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.
The centerpiece of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument - besides the 8,365-foot mountain - is the Johnston Ridge Observatory, just five miles from the shattered dome.
When you stand on the ridge, it is easy to imagine the final moments of volcanologist David A. Johnston, who shouted a warning into his radio to colleagues in a research facility miles away: "Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it."
But to complete the visual picture, the observatory has a movie that uses computer-generated special effects to place you inside the volcano at the moment of the eruption and then send you blasting out of the side of the mountain toward the ridge where Johnston stood.
I won't give away the ending, but it's pretty impressive stuff.
Outside the theater are interactive displays that show you how high the ash plume rose (17 miles), how far it traveled (it turned morning into midnight in Spokane) and how much muck rolled down the mountain's slopes (the Columbia River depth dropped from 40 feet to 14 feet).
Hold that thought as you move farther south to Mount Hood, at 11,239 feet Oregon's highest point and a volcano that some experts believe could blow its top within the next 30 years.
Book a funky-but-fun room at the Timberline Lodge (you don't mind if your private shower is across the room from your toilet and sink, do you?) and enjoy the views of Mount Hood and the Cascades to the south.
If the place looks familiar, just think "Redrum."
That's right: The Timberline was used for the exterior shots of the resort where Jack Nicholson slowly went bonkers in "The Shining."
The lodge's history is even more storied. It was built to last in 1937 by craftsmen and artisans of the Depression-era WPA and dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt. The walls of the quirky rustic bar are decorated with old black-and-white photos of famous people who came to ski Mount Hood's slopes.
Sixty years of snowfall, howling winds and clomping ski boots have done nothing to mar the beauty of the wood-, iron- and stonework throughout the lodge.
To stretch your legs, try one of the shorter trails just behind the lodge. Note, too, that the Pacific Crest Trail passes in the same area on its way from Mexico to Canada.
For something a little longer, and perhaps to work off the previous evening's dinner in the lodge's Cascades Dining Room, try a hike on a portion of the six-mile Cooper Spur.
Ask for directions to the Cloud Cap Inn and Campground (the century-old inn is no longer open). The trail climbs to about 8,500 feet and affords views of Oregon's largest glacier and the other volcanoes.
You haven't seen deep blue until you've peered into Oregon's almost 2,000-foot-deep Crater Lake.
The six-mile-wide lake, the deepest in the country, was formed when Mount Mazama erupted 7,700 years ago and collapsed inward.
You can circle this national park by car on Rim Drive, which has 25 overlooks. Or surround yourself by taking the boat to Wizard Island (a small cinder cone that pokes up in the lake). Or stroll some of the 90 miles of trail.
Get a room at the restored Crater Lake Lodge and watch the sunset from a rocking chair on the patio.
Although Oregon has other volcanic examples - such as the Three Sisters volcanoes and Mount Bachelor - press on to northern California, home of Lava Beds National Monument, Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta, where tour buses and crowds are never a problem.
Lava Beds is just over the state line. Take a few hours to explore Mushpot, a lava tube with lights and a paved trail, cinder cones and other formations.
Then move south and get a room if you can at the Wagon Creek Inn, a log cabin-style B&B; in the tiny city of Mount Shasta. Have dinner at Lily's. Get a good night's sleep.
Rise early for a trip to Mount Lassen, another mountain cut down to size by eruption. A blast in 1915 sent the mountaintop flying and carved the landscape.
Take Route 89 to the Lassen Volcanic National Park road. The Lassen Peak trailhead is about one mile beyond Helen Lake. It should take about five hours to make the 10,457-foot summit and return. Go slowly, and remember, you're only climbing the top 2,000 feet.
For something shorter and just as memorable, take the 1 1/2-mile hike to Bumpass Hell, with its hot springs and oozing mud pots.
A trip that started with the tallest of the Cascades ends with a stop at Mount Shasta, the most massive of the peaks.
The double-coned, 14,162-foot mountain is believed by New Age folks to be a center of great energy and spirituality.
It's also a great area to fish, river raft, shop for antiques (in the town of McCloud) and, of course, hike.
But if you've grown weary of tramping about in the woods, take the scenic road about halfway up the mountain and enjoy the tranquillity of a sunrise. Or sunset.
The New Agers might be onto something.
AN IDEAL DAY
7 a.m.: Wake up at the Wagon Creek Inn at Mount Shasta (the town) and feel every muscle in your legs, courtesy of yesterday's hike. Go back to sleep.
8:30 a.m.: Have breakfast at Lily's. Eye Mount Shasta (the massif) from a table in the garden. Down a large burrito. Don't worry, you'll work it off.
9:30 a.m.: Rent a mountain bike from the Fifth Season on North Mount Shasta Boulevard. Helpful staff will give you tips on the best rides on U.S. Forest Service roads. Pack a lunch. Take your time, there's no one to impress.
12:30 p.m.: Break for lunch. Look for Sasquatch. This is, after all, his home turf. Catch a nap.
4:30 p.m.: Pedal back into town. Return bike.
5 p.m.: Shower up. Head off to Willy's Bavarian Kitchen for a German beer and bratwurst served on the deck outside. Listen to the real climbers discuss their Mount Shasta exploits. Eavesdrop on the New Agers at the next table. Have another excellent beer.
7:30 p.m.: Walk around the town. Maybe treat yourself to an ice cream.
8:30 p.m.: Return to the Wagon Creek Inn and marvel at all the twinkling stars above.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Three airlines offer flights from BWI into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: American Airlines (with round-trip fares from $316), Southwest Airlines (from $316) and US Airways (from $326). None are direct flights.
Famous connections: The Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood was used for the exterior shots of the snow-bound resort in "The Shining." Veering slightly off the volcano tour, you can visit the tiny town of Roslyn, Wash., home of TV's "Northern Exposure."
Seeing the sites: Gray Line Tours of Seattle offers bus tours of Mount Rainier mid-spring to mid-fall. Call 206-626-5206.
Kid stuff: Mount St. Helens runs a Junior Ranger program for children 5-12 that teaches them about plants and animals, and protecting the environment. Rangers at Mount Rainier run a similar program that includes mini-hikes and stories around the campfire.
Rainy-day option: Grin and bear it. In the high elevations of the Pacific Northwest, all conditions are possible. Take rain gear.
Tips: As with any national park, the best time to travel is when kids are in school. The Mount Shasta area is never really crowded. Ditto Crater Lake. Luckily, the volcano tour involves federal sites that don't attract the same volume of visitors as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite. Wildflowers appear on the slopes in July and August. Skiing in the Mount Hood area is very popular. You'll need good, sturdy hiking shoes and quality socks, a day pack and water bottle, a sweater or fleece pullover and tons of film.
Accommodations: Stay in the parks, if you can. It gets you started earlier and supplies a quick place to swap rainy-day gear for shorts and T-shirts. The rates are reasonable. Camping, too, is an option.
Restaurants: While in-the-park accommodations are good, the food - with the exception of the restaurant at the Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood - can only be considered basic fuel. But that may be just the ticket if you're traveling with kids. Mount Shasta has Willy's Bavarian Kitchen (good brews and sausage) and Lily's, which serves up good food and a breathtaking view of the mountain.
Best hike: For the best short hike, try the 1.5-mile Sourdough Ridge nature trail at Mount Rainier. If you're in good shape, hike the one-mile trail to the summit of Wizard Island in Crater Lake. Nice boat ride out and great views from the top.
Online: Study up on volcanoes on the Web site run by the National Geological Survey: vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/volcanoes. Get parks information at natparks.com/index.html. Terrific maps can be had at www.nps.gov/carto/.
Information: Mount Rainier National Park, 360-569-2211; Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, 360-247-3900 or 360-247-3903 (recorded information); Mount Hood National Forest, 503-622-4822; Crater Lake National Park, 541-594-2211; Lava Beds National Monument, 916-667-2282; Lassen Peak National Park, 916-595-4444; Mount Shasta, 916-926-4865.
Pub Date: 5/10/98