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Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens

Pack a pair of jaw-dropping peaks into your travel itinerary

When it comes to mountain adventure in the Evergreen State, it’s hard to select from Washington’s many majestic peaks. So, we’ll help you by narrowing the choice down to two: Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens.

From oceans of wildflowers and gushing waterfalls to glistening lakes and sweeping vistas, these mountains showcase the best of the Pacific Northwest. Both peaks offer endless arrays of outdoor opportunities. Mount Rainier is only a few hours away from Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima and Portland. Mount St. Helens is just 89 miles south of Mount Rainier. If you have the time, try to visit both mountains as each offers unique scenery and different experiences.

Rainier: Peaks, Meadows and Forests, Oh My!

Jordan Goss

Rising 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest mountain in the Cascade Range. It’s also an active volcano with five developed areas, some with picnic spots, restaurants and visitor centers.

Thanks to over 260 miles of maintained trails, you’ll be able to trek to the most beautiful destinations within Mount Rainier National Park. Seasoned hikers will want to tackle the famous Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile multiday journey that circles around the whole mountain. Huge elevation changes mean you’ll weave through a variety of terrain including lush meadows, thick forests, serene lakes and more.

For a less strenuous hike, take the popular Nisqually Vista Trail to reach the vibrant wildflower meadows of Paradise, home to the park’s main visitor center. Time your visit for summer to ensure that the wildflowers are in full bloom. You’ll be enchanted by bright yellow cinquefoils, pink penstemon, purple lupine and red paintbrush.

For a change of pace, embark on the family-friendly Grove of the Patriarchs Trail to come face to face with a collection of colossal trees that date back more than 1,000 years. Along the easy Sourdough Ridge Trail at Sunrise, you can also meander through alpine meadows, take in exquisite mountain scenery and get glimpses of cute marmots. Start your journey at the Sunrise Visitor Center. Here, you can check out its many exhibits on local plant and wildlife, and learn how the Sunrise area was formed by volcano and glaciers.

Rainier Alternatives

You don’t have to trek along trails to see the best of Mount Rainier. The Mount Rainier Gondola provides scenic rides up nearby Crystal Mountain. At the top, you’ll find Summit House restaurant. Featuring a delectable menu and dazzling views of nearby volcanic peaks, Summit House offers a dining experience unlike any other.

You can also appreciate the mountain’s beauty from the comfort of your car. Drive along the White Pass Scenic Byway in the south and Chinook Scenic Byway in the north to discover quaint mountain communities, alpine areas, river valleys, and, of course, stellar vistas. You can even see the area by train. Hop on the Mount Rainier Railroad in Elbe for a fun 18-mile ride through the picturesque countryside.

Mount St. Helens: Out of the Ashes

Ted Quackenbush

Looking at the stunning countryside around Mount St. Helens, it’s hard to believe that the peak erupted in 1980 with the force of 1,600 atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima. The blast destroyed 150 square miles of forest, cut the peak by 1,300 feet, and blasted many homes with mud and water. Today, the mountain has been renamed the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, and the region is now the setting for geological research and outdoor recreation. Interpretive centers along the Spirit Lake Highway help visitors learn more about the disaster.

Stop by the Johnston Ridge Observatory just north of Mount St. Helens for incredible views of the lava dome, crater and landslide deposit. Afterward, learn how the surrounding landscape was changed by the eruption and find out though a variety of videos and interpretive displays how scientists predict when a volcano is going to erupt. If you’re interested in learning more about active volcanoes and their influence on the natural world, consider visiting the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center 9 miles northwest in Toutle.

Go Ape Underground

Outdoor enthusiasts will want to take advantage of Mount St. Helens’ endless recreation opportunities. Stroll through the Ape Cave Interpretive Site’s underground chamber, the third-longest lava tube on the continent. Back on the surface, keep an eye out for an abundance of wildlife and enjoy some of the best bass fishing in the United States in some of the surrounding lakes. Or experience the rush of a lifetime as you fly from tree to tree at Skamania Lodge Zip Line, NW Trek Zip Line or Treehouse Island Zip Line.

Mount St. Helens also entices visitors with myriad trails that lead to young forests, clear lakes, alluring wildflowers and mountain vistas. Popular hikes include Hummocks Trail, Harry’s Ridge, Butte Camp, Meta Lake and Lava Canyon.

Ready to get a close-up view of the crater? Take the eastside road up to Windy Ridge. The route to this destination crosses several miles of trees that were topped by the blast, a stark reminder of the sheer power of the earth’s fury. At Windy Ridge Viewpoint, visitors get stunning views of ground zero. A long staircase climbs 220 feet up the hill above the parking area for superb views of the wreckage left by the explosion. The 1-mile Harmony Trail leads down to Spirit Lake, left desolate after the eruption.

Seasoned hikers can set foot on the very top of Mount. St. Helens providing they have a permit. This hike is suitable only for people in good physical condition.

More Education Stations

The Forest Learning Center, on mile marker 33 on SR 504,  sheds light on the science behind explosion for children. Kids can enjoy the playground; climb into a helicopter and pretend to fly around the mountian; or explore the eruption center and learn how geological forces conspired to cause the blast.

Also telling the story of the disaster is Castle Rock Exhibit Hall in the city of Castle Rock off I-5. Visitors can peruse pictures put together by survivors and residents of the area to learn more about the event.

For More Information

Mount St. Helens

360-274-7750

www.mountsthelens.com

Washington State Tourism

800-544-1800

www.experiencewa.com