By Russ Mohney, For The Chronicle
Folks in Lewis County are blessed with three of the most splendid volcanoes on the spine of the Cascades, and they are always happy to share their treasures with visitors. As a trio of the nation’s most spectacular landmarks, they offer a breathtaking experience in their nearness and recreational choices almost beyond our imagination.
There is an otherwise unremarkable hilltop in the county where you can stand almost exactly 26 miles from each of the three giants. Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens seem near enough to touch, and they beckon the traveler to approach and enjoy them.
All three mountains were at one time almost perfect volcanic cones draped in everlasting snow. Each has erupted and never again recovered its perfect symmetry. It only takes a bit of imagination to restore their original lines in one’s mind, astonished at how high they must have once reached.
Today, each of our backyard volcanoes exhibits a craggy face that suggests its own, unique personality. If time permits, every visitor should try to stand at the base of all three to taste the differing experience each presents.
Mount Rainier — The granddaddy of Pacific volcanoes, Rainier blew away several thousand feet of its cone in the distant past. It now bears three separate peaks on its 14,410-foot shoulders.
In recent years Mount St. Helens has stolen the eruptive thunder from her big sister, but Rainier’s geological clock is ticking. Mount Rainier is considered the most dangerous of all Cascade volcanoes, holding enough ice and snow in her glaciers to create lahars that could devastate a giant foothill complex in which 1.5 million people live and work.
Mount Rainier Park holds some of the finest developed recreation areas in America. This year and next some of those will still be out of commission after enormous storms and floods changed the character of the park once again. There may be some delays when driving through the park, and some campgrounds and other facilities may be under reconstruction, but a few days at Mount Rainier may give a family an unparalleled opportunity to watch nature restore itself.
Most of the 170 miles of road will be open, as will most of the 240 miles of maintained hiking trails. Summer hikers may have to negotiate some steep washouts and trees blown down across the trails, but those that are clearly unsafe have been closed for the season by park staff.
A few of the park’s river valley campgrounds were destroyed by violent flooding and may not be rebuilt for several years. It is wise to get camping information from visitor’s centers or by Internet to make reservations where required.
For many, a stay at Mount Rainier this summer will be a chance to know the land a bit more intimately than when all the amenities were in place. It may still be safe and comfortable, but a walk on the wild side. For a great many of us, that’s a definite asset!
Mount St. Helens — When this volcano came to life in May of 1980, 1,300 feet of the symmetrical cone was blown off and the violence of the eruption sent ash around the world. Geologists estimated the material blown off would have equaled a staggering half-a-ton for every person on earth! Except for a few brief periods, Mount St. Helens hasn’t rested since.
In stark contrast to Mount Rainier, there are few hiking or camping opportunities near the mountain. The volcano is still in a state of flux, and the current dome-building eruption is the longest yet. It could easily last for many years as the mountain tries to rebuild its former polished cone.
There is nonetheless a fascination with the raw power evidenced by the gaping hole on the north flank and the huge crater that remains at the heart of the mountain. More important to many of the tens of thousands of observers that drive one of the three routes to St. Helens is the chance to see a restoration project of unbelievable proportions. As the land reclaims soil, plants, and animals, it’s possible to watch a natural miracle in progress. Already, for example, the elk herds around the mountain have regrown to more than their pre-eruption size and are among the largest anywhere. Birds and small animals today crowd the former blast zone.
Motorists driving SR 504 from Castle Rock to Johnston Ridge or any of the west side visitor’s centers can stop and often see hundreds of elk in the Toutle floodplain below the highway.
The closest approach to the mountain is via Forest Roads 25 and Forest Road 99 to a point that looks directly into the crater from the north. A third route from Woodland via State Rout 503 provides access to the mountain’s south flank. A climbing route leads to the rim of the crater but may be closed due to the ongoing slow eruption.
Mount Adams — Deceptively calm and serene, Mount Adams is the least developed of the volcano playgrounds of Lewis County. The eastern and southern quadrants of the mountain lie on Yakama Indian reservation land and are open only in selected spots to visitors. While Mount Adams boasts the largest group summit climb in the nation, most of the recreation is centered on the alpine lakes region to the north and west of the summit.
A popular choice each summer is the group of lakes and alpine meadows along FR 2339, via FR 23 from Randle. Fine campgrounds at Takhlakh Lake, Olallie Lake, Chain of Lakes, Council Lake, Horseshow Lake, and nearby camps at Walupt and Chambers Lakes also contain many semi-rustic campsites. Camping, however, is at a premium in the high country from the last snowmelt in early July until fresh snow in October and November. There are countless streams and attractions that offer additional “dispersed” camping and there are special horse camps in the high country. Visit a ranger station or other nearby outlets for maps and information on the recreation at Mount Adams, considered by many local anglers, hikers, and campers to be the crown jewel of the Lewis County wilderness experience.