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Mount Rainier & Mount St. Helens

Hike through alpine fields or explore prehistoric lava tunnels

Two of the best-known and most-visited mountains in Washington state’s Cascade Range, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens embody nature at its most extreme. Mount Rainier is best visited from Seattle, some 65 miles away, while most visitors approach Mount St. Helens from Portland, Oregon, a 70-mile drive from the mountain. However, if you’ve got the chance, try to visit both, as each of these two majestic mountains has its own special offerings to entice visitors.

Mount Rainier

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Founded in 1899 as the fifth national park in the country, Mount Rainier National Park boasts the highest peak in the Cascade Range, with a summit elevation of 14,410 feet.

Although scientists don’t believe that it’s set to erupt anytime soon, this dormant volcano is blanketed by 26 glaciers that cover more than 25 square miles of the mountain’s surface. When it’s not shrouded in fog, the mountain cuts a dramatic profile against the horizon, and on a clear day it is visible from Seattle.

The national park around Rainier is a year-round destination, with numerous summer activities that include mountain and road biking, geocaching, hiking, fishing, boating and backpacking. The first documented summit took place in 1870, and today the challenge of summiting this volcano draws in huge groups of mountaineers who feel ready to meet the challenge. Thousands succeed in making it to the top every year, but not everyone completes the trip, as doing so requires lots of training and an excellent level of general fitness.

Popular and less challenging journeys on the mountain include the 93-mile Wonderland Trail, which loops around the peak, reaching a summit of around 6,500 feet at Panhandle Gap. Day-trippers often stick to shorter trails. Popular excursions include the 3.5-mile Naches Peak Loop Trail, right on the edge of the park, which traverses meadows of wildflowers in the spring and huckleberries in the fall. The Silver Falls Trail is another good option if you don’t mind a bit of mist from the 75-foot waterfall drop along the Ohanapecosh River. For those looking for something less active, the 0.7-mile Trail of the Shadows only takes about 20 minutes or so to traverse and includes a replica of an old homestead cabin, plus lots of opportunities for wildlife spotting in a mix of woodlands and meadows.

Mount St. Helens

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Mount St. Helens made headlines when its 1980 eruption killed 57 people and destroyed hundreds of homes, bridges and roadways. Today, the now-dormant volcano is a popular spot for Pacific Northwest visitors who are interested in geology or simply want to ooh and ah over the volcano’s giant blown-out crater.

After the eruption, the mountain—located within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest—was preserved as the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Today, it’s a popular day-trip from Portland or side-trip for those traveling along Washington State’s stretch of Interstate 5. Popular activities in the area include backpacking, hiking and mountain biking, and brave souls from around the country come to climb the mountain’s Monitor Ridge Route, which takes visitors to the mountain’s infamous crater at an altitude of 8,363 feet.

One of the most popular activities at Mount St. Helens, the Ape Cave Interpretive Site is particularly big among families. At more than two miles in length, the underground chamber is the third-longest lava tube in North America. Also popular with adventurous families is the Mt. St. Helens ZipLine Adventure on Treehouse Island. Located 40 miles to the west of the mountain in Silver Lake, this attraction gives visitors the chance to zoom between cedar, ash, maple and fir trees. Six thrilling lines connect beautifully conceived tree houses throughout the forest.

Having a Blast

Operated by the U.S. Forest Service, the Johnston Ridge Observatory is located right in the blast zone and features interpretive exhibits about the story of Mount St. Helens. Features include film screenings, ranger talks and a small gift store. In the summer months, the observatory hosts a concert series, Music on the Mountain, in its own outdoor amphitheater. About 10 miles west of the observatory, the Science and Learning Center at Coldwater attracts groups with its numerous educational programs, some of which involve overnight stays.

Hikers will enjoy the half-mile Eruption Trail, which starts at the Johnston Ridge Observatory and is flanked with signs providing information about the 1980 eruption.

For More Information

Mount St. Helens

360-274-7750

www.mountsthelens.com

 

Washington State Tourism

800-544-1800

www.experiencewa.com