Climb a Volcano, Enter the STP and Hang Glide All in One Region
By Alex Brown
Any local with a pair of hiking boots can tell you that Southwest Washington enjoys an endless bounty of outdoor opportunities. From popular trails in Mount Rainier National Park to fishing holes on nearby rivers to cycling routes in the Willapa Hills, it would probably be hard to find a longtime resident who hasn’t experienced some of what the area has to offer.
Then there are those who see faraway peaks as a beckoning challenge, whitewater rapids as an invitation and groaning muscles as a reward. For the adventurous, Southwest Washington offers an equal measure of opportunity. And even for those who don’t count themselves that bold, plenty of the area’s “bucket list” adventures are attainable with a little bit of preparation — and perhaps a slight willingness to suffer.
With that, here’s a list of activities that every outdoors enthusiast in the region should do at least once.
Climb a Volcano
The mountains that dominate the region’s horizon — Rainier, St. Helens and Adams — also cast an outsized imprint on the imaginations of many of us living down below. And luckily, the trio of peaks offers something for everyone from the novice day-hiker to the experienced alpinist.
Mount St. Helens, by far the easiest of the volcanoes, is a pretty straightforward hike up, provided you get one of the in-demand permits. The climb takes you up lava flows of volcanic rock, through the blast zone of the 1980 eruption. You’ll see downed trees like matchsticks on surrounding hillsides and floating on the surface of Spirit Lake. The slog up through ash can be strenuous, but the epic view down into the blast crater offers a rare, up-close look at nature’s power.
Not far away, Mount Adams presents more of a mountaineering challenge. Standing over 12,000 feet tall, reaching the summit requires gear such as ice axes and crampons — and usually involves camping on snow overnight. Unlike other big climbs, though, it’s possible to reach the summit without navigating crevasse fields or learning advanced technical skills like linking up to a rope team.
Mount Rainier, of course, is Washington’s most iconic peak. It’s also the biggest challenge, reaching more than 14,000 feet into the sky and presenting lots of treacherous terrain on the climb up. It’s an expedition reserved for those with alpine know-how and gear. Many opt to pay a guide service company, linking up with professional climbers who can teach the necessary skills and keep a group out of harm’s way.
Ride the Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic
Every year, 10,000 or so riders come pedaling through Southwest Washington, about halfway through their journey from Seattle to Portland. The 200-mile ride in July brings together riders from all over the world, then sends them onto Washington’s backroads for two days of cycling (or just one day, for the very ambitious).
Though it’s possible to do the ride with little training, your legs and butt will thank you if you spend some time in the saddle building up endurance before the event. The ride itself is not a race, but a social affair where riders hang out with their friends, get to know new people and take in the countryside.
The ride’s halfway point is Centralia College, where many riders camp out and enjoy the festive party atmosphere. From there, it’s on to Portland, where throngs of cheering locals line the streets to greet riders at the finish line.
Hike the Wonderland Trail
Making a 93-mile circuit around Mount Rainier, the Wonderland Trail puts the full beauty of the national park on display — raging waterfalls, massive glaciers, quiet old-growth forest, wildflower-filled meadows and rugged ridgeline views. Mountain goats, bears, elk, deer and marmots are all regularly seen along the trail.
While it’s possible to hike the trail in five days, it’s best enjoyed over a week or more, giving time to swim in alpine lakes, stretch out in meadows and wait out an occasional rainstorm. Be prepared for lots of ups and downs, as the trail features 22,000 feet of elevation gain — and an equal amount of descending.
Paddle the Pe Ell River Run
On the second Saturday in April, scores of paddlers hop into the Chehalis River at Pe Ell and float the 10 miles downstream to Rainbow Falls. The annual River Run is a celebration of spring, and features all sorts of colorful vessels and costumes.
When the weather’s good, you’ll find festive parties on all of the beaches alongside the river. When the weather’s gross, the party atmosphere seems to carry on anyway. In years when the water’s high, occasional rapids and eddies may present a challenge — many a river runner has been dumped overboard.
The real thrill ride is at the end of the event, where some brave souls opt to go over Rainbow Falls. It’s doable, though the current and waves make it tricky. Whether or not you capsize in the falls, plenty of onlookers will cheer you on and haul your bedraggled self and boat to shore.
Hang Glide from Dog Mountain
The skies of Southwest Washington make a perfect venue for another type of adventurer: hang gliders. On a summer day, many of their colorful craft can be seen above Riffe Lake, taking advantage of some of the most consistently soarable terrain in the state. While hang gliding is for experts only, the members of the Cloudbase Country Club, who maintain the launch site on Dog Mountain, are a friendly bunch who are happy to share their sport. Some enthusiasts have tandem gliders, which gives the opportunity to offer lessons.
If nothing else, it’s worth hanging out at the east end of the lake to watch the gliders do their stunts. And if you ask around, and you’re willing to pay for a lesson, you may get a chance to soar yourself.