In the south-central Cascades of Washington State, where legends of Sasquatch are as tall as the ancient old-growth forests, a double dose of volcanic adventures awaits your weekend wanderlust. While there are five active volcanoes in Washington State, a quarter of all the active volcanoes in the contiguous United States, two stand alone for their beauty, fame and iconic shape.
Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens are separated by just 50 miles as the crow flies. Both world famous volcanoes are accessible to all, offering a plethora of outdoor activities in beautiful and diverse landscapes. From where to go to where to stay the night, the two-day itinerary below combines visits to the two volcanoes onto one itinerary for an amazing Pacific Northwest adventure.
Start with a Visit to the Ape Caves
Just a two-hour drive from Packwood, the Ape Caves of Mount Saint Helens make an incredible and unique adventure for the entire family. The Ape Caves are approximately 2,000 years old, formed when lava poured down the south side of Mount Saint Helens into rivers. Once the lava started cooling on the outside, a hardened crust formed, insulating the molten lava beneath, creating a spectacular 13,042-foot-long lava tube. Today, the lava flow is dormant, giving visitors a chance to hike in the cave for up to three miles along two paths. One easy and one hard trail, the cave can be walked by most individuals. Keep in mind you’ll need a headlamp or flashlight and a jacket; the inside of the cave is constantly 42 degrees. On hot summer days, this is a fantastic place to cool off.
See the Sights of Mount Saint Helens
After emerging from the lava tube, head north on National Forest Service Road 99, traveling along the seasonally open eastern side of this majestic erupted volcano. During the summer months, this road is open and full of incredible views, highlighted by the Windy Ridge viewpoint between Mount Saint Helens and Spirit Lake. The viewpoint is located in the blast zone, which was once completely devoid of life. Now, plants are starting to grow and elk roam the young valley below, letting you watch this remarkable recovery as you gaze directly into the crater of the still smoldering volcano. To the northwest, views of the log-filled Spirit Lake are possible, with the best panoramic views coming atop the short, but steep trail leading from the parking lot.
Stay the Night in Packwood
After taking in the sights of Mount Saint Helens’ Windy Ridge region and exploring the Ape Caves, take a night to recover and enjoy life along White Pass. Both the Cowlitz River and Crest Trail Lodges in Packwood are perfectly situated for your multi-volcano trip. Just a few hours from the Ape Caves, both destinations are renowned for offering fantastic lodging in a gorgeous setting. Packwood is a quaint logging town known for good food, numerous elk sightings and access to a forgotten corner of Washington’s wilderness. After eating a burger at Cliff Droppers, return to your comfy room and get a great night’s sleep. Tomorrow will be yet another amazing day with yet another volcano visit in store.
Visiting Mount Rainier
Once you have rested up, jump back in the car and get ready to explore one of the most iconic mountains in America. Mount Rainier is Washington State’s second most-visited National Park and offers an incredible experience. There are countless must-see destinations in Mount Rainier National Park, but the following five areas are your best bet for a memorable adventure. Whether you see them all over a few days or just pick your top two for a quick trip, you’ll be sure to want return often to the nation’s most-visible national park.
Entering the park from the Stevens Canyon Entrance, you’ll quickly reach the first destination of Ohanapecosh and Silver Falls. The easiest way to explore Ohanapecosh is to take the short and stunning Grove of the Patriarchs Loop, a 1.5-mile trail through incredible old growth stands of trees. Those hoping for more adventure will revel in beauty while hiking the three-mile trail to the incredibly scenic Silver Falls.
Next up is the stunning view of Mount Rainier from Tipsoo Lake and Naches Peak. Ideally seen in the height of the wildflower bloom, Tipsoo Lake rests on the east side of the mountain, giving a unique and breathtaking view of Washington’s tallest summit. Naches Peak is a great hike for all, gaining just 600 feet of elevation in 3.2 miles and offering jaw-dropping panoramas of the entire region.
Twenty miles away, closer to the glaciated summit of Mount Rainier, the Sunrise region of the park is a breathtaking destination once it opens for the summer. The area is full of animals, wildflowers, world-class hiking and some of the best views of any national park. You could spend a full day just in the Sunrise area and barely scratch the surface of possibilities for incredible adventure. Sunrise is one of the prettiest places on the planet, especially if you love seeing a gigantic mountain covered in rock, snow and glaciers.
After reveling in the beauty of Sunrise, it’s time to head back to the west side, toward Reflection Lake and Paradise. Driving along 19-mile-long Stevens Canyon Road, you’ll be mesmerized with the incredible views and exploration possibilities along the numerous pullouts you’ll encounter on the drive. After miles of vistas, you’ll reach Reflection Lakes, an ideal place to take a picture, hike a short hike along the lake, or catch your breath before you reach Paradise. Correctly named, Paradise is the most famous sections of Mount Rainier National Park and also one of the most beautiful. Offering a breathtaking lodge, a state-of-the-art visitor center and countless miles of hiking, this is the ideal destination to spend a day and explore the beauty of Mount Rainier.
Stay the Night in Ashford
If one night isn’t enough, or you want to take the entire adventure in reverse, starting with Rainier and ending with Mount Saint Helens, stay the night at the Nisqually Lodge in Ashford. The Nisqually Lodge is the perfect basecamp for your Rainier adventure, giving you a ridiculously short five-mile drive before entering the stunning wilderness of this volcanic wonderland. With free Wi-Fi, a picnic area and breakfast, this is the ideal way to expand your Pacific Northwest adventure.