Lava Canyon was “created” in the massive May 18, 1980 eruption. A surge of hot gas, ash and pumice boiled out of the crater and scoured nearly 30 feet of ice off Shoestring Glacier. A 15-foot wall of mud and rock swept into Lava Canyon. The mudflow’s boulders and abrasive ash scoured away the forest, exposing the canyon, its waterfalls and rock formations.
In this landscape much more stark than the forest below, spectacular views await all visitors. There are three sections of the Lava Canyon Trail distinguished by increasing difficulty. The upper trail is accessible and paved to a waterfall viewpoint. This portion is the easiest and leads you past a series of interpretive signs, which describe the formation of the canyon. The trail begins from Lava Canyon Interpretive Trailhead.
Below the waterfall viewpoint the trail becomes more difficult; it is no longer paved and skirts high cliffs. This segment forms a loop, crossing the canyon on a 125-foot cable suspension bridge. The bridge provides spectacular views of the canyon below but may be unnerving to some hikers. The trail returns on the south side of the canyon, crossing a steel bridge upstream of the waterfalls and rejoins the paved trail.
The lower trail is most difficult as it descends steeply into the canyon. If you are uncomfortable with heights, this segment is not for you. Beginning at the suspension bridge, the trail crosses an exposed cliff face followed by a water crossing with a cable grab-line. A 30-foot metal ladder descends a vertical cliff providing access to the canyons deepest recesses and roaring waterfalls. The trail soon intersects Ship Trail 184B which climbs 0.2 mile to a viewpoint atop the Ship, a lava formation that overlooks a long series of waterfalls in the lower canyon. A few tenths of a mile further, the canyon begins to broaden and flatten as it approaches a large alluvial fan spreading into the Smith Creek valley. Here the Lava Canyon Trail ends where it intersects Smith Creek Trail 225. A car shuttle to the lower trailhead permits a one-way downhill hike.
ALERT!: Stay on trail at all times. Water access is not available at this site and several fatalities have occurred at this location from off-trail travel.
AllTrails.com lists the trail as 4.4 miles out and back with an elevation change of 1145 feet.
I found the trail to be enjoyable and having plenty of photo opportunities. At times the lower trail could be considered narrow.
On the lower trail there is a stream crossing. The water flow has exposed the underlying rock - the rock is slick. As noted in the above text there is a "rope of sorts" on the uphill cliff side to use as a hand hold but still use caution.