The Muddy River harbors several waterfalls as it cascades off the slopes of Mount St. Helens, but until the May 18, 1980 eruption most were very difficult, if not impossible to access. The eruption melted the Shoestring Glacier and sent a massive lahar surging down the valley, which scoured away vegetation and stripped topsoil back to reveal the nuances of the canyon in full. Three decades later, the canyon has made great strides towards recovering from the devastation that was wreaked in 1980.
The final set of falls along the Muddy River is the second largest within Lava Canyon. The falls consist of two drops, an 87 foot plunge situated in a deep recess in the canyon, followed by a powerful 28 foot plunge in a much more exposed part of the river. Because of the heavy Alder growth that has overtaken the canyon since the 1980 eruption, the larger upper tier of the falls has become difficult to see clearly. Severe flooding in 2006 did its part to restore some visibility to this part of the canyon but trees still encroach on the sides of the falls making it difficult to see. The lower tier can be easily seen from several locations. The best viewpoint for both tiers of the falls is from the top of a 100-foot tall basalt promontory in the middle of the gorge called The Ship. Ladders climb up the monolith from the trail below to provide a unique overview of the spectacular gorge upstream.
When visiting the waterfalls of Lava Canyon, extreme caution should be exercised. There have been dozens of fatalities as a result of visitors edging too close to the lip of the gorge, or splashing in the river and being suddenly swept away and over one of the waterfalls.
- Lower Lava Canyon Falls is the Unofficial name of this waterfall.
Lava Canyon is located on the southeast side of Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. From Interstate 5 at Woodland, drive east along SR 503 for 35 miles, or 12 1/2 miles west of the Pine Creek Information station along FSR 90, to FSR 83. Turn and follow FSR 83 to its end at the trailhead in 11 miles, following the signs to Lava Canyon. The first half mile of the trail to the viewpoint of Upper Lava Canyon Falls is handicap accessible. From the end of the paved trail, follow the more moderate trail downstream for 1/5 of a mile to the suspension bridge, then continue past and down a much steeper and more treacherous trail for another about half of a mile, passing Twin Falls, Lava Canyon Falls and Middle Lava Canyon Falls in the process. Shortly after Middle Lava Canyon Falls the trail descends into a grotto via a 30-foot steel ladder. Just below the ladder is a level area where a path leads to the edge of the canyon and overlooks the lower tier of the falls. To see the upper tier, continue down the main trail for several hundred feet further to the spur trail that leads to the top of The Ship via several more ladders.