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Sword Fern Way Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

View up the Rock Creek valley from Sword Fern Way (bobcat)
Pools below the East Fork bridge, Moulton Falls County Park (bobcat)
Big Douglas-fir on the Bells Mountain Trail (bobcat)
Douglas-fir plantation, Sword Fern Way (bobcat)
White cheese polypore (Tyromyces chioneus), Sword Fern Way (bobcat)
The lollipop loop using Sword Fern Way (bobcat) Courtesy: Gaia Topo
  • Start point: Moulton Falls Upper TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Bells Mountain
  • Hike Type: Lollipop loop
  • Distance: 8.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1785 feet
  • High point: 2,223 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: All year, except during low elevation snow
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

Sword Fern Way, one of several new trails plotted by the Washington Department of Natural Resources in the Yacolt Burn State Forest, officially opened to the public in 2021. It serves as a loop up the east slope of Bells Mountain, with a spur leading to the broad summit itself. The switchbacks, constructed for mountain bikes, are broad and looping, and the route alternates clearcuts with views and stands of same-age Douglas-fir forest. Some of the most scenic sections of this hike are close to the trailhead, where you’ll see into the gorge of the East Fork Lewis River and enjoy its rushing cascades.

It's recommended that you hike from the less crowded upper parking lot rather than the lower lot. Take the wide trail near the beginning of the parking area, and descend to a junction. Keep left here, and stay left as you pass through a picnic area in a forest of salal, sword fern, and big Douglas-firs. You’ll descend to a viewpoint over the gorge of the East Fork Lewis River and then turn to cross the high bridge over the chasm. (Despite the warning signs, the bridge has been the scene of many a painful summer accident involving young scofflaws.)

After the bridge, stay left at a trail leading to another picnic area. A massive Douglas-fir stands sentinel over Moulton Falls, more of a cascade that channels through a narrow defile. The old railroad grade passes beneath a ferny rock face and then crosses a bridge at a cascading stream before reaching the junction with the Bells Mountain Trail at a kiosk.

Turn left to head up the Bells Mountain Trail, a designated National Recreation Trail. Almost immediately, you’ll notice huge rotting snags from the 1902 Yacolt Burn among 100-year-old living trees. The trail switchbacks on a sword fern slope and then drops to cross a creek above a splashing waterfall. Then the route winds up and levels on a bench, where you’ll pass the 0.5 mile marker. You’ll soon begin ascending again, this time in more mixed forest with alder and big-leaf maple. At a bend, you’ll keep left at an unsigned junction with a biker trail. The trail crosses a footbridge in a vine maple thicket and traverses a slope, crossing a cascading brook to enter a clearcut. Views extend across the East Fork valley to the top of Mount Saint Helens as well as back to the town of Yacolt. Back in the forest, you’ll cross another creek and pass through a salmonberry/devil’s club thicket to enter a Douglas-fir plantation. A logging spur (BG-2020) meets the trail at a sign forbidding motorized vehicles; 30 yards up the road, Sword Fern Way heads into the woods.

Stay on the Bells Mountain Trail as it passes through a stand of mature timber on a level traverse. You’ll get more views, this time up the Rock Creek valley to Silver Star Mountain and Larch Mountain, as you proceed through another clearcut. The trail drops through a young plantation and crosses two more footbridges. At the edge of the next clearcut, you’ll come to the south junction with Sword Fern Way.

Initially from here, there are great views to Kloochman Butte, Silver Star Mountain, Sturgeon Rock, and Larch Mountain. From a replanted clearcut, you’ll cross a logging road to reach a more recent clearcut with more views to the east. Then the trail crosses Road BG-2020 to plunge into a dark, same-age forest of mossy Douglas-firs. After winding up, the trail ascends in 12 wide, looping biker switchbacks in a low understory of sword fern and Oregon grape. You should notice an unmarked trail leading left on an old road.

This unofficial trail soon leaves its road bed and rises past a logging landing an into a clearcut near the summit of Bells Mountain. At the actual summit, which is reached by road from two directions, there used to be a fenced communications tower, but the structures and the fencing were removed in 2022. Because of the broadness of the summit area and the trees on three sides, the views are not as good as from down on the trails.

Return to the Sword Fern Way and keep rising on the old logging road, with its arbor of alders. A biker trail leads left to connect with the north road to the summit of Bells Mountain. Sword Fern Way then loops down four times to then traverse a hillside of alder, Douglas-fir, and salmonberry. Four more long loops take you down to a forested bench. From here, there are three more switchbacks down to a gravel road. The trail makes a couple more loops near a rushing creek to reach Road BG-2020. It’s 30 yards straight ahead to close the loop at the Bells Mountain Trail.


Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • Restrooms, picnic area
  • Share trails with horses and bikers

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • none

More Links


Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.