Eruptions of beauty Natural splendor: Whether you're hiking, skiing, driving or just sitting and looking, you'll find a lot to like about the majestic volcanic peaks of the Cascade Mountains.

May 10, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

They are ominous and beautiful at the same time. Volcanic peaks capture nature at its muscle-flexing best, a fierceness only thinly veiled by a blanket of wildflowers or pristine snow.

The Cascade Mountains, a 1,000-mile-long rocky spine that runs from British Columbia to northern California, has enough volcanoes, craters and ancient lava flows to occupy visitors for two weeks. They form the eastern edge of "The Ring of Fire," the volcanic mountain ranges that encircle the Pacific Ocean. The number of volcanoes and the variety of activity in the Pacific Northwest are such that the U.S. Geological Survey has its research center in Vancouver, Wash., just a lava flow away from Mount St. Helens.

But you can do research of your own. Fly to Seattle, grab a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage and point your rental car to the southeast and the highest of the Cascade peaks about two hours away. Their beauty - beyond the obvious - is that you can ski them, hike them, drive around them or just sit with a picnic lunch and gawk at them.

With its lower slopes often shrouded in clouds, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier appears to levitate above the Seattle skyline and loom much closer.

Rainier, about a million years old, is a baby volcano by geologic standards. It lost some of its height 8,500 years ago when an eruption sheared about 1,500 feet off its summit.

But that loss of stature didn't diminish naturalist John Muir's admiration for it: "Of all the fire mountains which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest."

While more than 2 million people visit Mount Rainier National Park annually, most rarely stray from the visitor centers and parking areas.

Their loss should be your gain.

Hiking trails, more than 300 miles of them, take you through old-growth forests and meadows bursting with wildflowers to glacier-fed waterfalls and streams.

Volcanic fires built the mountain king, but glaciers - about 25 named and twice as many unnamed - sculpted it and nourished its surroundings.

Located on the northeast side of the mountain, Sunrise is the highest point you can reach in Washington state on a paved road (6,400 feet). Because it is considered slightly out of the way, the crowds are smaller.

It has a visitor center, a cafeteria and a dandy 1.5-mile nature hike along the Sourdough Ridge that takes you through a blanket of wildflowers to a panorama of four volcanic peaks: Rainier, Hood, Adams and Baker.

Paradise, the most-visited entrance to the park, is home to the 126-room Paradise Inn, one of those brawny monuments to the American woodsman, and the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, one of those characterless objects built to commemorate a dead politician.

The inn, constructed in 1917, has two massive stone fireplaces, peeled-log ceiling beams and killer views of Mount Rainier.

Expend a little bit of energy and stroll the 1.2-mile Nisqually Vista nature trail for views of the mountain and Nisqually Glacier, which starts at Rainier's crown and reaches to within a mile of you.

Reward your efforts with a civilized spot of afternoon tea on the inn's mezzanine overlooking the lobby, and marvel at how the snow sometimes buries the three-story building right up to its roof.

Before leaving Rainier, swing by Longmire, with its historic inn, general store and museum in many ways the nicest of the park man-made attractions.

For those short of breath and faint of heart, there's the self-guided Trail of the Shadows that takes you around the meadow that was the site of Mount Rainier's first hotel, the 1884 Mineral Springs Resort.

But for a real thrill, take your time and hike a portion of the seven-mile Indian Henry's Hunting Ground Trail. Bring plenty of film to record fallen trees with trunks that can't be circled by the arms of two people, acres of wildflowers, alpine streams and outstanding views of Rainier.

Mount St. Helens

Nothing prepares you for your first look at Mount St. Helens, 2 1/2 hours by car south of Rainier.

An earthquake on May 18, 1980, triggered an eruption that tore off the top 1,313 feet of the mountain and rocketed stones, superheated gas and ash laterally at almost 600 mph.

The brute force scoured the landscape raw, and although vegetation and wildlife have made a comeback, the immediate area around the volcano remains desolate.

As is true for Mount Rainier, you should not expect to climb Mount St. Helens unless you are an experienced hiker with the stamina for a gritty 11-hour expedition.

Since most folks can't go to the mountaintop, the National Forest Service brings the mountaintop to them through a series of visitor centers along a scenic 52-mile drive.

The facility at Silver Lake, just off Interstate 5 and 34 miles from the western side of the mountain, has a terrific movie and a walk-through volcano to explain it all.

Just seven miles from the mountain on Highway 504 is the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center. The best is up ahead.

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