Fire and Ice — Columbia River Gorge, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier
The Pacific Northwest is perfectly situated for a trip that includes evidence of prehistoric glacial flooding, visiting an active volcano that has erupted, most likely, during your lifetime and experiencing the majestic beauty of Washington state’s highest peak. Considering flying into Portland, Oregon (PDX) and making your way through the Columbia River Gorge to Mt. St. Helens, then Mt. Rainier and on toward Seattle, with a return flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac).
FIRST DAY: Arrive at PDX, rent a car and head north on I-205 (just a short trip across the I-205 bridge from Oregon into Washington), then east on State Route 14 into the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The Columbia River Gorge is a result of the Missoula Floods which refer to the cataclysmic floods that swept periodically across eastern Washington and down the Columbia River Gorge at the end of the last ice age. For more information on this geologic wonder, check out the Ice Age Floods Institute at www.iafi.org.
Washougal, Washington is the Gateway to the Gorge and definitely worth a stop. Plan to visit Pendleton Woolen Mill’s store in Washougal, take a tour of the mill and don’t miss the deals available at the Outlet Store. Then walk the few blocks to downtown Washougal for lunch at Our Bar. Once you are satiated by a tasty meal, head east for adventure! State Route 14 is also known as the Lewis & Clark Scenic By-way, paralleling the Columbia River. Marvel at the landscape as you pass Cape Horn and Beacon Rock and man’s accomplishment harnessing the waters of the Columbia at Bonneville Dam. Just past the Bridge of the Gods you will enter Stevenson, your home for the night. Skamania Lodge is a 254-room resort situated on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River and the Cascade Mountains on both the Oregon and Washington shores. Built in 1993 as a joint venture between local government, Skamania County, the federal government, US Forest Service and private developer, Salishan Inc., Skamania Lodge is a destination in itself with a golf course, ziplines, tree houses, full-service spa, several dining outlets and floor to ceiling windows showcasing the majestic view.
SECOND DAY: Next morning, fueled by a hearty Skamania Lodge breakfast, it is time to head out to see what still remains of Mt. St. Helens, just a 90-minute drive from Stevenson. For a unique route, follow Highway 14 east from Stevenson about three miles to the Carson Junction. Turn north on Wind River Highway (FS 30) and follow the signs north to the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Before you leave Carson, pick up lunch to go at The Grind, on the right at 21 Cloverdale. A quick stop at the Carson National Fish Hatchery to watch fish spawning is educational and fun. Drive slowly through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest because you don't want to miss anything - including sighting a herd of elk that may be sauntering along the road. Make sure to stop at McClellan Viewpoint along the way for a great photo opportunity as it is the first time you will spy Mount St. Helens. At the intersection of Curly Creek Road and FS 90 Road, stop at the Eagle Cliff Store to enjoy some of the local scenery. Buy a post card, soft drink or just enjoy the quiet of the forest. From there head north on FS 25 Road toward Windy Ridge.
When you turn off of FS 25 onto FS 99 toward Windy Ridge, make note of the interpretive signage along the way. Plan to stop and experience this trip back to 1980, the year Mt. St. Helens erupted. The road into Windy Ridge is a great example of how the flora and fauna has changed since that dramatic reminder of Mother's Nature power. And the signs will tell the story with some very visual markers. Once you arrive at the viewpoint at Windy Ridge, take the time to walk the 357 steps to the top of the ridge where you can almost reach out and touch the crater or look right down into Spirit Lake. After re-tracing your steps back FS 99, turn left on FS 25 and turn the car north toward Randle and Mt. Rainier. Please note that FS 25 and FS 99 are closed during the winter. Typically snow will close the roads at the beginning of November and the US Forest Service will re-open them once the snow has melted. Sometimes this is as early as Memorial Day but can be as late as the 4th of July in big snow years.
(If you are interested in learning more about Mt. St. Helens or, perhaps, even volunteering to be part of the interpretive programs that enhance the experience, Mt. St. Helens Institute offers a variety of opportunities. Visit www.mshinstitute.org.)
FS 25 comes to an end at State Route 12 in Randle. Turn right and head east on State Route 12 (also known as the White Pass Scenic Byway) 15 miles east to Packwood. Here you have a choice of lodging accommodations to choose from while you contemplate the day’s activities. www.destinationpackwood.com.
THIRD DAY: Ask a local about the best place in Packwood to have breakfast and then start your journey toward Mt. Rainier National Park. Follow State Route 12 east to the junction with State Route 123 and the Ohanapecosh southeastern entrance to the park. Stop at the Ranger Station here to get loads of information on the sites not to be missed at Mt. Rainier from hiking suggestions to photo opportunities because they are many!
After your full day of exploration, head to Paradise. Paradise Inn that is, built in 1916 and designated as one of the "Great Lodges of the West" provides 121 guest rooms, dining, souvenirs and one of the most incredible views found in the Pacific Northwest. Reservations are a must and should be made far in advance via this website, http://www.mtrainierguestservices.com/. The intrepid vacationer can explore more than the wilderness with Mount Rainier National Park’s exquisite dining options. The Park’s dining rooms feature picturesque views of the surrounding mountains and signature dishes with a variety of American favorites. Dining by a blaze in the hearth of the great fireplace, guests can feast on such Paradise Inn favorites as Bourbon Buffalo Meatloaf. The Inn serves breakfast, lunch and dinner for your convenient dining pleasure. Imagine the setting of Mt. Rainier and all its splendor as the backdrop to a perfect meal guaranteed to satisfy the heartiest adventurer. Early pioneers never had it so good.
After a great night’s sleep, it is time to head home. And the drive to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will be a memorable one. Leave Mt. Rainier from the White River entrance and head north on State Route 410 also known as the Chinook Scenic Byway. The two-lane pass wraps around the northeastern flank of the mountain, revealing everything from wildflowers to waterfalls along the way. (Stretches of many roads around and in Mt. Rainier National Park are closed during the winter so check for current conditions by visiting here, www.dot.wa.gov.) Visit Rainier is also a great resource for seasonal information in the park.
State Route 410 will take you to State Route 164 and then to I-5 where you will head north to Sea-Tac (just about 60 miles from Mt. Rainier. Your departure from the great state of Washington is bound to be memorable as Sea-Tac is a destination on its own. Introduced in 2012, the Experience the City of M?usic Program is a cooperative effort by the Port of Seattle, the Office of Film + Music, Seattle Music Commission and PlayNetwork. It is a comprehensive effort to showcase the Northwest's diverse music culture and enhance the experience of millions of travelers who pass through the airport. Plus you will find dining options to please every palate.
From the frozen glaciers of the Columbia River Gorge to the fire of two of the massive volcanoes in the Cascades Range, your trip will embed memories for a lifetime.