’s fancy.