Boiling below the surface, beautiful on top

Mount Rainier’s glaciers spill from the peak in all directions, their names reflecting the region’s places and people. The state icon’s massive bulk is a result of thousands of eruptions, a geologic layer cake of lava and ash.

Volcano Row, a north-south picket fence of peaks is commanded by the active, or potentially active, volcanoes Rainier, Mount Baker, Mount Adams, Glacier Peak and Mount St. Helens.

Although climbing volcanoes can be exhilarating (and sometimes deadly), the views are spectacular. Fortunately, sweeping vistas are available with the expenditure of a tank of gas and a little exertion.

Each of the volcano quintet is distinctly different: Mount Baker with its world record snowfall; iconic Mount Rainier and its drive-to high-elevation visitors center, lodge and a peak that draws thousands of climbers; explosive Mount St. Helens; remote Glacier Peak and Mount Adams, with the Yakama Indian Nation on much of its eastern flank.


A relatively safe chance to see an active volcano soon after its 1980 eruption was too good to pass up but the hike in proved to be tougher than anticipated.

The never-ending gray, flattened trees, ash and pumice leaving puffs settling behind us, and the lack of life, and the log-jammed Spirit Lake was simply depressing.

Unexpectedly, plants and wildlife started making a comeback immediately after the explosion, spiders and pollen drifting in on the wind.

Now the visitor-friendly 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Monument has overlooks, a visitor center 51/2 miles from the peak (the closest site reached by car), trails and, with a permit, climb-to-the-rim opportunities.

The rim perch is not without its downside. In 2008 a large chunk of the rim broke off, taking a monitoring camera with it.


Although Mount St. Helens is the main active act along the Cascades’ spine, dormant 10,778-foot Mount Baker still has a chance of erupting.

It has let off a fair amount of steam several times in the last 100 years, including 1975’s continuous plume from Sherman Crater.

Baker is known for its skiing and snowboarding, activities that draw people from around the world. It’s also known for its world record-setting 1,140 inches (95 feet) snowfall during the 1998-99 season.

Other draws include accessibility to views of glaciers and to a stream of mountain climbers.

Our favorite approach to a glacier is the Heliotrope Ridge Trail, a 2-plus-mile hike through meadows and creek crossings fed by snowmelt (morning crossings are safer) and with stunning views down on the Coleman Glacier.

It is a moderate (some would say strenuous) outing but worth the effort even if you have to take a lot of breaks.

Another favorite is the Yellow Aster Butte Trail for August wildflowers and views of Shuksan and Baker. It’s accessible off the Mount Baker Highway.


If you want isolation, the state’s iconic 14,411-foot volcano, tallest in the state, is not the place to go unless you head to the backcountry.

Hikers are drawn by almost 250 miles of trails and several campgrounds. Climbers head to the top of Rainier behind experienced guides while families and casual hikers amble around Paradise for stunning views with little expenditure of effort.

The recently renovated 1916 lodge and a lengthy list of activities for all ages are other draws.

Walking the 1.4-mile Nisqually Vista Loop takes you through meadows (a swatch of wildflowers in July and August) with excellent views down to the shrinking Nisqually Glacier.

Because there are so many trails leading out of the visitor center vicinity, get a map and clear directions from the information desk.

The biggest challenge for long-range backpackers is the Wonderland Trail, a spectacular 93-mile loop circumnavigating “The Mountain” and through several environments from lowland forests to subalpine meadows.

At the Nisqually entrance, the National Park Inn is open year-round and has a family style restaurant and a fine view of the peak.

Activities include a junior ranger program, the summer Slug Fest, and an educational experience in the new visitors center at Paradise.


Closest of the five to Oregon, Adams is the state’s second-highest volcano, its flat top about 12,280 feet high. If you’re on just about any peak south of Rainier, Adams is on the horizon.

For climbers, it’s an excellent destination because there’s elbow room; for less-experienced climbers, the south slope is the easiest for a nontechnical climb.

Huckleberries, the rare wolverine and a dozen glaciers are part of the ecosystem that developed about 1,000 years ago after its last eruption.

The Pacific Crest Trail runs about 21 miles on the western flank.

For an excellent view of Mount Adams, climb Potato Hill, a 3-mile round-trip with a little scramble to the view to Adams and the Muddy Fork Lava Bed in the Mount Adams Ranger District.


Although not as visible and least studied of the major volcanoes, the fourth-highest peak in the state deserves respect.

Some of the most explosive and largest eruptions since the last Ice Age in Washington came from this 10,541-foot Snohomish County volcano. The last one was about 300 years ago.

The most remote of the five active volcanoes (it didn’t appear on a published map until 1898) requires hikers who want to tackle the hike in through the Glacier Peak Wilderness.