The Dark Divide is a vast and stunning roadless area with over 76,000 acres to explore. The trails of the Dark Divide region take you to seldom-traveled places that are unspeakably beautiful, soul-stirringly remote, and uncommonly rugged in the heart of the Central Washington Cascades. Located in the center of Gifford-Pinchot National Forest, the Dark Divide is a land of deep, solitary valleys filled with centuries-old trees; stunning, serrated sub-alpine ridges that are painted by wildflowers and punctuated by peaks; wild streams tumbling unfettered over waterfalls into sparkling pools; viewscapes that feel like you can touch Pahto (Mount Adams), Tahoma (Mount Rainier), and Loowit (Mount Saint Helens) with your fingers… and a treasure of glimpses into the world as it once was.
The Dark Divide and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest have a long, rich, and complex history. These are the Taidnapam (Cowlitz) ancestral lands, who have lived here and cared for these lands for over 10,000 years. Historically, there were Sahaptin-speaking people (the Upper Cowlitz) and Chinookan-speaking people (Lewis River Cowlitz). The Yakama people also frequented the area, trading with the Taidnapam people. Beginning in the 1830s, the influx of European settlers resulted in forced relocations, broken treaties, and disease that had decimated the original people of this area. The Cowlitz Tribe was not federally recognized until 2000.
In the late 1800s, during the earliest days of the Forest Service, the Rainier and Columbia Forest Reserves were formed. In fact, the Boundary Trail that traverses the Dark Divide Roadless Area earned its name as the primary route traveled by rangers between the two reserves around the turn of the century. The reserves became the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in 1949.
Though extensive logging and resource extraction impacted large Gifford Pinchot National Forest areas, the Dark Divide remained relatively pristine. Today the Dark Divide Roadless Area and its associated old-growth forests are protected under the Northwest Forest Plan, including habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl.
The Dark Divide also has a vast network of multi-use trails. Mountain bikes, dirt bikes, and equestrians share many of these pathways, though most times, you will be lucky if you pass enough people to count on one hand during a long day in this wildscape. Owing to both the rugged nature of the terrain and the multi-use nature of many of the trails, expect some very steep and very technical sections. However, the sense of scale and vastness are always the rewards for running in the Dark Divide.
The Dark Divide Roadless Area trails are maintained by the Washington Trails Association, The Northwest Motorcycle Association, and Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The Dark Divide (Juniper Ridge/Cispus) northern portion is under the Cowlitz Valley Ranger District, while the south portion (Lewis River/Quartz Creek) is under the Mount Adams Ranger District. With the remote, rugged, and seldom-used trails, it is always a good idea to check road and trail status before setting out. Most areas require a Northwest Forest Pass to park.
Dark Divide Trail Runs
The hundreds of miles of trails in the Dark Divide could easily fill a book. However, to get you started on some of the highlights, I have described a few highly recommended runs that will give you a viscerally true feel for this magical place.
The Lewis River Trail and Quartz Creek Trail are both located on the southern border of the Dark Divide Roadless Area. The 18 miles of trail fall deep into lush old-growth forests and meander through several waterfalls.
The Juniper Ridge Trail is located in the heart of the Dark Divide. The 11-mile trail offers multiple volcanic views and wildflower meadows.
The Cispus Learning Center has multiple trailheads, including the Covell Creek – Angel Falls and the Burley Mountain Trail. The Cispus Learning Center is located about 15 minutes from Randle, WA.
Dark Divide Trail Races
The inaugural Dark Divide Trail Races, put on by Wonderland Running, will occur this August 6-8. There is a 50k and a 17 Mile Fun Run that explores the high country of Juniper Ridge out of Cispus Learning Center. In addition, the 100 Miler traverses the entire Dark Divide Roadless Area for a grueling and grand tour of this special place.
The Bigfoot 200, put on by Destination Trail, includes the Quartz Creek and the eastern portion of Boundary Trail in its course. The race winds all the way from Marble Mountain at Mount Saint Helens (Loowit) to Randle. This race covers a vast area of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Trail Running Groups
Because of the remoteness of the Dark Divide, there is no trail running groups in the area. However, three groups within a couple of hours of the Dark Divide are Olytrailrunners in Olympia, Vantucky Trail Runners in Vancouver, and Hard Core Runners Club in Yakima.
Food and Drink
The charms of the remote wilds of the Dark Divide also mean that it is very little in the way of eating establishments or even population centers surrounding it. However, there are a few fun and worthwhile stops.
DNB Coffee is a little drive-through coffee stand at the intersection of WA 20 and WA 131 in Randle, WA that has provided me with more than one delicious iced oat milk mocha, and their hours in the summer extend until 6:00 PM. Right across the street from DNB is The Bistro. Though currently closed following the pandemic, The Bistro features an eclectic and internationally inspired menu. They are supposed to be re-opening soon with a full bar and evening hours.
Down on the south end of the Dark Divide, there are even fewer services… unless you want pizza! Located on Forest Road 90 next to Eagle Cliff General Store, The Pizza Place is a fun, quirky, and surprisingly yummy pizza stop in the most unlikely settings.
It is good to bear in mind that the seasonal nature of many businesses in the area coupled with post-pandemic transition can often results and somewhat unpredictable hours.