9 Can’t-miss Peaks
They’re massive. Magical. Magnificent. Northwest mountains to put on your bucket list.
By Roddy Scheer, Nick O’Connell, Tina Lassen and John Levesque with Sarai Dominguez, Cayla Lambier, Jennifer Lee and Anna Samuels
April 19, 2011
We’ve all asked (and answered) the classic vacation question: The mountains or the shore? As it happens, we feel strongly both ways. But after publishing our Ultimate Coast Guide three years ago, we knew we had created an obvious imperative. And so we present our paean to Washington’s magnificent mountains. Why? Well, to paraphrase the famous quotation of British mountaineer George Mallory, partly because they’re there. But, more precisely, because they are ours. Here in Seattle, mountains inform our lives, whether we spend time hiking up them, skiing down them, or driving through them. (Some of us never set foot on them—see page 152—and that’s OK, too.) With brawny assertiveness, the Cascade Range extends from northern California into southern British Columbia, a splendid serration of accessible beauty. In Washington, the range is both barrier—physical, climatological, even political—and unifier, bringing millions to its forested slopes every year in search of sumptuous scenery, sweet solitude and soft snow. West of Seattle, the Olympic Range—whose glorious peaks never cease to impress us on a clear day—is a more distant tease, requiring a trip across (or around) Puget Sound to reach its remote retreats. Our lease agreement on all of these geological marvels comes with infinitely flexible terms—from an intimacy encouraged by frequent and fervent contact to an arm’s-length relationship more comfortable with postcard views. Whatever the depth of the attraction, it is as steadfast as the mountains themselves.
Irresistible Icon: Rainier
WHY WE GO: It’s a natural beacon, calling out to anyone lucky enough to live (or spend some vacation time) under its spell.
Elevation: 14,410 feet
Drive time from Seattle to Paradise: 3 hours
Drive time from Seattle to Sunrise: 2.5 hours
We call it “the Mountain,” as if no further explanation is needed. It towers over the Puget Sound region—more than 50 miles from Seattle but, on those spectacular days when “the mountain is out,” so tantalizingly close that its gleaming white dome suggests a fresher, purer world.
South of the summit, the winding road up to aptly named Paradise (elevation: 5,400 feet) provides a fast track to the high and mighty impressive: neck-craning views of old-growth forests, alpine meadows and glaciers yawning with blue crevasses. Easy hiking trails start from the parking lot. Some weave among wildflowers and over streams. Others wander through glacial moraines and groves of alpine fir. And some climb steeply, serving as approaches for serious alpinists attempting the summit.
The most accessible glaciated peak in North America, Rainier became a national park in 1899, offering eye-popping displays of Northwest grandeur—ice-blue glaciers, multihued flowers, stunning waterfalls—for backseat tourists, hiking neophytes and hardy trekkers. The unprecedented access comes with a full helping of amenities: restaurants, a visitor center, gift shops and a classic wilderness lodge of peeled logs and massive stone fireplaces. With all these attractions, Rainier draws visitors from around the globe—between 1.5 million and 2 million a year. And most of them eventually turn up at Paradise.
Which is why many who have made the trip once or twice actually prefer east-facing Sunrise to Paradise. The early-morning sun paints the snow-plastered northeast side of Rainier with an otherworldly light, wowing visitors and photographers who flock to Sunrise (elevation: 6,400 feet), the highest point in the park accessible by motor vehicle. This sublime spot, which is actually closer to Seattle, gives access to alpine meadows dotted with fir and carpeted in Indian paintbrush and avalanche lily. Our favorite part of this lesser-trod side of the mountain is the 360-degree view taking in Emmons Glacier, the jagged line of Liberty Ridge— beloved by climbers—and distant summits of the Cascade Range gleaming on the horizon.
lodging >> Join the inn crowd
Built of silver fir in 1916 and refurbished in 2008, the 121-room
Paradise Inn, open this year from May 30 to Oct. 3, makes an excellent base for exploring Mount Rainier. If you prefer an all-access pass to the mountain, the 25-room National Park Inn in Longmire, near the park’s Nisqually (southwest) entrance, is open all year. 360.569.2275; mtrainierguestservices.com
Wild Thing: Glacier Peak
WHY WE GO: For killer views, immersion in nature, escape from cell phone connections
Elevation: 10,541 feet
Drive time from Seattle to North Fork Sauk River trailhead: 2.5 hours
If you really, really want to get away from it all, Glacier Peak might be the place for you. Sitting in the middle of a trackless, 500,000-acre wilderness area, it’s the least known of Washington state’s five major stratovolcanoes (see page 102), even though it’s only 70 miles from Seattle as the bald eagle flies. Still, don’t expect motels, B&Bs or resort spas at every turn in this neck of the Wenatchee National Forest. Just getting to the start of the climbing route requires a hike-in of about eight miles (an easier access route was washed out in 2003), making any summit attempt at least a three-day affair. Bagging Glacier Peak also requires technical climbing skills and some glacier travel at high altitude, so come prepared—mentally and physically.
HIKES >>Guided tour
New to mountaineering? Get some experience before tackling a more challenging peak by tagging along with Mountain Madness (mountainmadness.com), which leads five-day trips to Glacier Peak for $950 per person. Guides not only lead the way, they cook for you, too. Treks this summer are scheduled July 31–August 4 and August 14–18. See page 108 for more on Mountain Madness and other climbing-guide companies.
ENTERTAINMENT >>Alpine summer stock
For two months every summer, the hills en route to Glacier Peak come alive with The Sound of Music. Since 1995, Leavenworth Summer Theater’s annual production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 musical at the Ski Hill Amphitheater has offered audiences a chance to see the classic story set against the beauty of the Wenatchee National Forest. Now 16 going on 17, this production is bound to become one of your favorite things. Twenty dates between July 1 and August 28, 8 p.m., $14–$28. Ski Hill Amphitheater; 509.548.2000; leavenworthsummertheater.org
Mighty Inspiring: Desolation Peak
WHY WE GO: To find solitude, inspiration and exhilaration
Elevation: 6,102 feet
Drive time from Seattle to Ross Lake Dam trailhead: 3 hours
For legions of Beat Generation devotees, perhaps no spot has greater significance than the fire-lookout cabin atop Desolation Peak (elevation: 6,102 feet) in what is now North Cascades National Park. It’s where Jack Kerouac spent 63 days of solitude in the summer of 1956 scouting fires for the U.S. Forest Service and facing down demons as they floated by in the alpine ether. You don’t have to be a fire lookout to visit Desolation Peak today, but getting there is no cakewalk: Tallyho 16 miles along Ross Lake (by foot or watercraft) from the Ross Lake Dam trailhead, then spend another day making the 4,400-foot ascent to the lookout, which, while occasionally used during the summer, is not open to the public.
HIKES >> Roughing it
The steep hike to Desolation Peak is hot and dry, with no reliable water sources along the way. Wildlife is abundant: You may see deer, bear, cougar, grouse and marmot. A backcountry permit is required for all overnight stays, but there is no camping allowed on the summit. A designated campsite, Desolation Camp, is situated about a mile below. It accommodates eight people, and there is no water source after snowmelt.
READS >> A Kerouac three-pack
Jack Kerouac on Desolation Peak:
“And suddenly I saw that the Northwest was a great deal more….It was miles and miles of unbelievable mountains grooking on all horizons in the wild broken clouds, Mount Olympus and Mount Baker, a giant orange sash over the Pacific-ward skies.” — The Dharma Bums (1958)
“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.” — Lonesome Traveler (1960)
“Everything is so keen when you come down from solitude.” — Desolation Angels (1965)
Snow Cone: Mount Baker
WHY WE GO: Well, there’s the snow. And then there’s some more snow.
Elevation: 10,781 feet
Drive time from Seattle to Mount Baker (Artist Point): 3 hours
A perfect volcanic cone, Mount Baker boasts the world record for snowfall. A staggering 95 feet of snow—1,140 inches—was recorded at Mount Baker Ski Area in the winter of 1998–99. Perpetually snow-capped, the mountain hosts the second-largest glacial system in the Lower 48—after Mount Rainier. Want more facts? Here’s a (Mount) Baker’s dozen:
1. The usual monster snowfall means nearly year-round skiing and snowboarding for those who don’t mind expending a little energy getting up the mountain. The massive snowpack permits safe glacier skiing well into summer (roped travel is recommended on the ascent).
2. If you can’t find a place to stay with the abundance of rental cabins in the area, you’re not trying very hard. (Check with mtbakerlodging.com or mtbakervacationrentals.com.)
3. Among the names accorded Mount Baker by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest was Koma Kulshan (“Great White Watcher”).
4. It is the northernmost of the Cascade volcanoes in the U.S.
5. It also one of the youngest, formed during and since the last ice age, which ended about 15,000 years ago.
6. The first recorded ascent of Mount Baker was made on August 17, 1868, by Edmund T. Coleman, Edward Eldridge, John Bennett, John Tennant, David Ogilvy and Thomas Stratton.
7. On the Heliotrope Ridge Trail, you can get close to Coleman Glacier, the largest of Mount Baker’s lucky 13 glaciers.
8. The summertime views from Artist Point, at the end of the Mount Baker Highway, are breathtaking.
9. Mount Baker’s summit, known as Grant Peak, is a 1,300-foot-deep collection of ice inside a massive volcanic crater.
10. The mountain lies in two separate areas designated by Congress: the Mount Baker Wilderness and the Mount Baker National Recreation Area.
11. The Mount Baker Wilderness encompasses 117,900 acres on the western slopes of the Cascades.
12. The Mount Baker National Recreation Area was created in part to accommodate snowmobile use, which is not permitted in the wilderness area.
13. Need a place to digest all this stuff? Milano’s Restaurant in Glacier (9990 Mount Baker Highway; 360.599.2863; milanorestaurant.us) is a good place to stop after a mountain sojourn. Try the ravioli stuffed with smoked salmon.
Play it safe >> Playing in the backcountry is nothing short of exhilarating. But only a fool would do so without checking on avalanche conditions beforehand. The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center maintains a website (nwac.us) that updates its forecasts daily, letting skiers and climbers know about backcountry snowpack at various elevations.
It’s a Blast: Mount St. Helens
WHY WE GO: Well, duh. It’s a restless volcano in our own backyard. It’s also an awesome place to play.
Elevation: 8,365 feet
Drive time from Seattle to Johnston Ridge Observatory: 3.25 hours
Drive time from Seattle to Windy Ridge: 3.75 hours
The obvious: Famous for fits of temper, Mount St. Helens reentered the headlines in 2004 when it started spewing ash skyward for the first time in more than two decades.
The not so obvious: While tens of thousands visit each year to see a volcano au naturel, Mount St. Helens is less known for its abundant outdoor recreational opportunities, accessible on its east, west and south sides. Mountain bikers, hunters and snowmobilers, who aren’t allowed to play in national parks, are welcome in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which encompasses the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
Visitor privileges: Check in at any or all of the three visitor centers on the way up to Johnston Ridge from Castle Rock. The best one is the spectacular Johnston Ridge Observatory (elevation: 4,314 feet) operated by the U.S. Forest Service at the end of State Route 504, the Spirit Lake Highway. It typically opens in early summer, when the high-elevation snow pack clears, and closes by October ($8 fee, free for ages 16 and younger). On a clear day, it provides direct views into the mountain’s caved-in north side and its oft-steaming crater. (To check on conditions before you go, visit www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm and click on “Current Conditions.”) The visitor center at Seaquest State Park, five miles from Castle Rock on Spirit Lake Highway (elevation: 505 feet), is operated by the state Parks and Recreation Commission ($3 fee, free for ages 15 and younger). It stays open year-round, except for major holidays. The free-admission Mount St. Helens Forest Learning Center at milepost 33 (elevation: 2,600 feet) is a joint endeavor of Weyerhaeuser Company, the state Department of Transportation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. It is open from May to October.
The other side: Visiting the west side of Mount St. Helens is as easy as taking the Castle Rock exit off I-5 and driving 52 miles to Johnston Ridge. But true aficionados swear by the mountain’s wilder and woollier east side in the warmer months. This alternative access (along Forest Road 99 off State Route 131) takes drivers from quintessential lowland old-growth forest onto higher ground, where bleached-out, standing dead trees testify to the power of the superheated gas flow that emanated from Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980. Terminating at Windy Ridge just four miles northeast of the crater, this route affords amazing views of Spirit Lake, which rose 200 feet after the 1980 eruption.
SIGHTS >>Chopper time
For an otherworldly view into the crater of Mount St. Helens, catch a flight with Mount St. Helens Helicopter Tours (mt-st-helens.com/helicoptertour.html) from the landing pad at milepost 24 along the Spirit Lake Highway (elevation: 1,200 feet). A 25-minute tour costs $159.
HIKES >>High country views
You probably won’t be alone on this walk, but it’s a shame to miss the Harmony Trail hike from the parking area at Harmony Viewpoint on Forest Road 99 (elevation: 4,000 feet) down to the banks of Spirit Lake (one mile each way), where July wildflowers compete for space with scattered old-growth logs and the occasional rambunctious chipmunk. To hike to the summit of Mount St. Helens, all climbers must register and obtaining a climbing permit, which is free in the off-season, $22 in peak season (April 1–October 31). For permit and other climbing information, visit mshinstitute.org.
LODGING >>Mountain massage
The Essence of Health Retreat (360.274.7166; essenceofhealthretreat.com), a bed-and-breakfast adjacent to Seaquest State Park about a mile off Spirit Lake Highway (elevation: 600 feet), is owned by a couple of massage therapists who will be glad to rub all your troubles away after you’ve spent a day or two contending with Lavelatla (“smoking mountain”), as the Cowlitz tribe called Mount St. Helens. You don’t have to be guests at the B&B to book a massage.
Rugged and Remote: Mount Adams
WHY WE GO: experience Washington’s second-highest peak
Elevation: 12,276 feet
Drive time from Seattle to Trout Lake: 4.5 hours
Many climbers, especially novices, stretch their legs on Mount Adams (named for President John Adams). Its classic conical shape and variety of ecosystems provide a training ground for ascents of Mount Rainier and other more challenging peaks around the globe. A strenuous 12-mile “walk” takes you to the summit and back—if you’re willing to endure glacier travel and devote as many as 14 hours to the endeavor. Be prepared with crampons, an ice ax and the skills to use them.
HIKES >> Social climbing
If attempting the summit is too much of a good thing, less lofty but similarly rewarding rambles include the Bird Creek Meadows Loop (Forest Roads 82 and 8290, off State Route 141 outside Trout Lake), where waterfalls, lakes and meadows please even little hikers along three or so relatively level miles (elevation: 5,605 feet), and the Langfield Falls Trail (Road 88 outside Trout Lake), which takes visitors down an old-growth ravine to a thunderous waterfall in less than a quarter-mile (elevation: 3,500 feet).
HIKES >> Take a pass
Anyone hiking above the 7,000-foot level on Mount Adams from June 1 to September 30 needs a Cascades Volcano Pass, which costs $10 per person on weekdays and $15 on weekends (but is free to children 16 and younger). Eighty percent of the proceeds are reinvested at Mount Adams to manage recreational use of the area. Volcano Pass users do not need to buy a Northwest Forest Pass, a per-vehicle pass ($5 daily, $30 annually) required at most recreational sites operated by the U.S. Forest Service.
LODGING >> Stay awhile
Takhlakh Lake Campground (elevation: 4,416 feet; 541.338.7869; recreation.gov), reachable off State Route 131 along miles of dusty logging roads, is world renowned for its serene lakeside setting in the shadow of Mount Adams.
Easy does it: Hamilton Mountain
WHY WE GO: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area offers
an irresistibly winning combination: accessible trails leading to
Elevation: 2,438 feet
Drive time from Seattle to Beacon Rock State Park: 3.5 hours
It’s not a name that readily springs to mind as one of the more notable peaks in the Cascade Range, but Hamilton Mountain is one of the most accessible. Just off Highway 14 and the Columbia River’s northern edge, it rises from near sea level to 2,438 feet. At Beacon Rock State Park, 40 miles east of Vancouver, Washington, a 9-mile loop trail lets you hoof up every foot of it, passing waterfalls and wildflowers along the way and providing grand views of the gorge and the toothy peaks of Mount Hood and Mount Adams biting at the sky.
LODGING >> Take a break
Refreshment awaits just a few miles east of the park. Enjoy a soak and a good meal at Bonneville Hot Springs Resort & Spa (elevation: 130 feet; 509.427.7767; bonnevilleresort.com), or head for the cute riverfront town of Stevenson for pub fare at the Big River Grill (elevation: 100 feet; 509.427.4888; bigrivergrill.us) or fine dining at Skamania Lodge (elevation: 220 feet; 509.427.7700; skamania.com).
Grecian Formula: Mount Olympus
WHY WE GO: Hanging moss gardens, Roosevelt elk herds, pristine alpine views
Drive time from Seattle to Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center via Washington State Ferries: 4.5 hours (not counting ferry wait time)
An air of mystery pervades this peak. Remote, hard to approach, not visible from Seattle and even difficult to see unless you’re hiking the interior, it resembled a citadel of the gods to British explorer John Meares, and so he named it Olympus, supplanting the name Santa Rosalia, which was given by the Spanish explorer Juan Perez. The highest point in Olympic National Park supports a half-dozen glaciers, despite its relatively modest elevation. Mount Olympus is probably on the tick list of every local climber, but it is rarely ascended because the long approach requires a substantial time commitment: a two-day, 18-mile trek from the Hoh River trailhead to the Blue Glacier, another day climbing to the summit, and a fourth day for the downhill return trip. Most climbing companies add a fifth day to allow for iffy weather. Clearly, it’s not for everyone, but just hanging in the vicinity of this “home where dwell the gods,” as Meares described it, is impressive and restorative.
SIGHTS >> Elks club
Olympic National Park, originally created as a national monument in 1909 and designated a national park in 1938, was almost named Elk National Park. It protects the largest unmanaged herd of Roosevelt elk in the country.
HIKES >> Jungle journey
From the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, accessible off U.S. Route 101 31.3 miles southeast of Forks on the west side of Olympic National Park, the Hall of Mosses Trail (.75 mile) and Spruce Nature Trail (1.25 miles) explore the lush vegetation of what is probably the finest example of a temperate rainforest in the U.S. The Hoh River–Five Mile Island Trail (10.6 miles round trip) parallels the Hoh River, passing among trees draped with moss and offering glimpses into the Olympic Range. Trails start at an elevation of 500 feet, with a maximum gain of 300 feet.
SIGHTS >> Twilight in Forks
A logging community remade as an outdoor recreation destination and then remade as a pop-culture pilgrimage site, the town of Forks will ride the Twilight phenomenon as long as Bella Swan and Edward Cullen rule the zeitgeist, vampire division. If anyone in your party is smitten with the books or the films, Forks is a must visit. forkswa.com/twilight
LODGING >> Party of four
Four classic concessionaire-operated lodges, each with a distinct personality, provide tourists and hikers in Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest with a variety of overnight options: serenity at Lake Crescent Lodge (elevation: 500 feet), rusticity at Sol Duc Hot Springs (elevation: 1,640 feet), coastal drama at Kalaloch Lodge (elevation: 100 feet) and the timelessness of Lake Quinault Lodge (elevation: 200 feet). olympicnationalparks.com
Tourist route: Hurricane Ridge
WHY WE GO: It’s an easy entree to our magnificent alpine world
Elevation: 5,200 feet
Drive time from Seattle to Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center via Washington State Ferries: 3 hours (not counting ferry wait time)
Mile-high Hurricane Ridge is reachable by car. No need to worry about backpacks or tents or camp stoves; simply step out of the car and enjoy sweeping views, abundant wildlife and fresh air. Then drive back home with cool photos and happy memories. Whistle tunes from the The Sound of Music as you take in views of a vast, pristine wilderness in Olympic National Park to the south, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the complicated topography of the San Juan Islands and the jagged Canadian Coast Range to the north. It’s a great place to take the kids. And the neighbor’s kids. Guided walks and talks are offered during the summer, guided snowshoe walks on winter weekends.
DRIVES >> Have a plan
The Hurricane Ridge visitor center is open year-round, unless heavy snowfall closes the road. If you’re heading out in winter, call 360.565.3131 for road conditions.
HIKES >> View master
From the visitor center, trails fan out in every direction. Take the Hurricane Hill Trail (3 miles round trip, 550 feet elevation gain) to catch glimpses of Mount Olympus, Mount Baker, Victoria, B.C., and the city of Port Angeles far below.
Known as Tahoma or Tacoma (“Mother of Waters”) by the Puyallup tribe, the Cascade Range’s tallest mountain was christened Mount Rainier by Captain George Vancouver in 1792 during his exploration of Puget Sound. Its namesake, British Admiral Peter Rainier (1741–1808), was a friend of Vancouver’s who never saw the mountain and never set foot in this part of the world. And, according to a descendant who visited the mountain in 1935, we’ve been pronouncing it wrong all these years. The Rainier family pronounces its name “RAINY-er,” not “ray-NEER.” Here are the other namesakes of our featured mountains.
Mount Adams: U.S. President John Adams
Mount Baker: Third Lieutenant Joseph Baker (a member of Vancouver’s expedition)
Desolation Peak: So named after a forest fire swept the slopes bare in 1926
Glacier Peak: Based on an 1870 survey by Daniel Linsley
Hamilton Mountain: Pioneer settler Samuel M. Hamilton
Hurricane Ridge: For its gale-force winds
Mount Olympus: Named so by English navigator John Meares because it resembled a godlike paradise
Mount St. Helens: Alleyne Fitzherbert, first baron of St. Helens and British ambassador to Spain (another friend of Vancouver’s)