If efficiency is your thing, you could start your day in Seattle with Top Pot Donuts and coffee from the original Starbucks then arrive three hours later in Portland for an artisanal, organic, handcrafted lunch. At 175 miles, it’s nearly a straight line, but a situation where the shortest distance between two points is kind of boring.
There is a better way. Sure, it’ll take several days and it’s closer to 500 miles and 11 hours of driving but that extra mileage will lead you to the mountaintop . . . or at least close enough to bask in, and take photographs of, the majestic beauty of the Pacific Northwest’s most memorable mountains: Mount Rainier (14,417 feet, fifth highest peak in the continental United States); Mount Hood, (11,249 feet, Oregon’s tallest); and the relatively puny (just 8,365 feet) but more famous Mount St. Helens, the still-active volcano which dramatically erupted in 1980.
We spent a full day at Mount Rainier, two at Mount St. Helens and part of a day at Mount Hood, but you could easily spend a full week or more in these mountains and never grow bored.
Mount Rainier offers many easy trails or you can simply drive and stop at numerous pullouts or you can register for a summit climb that includes a vertical elevation gain of more than 9,000 feet over eight-plus miles, which requires climbing equipment. (There are two high camps on the mountain, available year-round.)
We chose the middle ground: the Skyline Loop Trail is about 5.5 miles, with elevation gain over the first half of around 1,700 feet to a high of 7,100 feet. It takes about four hours to complete . . . unless you are with my photography-crazed sons, Caleb and Lucas, who require lots of extra time.
The trail starts at the Visitor Center and the early going is paved, so it’s packed with people checking out the mountain and the fields of wildflowers that surround it (including lupines, mountain heather, scarlet paintbrush and cascade asters, for those of you scoring at home.)
At the start, the view of Mount Rainier is breathtaking. But every little bit closer hiked the beauty quotient and we’d stop for another round of photos. It never ceased to amaze; the only time we took our eyes off the mountain was when we stopped to frolic in a field of snow.
After Glacier Vista, which provides perhaps the best vantage point, the hiking gets harder and the crowds thin out . . . in terms of people. Plenty of adorable hoary marmots scamper around or sit along the trail checking out the hikers.
Eventually, the trail veers off toward Panorama Point. This is not the highest point on the trail; that honor is reserved for a nearby pit toilet, but aesthetically speaking this is preferable for picnics and photos, with views of Paradise Valley, 12,280-foot Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and beyond. The view of Rainier and these other mountains diminishes on the backside of the trail but that’s offset by a lush green landscape with waterfalls and more wildflowers.
We had a two-hour drive to our motel and it was already late when we left so we were thrilled to stumble upon Wild Berry Restaurant, a half-hour into our drive. Owned by Sherpas, they serve authentic — and delicious — Himalayan food (and an American menu for the less adventurous), including, dumplings, stew and curry.
MOUNT ST. HELENS
Mount St. Helens lacks the dazzling beauty of Mount Rainier; after all, the denuded landscape surrounding the mountain is the most visceral reminder of the destruction the volcano wrought in 1980. The observatory is a great place to start for a thorough education on the volcano, though the film downplays the terror and human tragedy (57 people died).
Again, the hiking options are numerous, from the three-day 28-mile Loowit Trail that circumnavigates the mountain to a climb up to the summit that requires a special permit, which are limited in number.
The Boundary Trail outside the observatory is flat and easy but with little shade, and it offers little beyond what you can see from the starting point. The 2.5-mile Hummocks Trail is also relatively flat but more intriguing, with some interpretive signs explaining about the old growth forest that was there before the lava, rocks, and mud tore through here, carving out ponds and creating small hills, or hummocks. Nature is returning, gradually, allowing you to see what once was and what will be all at once.
The next day we explored Mount St. Helens’ south side; the Lava Canyon Trail was the most dramatic hike on our trip. There’s an easy, paved beginning that leads to waterfalls. This is followed by a steep descent before you cross a 125-foot suspension bridge, surrounded by high cliffs above the canyon with dizzying views of water rushing through the canyon below you; there’s also a second bridge to cross, and a 30-foot metal ladder that takes you straight down a vertical cliff to more waterfalls. For extra excitement, my sons also found a snake eating a frog at the bottom of the ladder. The hike back up includes about 1600 feet of elevation gain so save snacks and water for the end.
After that we went underground, on a short jaunt inside Ape Caves, which took us into the subterranean lava tubes formed in thick lava beds. It’s not only dark — we rented lanterns from the visitor center — it’s always 42 degrees inside so you may want layers, though scrambling among the boulders keeps the blood flowing. It’s a fun diversion but less essential than Lava Canyon.
The area around Mount Hood features far too many hiking trails of all skills to mention here. This time around, we chose an easier route than the Skyline or Lava Canyon trail, going to the Mirror Lake Trail, because it is readily accessible from the highway and has spectacular views of Mount Hood and Tom Dick and Harry Mountain right above the lake. (although apparently on weekends this can mean annoyingly large crowds). The hike is only 2.9 miles with elevation gain of just 780 feet but it leads into a trail up Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain if you want to be more ambitious. The highlight is the view of Mount Hood from the far side of Mirror Lake, with the pristine reflection that explains the name. After that you can be in Portland in a little over an hour, for a different type of adventure, exploring Powell’s Books.
IF YOU GO
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK 360-569-2211, nwsdy.li/MtRanierTrails
WILD BERRY RESTUARANT 360-569-2777 nwsdy.li/WildBerry
MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL VOLCANIC MONUMENT 360-449-7800
JOHNSTON RIDGE OBSERVATORY 360-274-2140, nwsdy.li/MtStHelens
LAVA CANYON http://nwsdy.li/LavaCanyon
APE CAVES nwsdy.li/ApeCaves
MOUNT HOOD NATIONAL FOREST 503-668-1700, nwsdy.li/MtHood
- If you are going to visit all three mountains, it is worth investing in an National Park Service’s America the Beautiful pass, which lasts a year and gets you into more than 2,000 federal sites: nwsdy.li/ParkPass