By David Gottula
Editor’s note: this article is based on a 2019 trip down the Lost River Gorge. It has been updated by the author.
If I am interested in a certain hike, I usually first look for information on the internet. Having been intrigued by the idea of hiking the remote, nearly inaccessible Lost River Gorge for years, I launched an online search to see what I could find out.
The only mention I found about the Lost River Gorge was a story about some extreme kayakers who took on the gorge during the spring runoff. The main thrusts of the article were that you should expect to get holes punched in your kayak just getting to the gorge; expect to portage a lot; and understand that the trip demands careful preparation and commitment by a strong group, as in many places the sheer gorge walls are impossible to climb out of.
For information closer to home, I asked Methow locals about their experiences. I found out that many Methow adventurists have hiked the gorge, some multiple times. All recommended hiking as late in the season as possible. A few said it was awesome, but they will never do it again.
It was with this base of knowledge (or lack of it) that George Wooten and I took off on a three-day, two-night hike of the Lost River Gorge in September 2019. There are no trails in the Lost River Gorge. Look at a map of the Pasayten and you see a huge blank area devoid of any trails in that area. We encountered scarce wildlife, which indicates that even animals avoid the gorge.
The Lost River Gorge is roughly 12 miles long, with a 5.5-mile approach from Billy Goat Trailhead and a 4-mile exit along Monument Trail to Monument Creek Trailhead near Mazama.
After we were dropped off at Billy Goat Trailhead, we hiked 4 miles by trail to Drake Creek. From there the map showed an unmaintained, 1.5-mile trail along Drake Creek to the gorge. The Diamond Creek Fire had recently burned the area and we had a hard time finding this trail. Our maps didn’t even agree which side of Drake Creek the trail started.
So, we bushwhacked down Drake Creek and eventually found the trail about halfway down, once we passed the burn area. Finding the trail did not make the going any easier. I was impressed that the kayakers managed to get their craft through this terrain.
We finally got to Lost River as evening settled, and started looking for a camping place. We decided to hike a little ways down the canyon first. We discovered why it is called “Lost” River as the river goes underground and disappears, leaving a dry riverbed.
We hiked back up to where the river goes underground and camped on a rocky beach. I had to move a lot of rocks to make space for my tent. As I am a “leave no trace” hiker, I did move some of them back the next morning.
Lunch at the lake
The next day, under a perfect September blue sky, we took off down the gorge walking along the dry riverbed. We stopped for lunch at the “lake.” This is a place where the winter and spring runoff creates a small body of water. But as the river is underground here and the lakebed was dry in September, we had a beautiful, green meadow to lounge in. The lakebed was covered with solid horsetail, but in the past, it has been known as the mint fields.
The wall of rocks that formed the dam for lake was the first real obstacle we had to contend with. It would not be hard to imagine that during spring runoff, a huge cascade of water would be tumbling over it. It was a challenge for us to get down the dam with the riverbed dry but ropes were not required, just some rock scrambling. I was glad we did not have to get kayaks down this rock dam.
Next up, Auburn Creek noisily entered the Gorge and promptly disappeared into the underground river. Also, at this location, we found some cottonwoods that had been burned by the McLeod Fire in 2018. It is easy to see how the fire that was burning on the ridge far above us could fall thousands of feet to reach these cottonwoods.
We kept hiking down the dry riverbed, marveling at the experience. The closest the two cliff sides came together was about 10 feet.
I started to think that this was going to be an easy hike when the river began to re-emerge. Someone had told us to expect hiking in 5-foot deep pools of water. The first water we came to was exactly that. We decided to cut up the bank and climb around it and not get wet. Little did I know that soon I would be very wet, notwithstanding our attempts to stay dry.
The river periodically re-emerged at various locations and flowed fast. It was really fascinating to see the river appear out of rock formations.
Back in the water
The gorge was still relatively easy to hike in until we got to the confluence of the Lost River and Monument Creek. Maybe the recent rains and snow that fell in the area added to the water flow, but now Lost River was a raging torrent through the canyon. Our fearless kayakers would have had a field day at this section of the river with the rocks and waterfalls, but it was above my personal kayaking skill level. I did wish that I had a raft, though, as that would have made the traveling the next 4 miles a little easier.
But we were on foot and the gorge was still narrow, so there was not much bank to hike on. What riverbank area existed contained a lot of vegetation or talus. And with each bend of the river, sheer cliffs would dominate alternate sides of the river, which required us to cross the raging river multiple times. Difficult decisions became routine: should we climb over a huge boulder or swim through a 5-foot pool of water? Going back upstream to a safer crossing also became routine.
Now, just hiking 100 feet seemed like a major accomplishment. And we had 3 miles left. We found a campsite, put on dry clothes, and built a fire to get warm.
Based on our progress, we calculated the time we would get out as around 3 p.m. (3 river miles in five hours), and relayed this by satellite communicator to my wife, who was going to pick us up. I really suggest having an “InReach” type communicator on this trip. We encountered many ways of either becoming seriously injured or worse on this hike, and communication with the outside world could be advantageous in some situations.
Things to know
Some other recommendations we have are:
• Take someone along. Do not do this hike by yourself.
• Have an easily accessible whistle on you. It is very easy to get separated from your hiking buddies. People can be 30 feet apart and with the noise of the river and the intense vegetation, not be able to find each other. We were only separated twice the whole hike, and each time we had worked out our rendezvous beforehand.
• Go with people who can form a coherent team. This trip requires that the hikers work together.
• The river crossings can be dangerous. Take two hiking poles to help make it over the crossings without being swept downstream. If you are swept away, have an escape plan of how you will get out of the rapids worked out beforehand.
• There is a good chance that one or both of your hiking poles will break in the rocks. This will require picking up a wooden stick to use.
• In many places it is easier to walk in the river than to walk on the river bank. Expect to get wet and have everything in your backpack packed in such a way that it is able to be submerged and stay dry.
• Go in late August when it is still hot. Do not go when it is going to be cool or cold out. Pack dry clothes.
• Two-thirds of the hike (8 miles) was through dry river bed. During my research, someone mentioned that if you hike too early, the riverbed rocks will be slick with algae. This would greatly increase the difficulty of this section.
George observed the fauna of the gorge on the hike. It was eye-opening for me, as I have never been exposed to this science before. Some of his observations were:
• Two plants that are only common west of the Methow were fairly common here — licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), which grows in cliff cracks; and goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus).
• There were only a few weeds – white campion (Lychnis alba) and a single plant of diffuse knapweed (Centaurea diffusa).
• Surprisingly, no dandelion or Dutch clover was found, even though these have reached into other parts of the Pasayten Wilderness.
• Some ancient cedar groves grow along the river in several places starting near Monument Creek.
Out at last
On the third day we finally made it down to Monument Creek Trail, which actually ends at Eureka Creek and follows the Lost River to the trailhead. From here it is an easy 4-mile hike on a trail well above the river bank to reach the Monument Creek Trailhead. Walking on a real trail after doing the Lost River Gorge was a welcome change.
I was already planning a four-day, three-night trip of the Gorge for the following August. With the extra day, the person I am going with and I hope to check out the fishing. Needless to say, very few people fish this area.
George though, is not going to go again, at least not via that route. He says, “It was awesome but there is a lot more of the Pasayten yet to see.”
Author’s postscript: The hike described in this article took place in September 2019. In September 2020, I hiked the same section of Lost River Gorge with retired Methow District Ranger Mike Liu. The river was about a foot lower. With a lower river level, the hike was much easier than the 2019 trek. I ended up being able to hike in the river through most of the gorge, something I couldn’t do in 2019. The upshot is that, as with any wilderness journey, be prepared for any extreme conditions you may encounter.