The Cascade Range comprises a chain of stratovolcanoes stretching 700 miles from Northern California, through Oregon and Washington, and into southern British Columbia, Canada. During the past month, we visited three of the Washington Cascades: conical Mount Baker, monstrous Mount Rainier, and explosive Mount St. Helens.
Our introduction to the Cascades came on an easy day-trip to Artist Point on Mount Baker. Just 15 miles from the Canadian border, Mount Baker is the northernmost and snowiest Cascade in the USA. In 1989, the Mount Baker Ski Area recorded a world record 95 feet of snowfall in a single season!
For a larger Cascade experience, we hiked for three days in Mount Rainier National Park. On the first day, we walked from the Sunrise Visitor Center to Fremont Lookout on the northeast side of the mountain. Built in the 1930s, Fremont Lookout is one of the few remaining fire watchtowers in Washington.
Although wildfires remain a constant threat, Mount Rainier is also notorious as the most dangerous Cascade volcano. No major eruptions have occurred in last 500 years; but, because Rainier is the highest and most glaciated peak in the range, hazardous mud flows during an eruption could threaten Seattle and the Puget Sound.
Mount Rainier is also a dangerous mountain to climb. Since summit attempts require a perilous glacier traverse, we stayed on the mountain’s lower trails. On our second day in the National Park, we hiked up from the Paradise Visitor Center on Rainier’s south side. Unfortunately, we never saw the sun or the fog-shrouded mountain peak.
On the third day, the fog lifted and the grandeur of Mount Rainier was revealed. From the 6-mile Skyline Loop Trail, the greatest of the Cascades stood tall, mantled in glaciers, and bathed in sunlight. Also visible on the southern horizon was our final Washington Cascade destination of Mount St. Helens.
On May 18, 1980, David A. Johnston, a 30-year-old volcanologist stationed on Mount St. Helens, radioed his last words, “Vancouver, Vancouver, This is It!” From the Johnston Ridge Observatory named in his honor, we stared into the detonated volcano and reflected on the astounding force of nature.
At the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, we also went into Ape Cave, the longest lava tube in the continental USA. Like the local boy scout troop “The Apes” who first explored the cave, we walked through portions of the 2.5-mile underground tube in pitch darkness.
On our final day in the Washington Cascades, in the pre-dawn darkness, we returned to Mount St. Helens to attempt to climb to the rim of the active crater. Scaling Mount St. Helens included a mile-long arduous scramble over minivan-sized boulders and a final mile-long unrelenting slog up a steep incline of volcanic ash.
When we finally reached the rim, we peered down into the crater and its steaming lava dome. From the top of Mount St. Helens, beyond the great void left by the horrific eruption, we could also make out monstrous Mount Rainier and conical Mount Baker, together a trio of volcanoes in the Washington Cascades.
Feature Photo: Mount Adams, a fourth Washington Cascade, seen from the upper slope of Mount St. Helens