Visit the Volcanoes: Mount Rainier, St. Helens Offer Recreational Bliss

Mount Rainier 

On a sunny day, you can catch a glimpse of Mount Rainier from just about anywhere in Southwest Washington, but if you get a little closer, Rainier becomes more than a beautiful view, but a perfect getaway for those wishing to escape for a prolonged day trip or some extended time with nature.

The mountain itself, reaching 14,410 feet, is probably the most recognized landmark in all of Washington state, and it’s the background picture on most state license plates for good reason. 

The active volcano is surrounded by lush forests, alpine meadows and abundant wildlife.

The mountain itself presents quite the challenge for climbers and can test even the most hardened hikers, but most people will be best served to simply visit areas such as Paradise, Longmire and Ohanapecosh and marvel at the enormity and beauty of the peak.

Mount Rainier is part of a scenic region of the Cascades that separates the east and west sides of the state, making the mountain more than just a destination in its own right, but an outdoors haven for anyone whose heart calls the hills and peaks of the region home.

Hiking and touring the Mount Rainier region is best reserved for the day, but when it comes time to wind down, Mount Rainier National Park offers plenty of resources for campers, from full-service campsites to backcountry areas.

The Cougar Rock campground in the southwest section of the park is open from late May to late September, offering 173 campsites; Ohanapecosh in the southeast section offers 188 sites; and White River offers 112 sites. All these campgrounds offer water, restrooms and fire grates; RVs and trailers are welcome, but visit nps.gov/mora for maximum length allowances.

Reservations are also required at Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh.

For those wishing to camp in the wilderness, a permit is required. Pick one up from any of the visitor centers throughout the park.

The 93-mile Wonderland Trail offers opportunities for wilderness camping, offering the opportunity to cache food at several points along the way. 

For a list of maps and other resources with which to plan a camping trip, visitnps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/maps.htm.

From Interstate 5, Mount Rainier is best accessed by taking U.S. Highway 12 to Morton then bearing north on state Route 7. Head north into Elbe, then take state Route 706 east all the way to the park entrance. A National Park Pass is required; for more information visit nps.gov/mora. Additional information can be found online at visitrainier.com.

Mount St. Helens 

Unlike its unspoiled neighbor on the Cascade mountain range, Mount St. Helens is still recovering from a devastating eruption 38 years ago. 

Alex Brown / abrown@chronline.com The summit of Mount St. Helens looks out over the crater, with Spirit Lake and Mount Rainier in the background.

The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument stands as a living testament to nature’s regenerative power. It’s easily accessible from Lewis County for those who want to get a close-up view of the mountain and the surrounding area by car or by foot.

Evidence of the destruction still marks the landscape, with pieces of the mountain known as hummocks deposited throughout the blast zone. 

The signs of regeneration are best explored closely. Red paintbrush peeks through the ground along several hiking trails, and small trees insulated by snow at the time of the blast have begun to mature, especially in the Mount Margaret area. Wildlife has begun to call the area home once again, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility to encounter a herd of deer or elk.

To get the closest you can to the mountain — or even the crater itself — you’ll have to use your feet. Several hikes offer the opportunity to view the mountain from a variety of angles, including the Hummocks Trail, a two-mile loop around several hummocks that allow for views of the mountain.

Delving into moderate difficulty, the Hummocks to Johnston Ridge hike is a nearly 9-mile round trip that gains at least 2,000 feet in elevation while twisting and turning to offer consistently changing views of the north flank of the volcano. 

To get even more majestic views of the mountain — and maybe more importantly for some, away from the throngs at Johnston Ridge Observatory — park at the far end of the observatory lot and take the Boundary Trail to Harry’s Ridge or Coldwater Peak, 

The Washington Trails Association website at www.wta.org offers detailed information on several other hikes, complete with trip reports from people who have been there and can offer advice for the trail.

The Mount St. Helens Institute, a nonprofit organization aiming to enhance people’s experiences at the mountain, offers a wide variety of activities from summit climbs with geologists to its annual Volcano Outdoor School and Volcano Camp. For more information on their offerings, visitmshinstitute.org or follow them on Facebook.

Mount St. Helens is truly an area to be explored in-depth, with much to offer an entire family over the course of a few hours full day trip or even a few days in the region.

Alex Brown / abrown@chronline.com
Mount Rainier rises up behind Spirit Lake, as seen atop the crater on the summit of Mount St. Helens.