About 700 miles long, the Cascade Volcanic Arc stretches from the southern tip of Canada’s British Columbia through Washington, Oregon, and the northern part of California. Taking its name from the Cascade Range, the arc has 18 volcanoes in all, many of them still active and the rest considered potentially active.
When we lived in Seattle, we were blessed with the beauty of one of them, Mount Rainier, whenever she appeared from behind the clouds. When we were RVing North America, we frequently went back to Seattle to visit my daughter and her family. From Interstate 5, either down from Canada where another of my daughters was living, or up from Phoenix, where we were snowbirds in the winter, we invariably saw Mount Baker, Mount Saint Helens, Mount Hood (and the Three Sisters), Mount Lassen, and Mount Shasta from different angles and during various seasons. Here are our tips for visiting.
1. Mount Baker
If you’re road tripping from Canada, you will encounter Mount Baker first. It rises 10,781 feet high and is the youngest (no more than 140,000 years old) in its volcanic field. In the arc, it is the second-most heavily glaciated after Mount Rainier and the second-most thermally active after Mount Saint Helens. And the volume of snow and ice on Mount Baker is greater than that of all the other Cascades volcanoes (except Rainier) combined. It is also one of the snowiest places in the world, setting the world record for snowfall in a single season at the Mount Baker Ski Area in 1999.
My husband loved to ski there, especially because of its very good long runs. He has even taken his son’s Boy Scout troop and stayed at the Mountaineers’ Baker Lodge up on the mountain. Mount Baker has a commanding presence. As the third-highest mountain in Washington and the fifth-highest in the Cascade Range, it’s visible as you travel down across the U.S. border from Vancouver in British Columbia and even from Seattle (and, on clear days, Tacoma) in Washington. We saw this every day when we camped in Blaine, Washington, 23 miles away, and played in nearby Bellingham.
2. Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier is the Cascade Volcanic Arc’s leader in beauty and risk. An active volcano (the last eruption was in 1894), it is the most glaciated peak and most prominent mountain in the contiguous U.S. It is also the tallest in the Cascades at 14,411 feet. The area around it is so beautiful that it has been preserved as the Mount Rainier National Park. But it is also considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, listed on the Decade Volcano list because of its large amount of glacial ice that could produce massive lahars that would threaten a lot of life and property, especially considering the city of Seattle is just 59 miles southeast of its peak.
There is still fun to be had here, though, and we cannot forget the wonderful experience had when we brought my oldest grandchildren to Paradise, Washington, located at an elevation of 5,400 feet, where the main visitor center for the national park is located. We went in winter and had so much fun playing in the heavy snow — one of my granddaughters even got her boot stuck in the deep. Those who want to stay overnight can check into the historic Paradise Inn, open from May to October. There are a host of trails, including the picturesque Nisqually Vista Trail, a 45-minute loop trail that affords views of Mount Rainier and the Nisqually Glacier.
In summer, you can also reach several areas by car via the one-way Paradise Valley Road, which begins at the Paradise Inn and weaves through a beautiful meadow-filled valley, providing a view of Mount Rainier’s reflection in the subalpine lakes. Paradise is located 19 miles east of the Nisqually Entrance and 12 miles east of Longmire.
Sunrise is the other Mount Ranier vantage point. It’s higher at 6,400 feet in elevation and 60 miles northeast of the Nisqually Entrance. Sunrise Road is open only in July, August, and September. There is a visitor center and a day lodge. Longmire, which is located in the southwest corner of the park, a little more than six miles east of the Nisqually Entrance, is open year-round. There, you can visit the Longmire House museum.
3. Mount Saint Helens
Mount Saint Helens is just 50 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, and 96 miles south of Seattle. It is the most active volcano in the Cascades Volcanic Arc, most known for its major eruption — the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history — on May 18, 1980. In fact, it reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit by more than 1,000 feet, leaving a mile-wide horseshoe-shaped crater.
In 1983, the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument was opened to preserve the volcano and allow for the scientific study of the aftermath of the eruption. Since then, trails, viewpoints, info stations, campgrounds, and picnic areas have been built to accommodate the growing number of visitors each year. In fact, people are able to drive to Windy Ridge, which is just four miles northeast of the crater. We did. You can also reach the summit by mountain climbing, which has been allowed since 1986.
4. Mount Hood And The Three Sisters
Mount Hood is located about 50 miles east-southeast of Portland. It is one of the loftiest mountains in the nation, offering the only year-round lift-served skiing in North America. Standing 11,240 feet high, it is the highest point in Oregon and the fourth-highest in the Cascade Range. The volcano is considered the most likely to erupt in Oregon. The odds of an eruption in the next 30 years are estimated at between 3 and 7 percent, making it what scientists call “potentially active.”
Mount Hood’s prominence hovered around us every day during our week with my husband’s high school friends at a nine-bedroom villa in the upscale vacation community of Sunriver, Oregon. The artsy and touristy town of Bend is only 20 minutes away. During our stay, it was the South Sister — the lowest among the Three Sisters, which are three closely spaced volcanic peaks, each one about 10,000 feet high — that we climbed. We just loved Mount Hood’s daily presence in all of our activities.
5. Mount Shasta
We have not really seen Mount Shasta up close. Once we stayed overnight in the town of Redding, California, which is quite near it. Sadly, we did not have the time to stop and explore. But it is always such a beautiful presence whenever we pass by, with and without the glaciations, going up to or down from Seattle. It is a potentially active volcano at the southern end of the Cascade Range in northern California with an elevation of 14,179 feet, second only to Mount Rainier in height. But it is the biggest in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, with an estimated volume of 85 cubic miles.
6. Mount Lassen
Lassen Peak, commonly referred to as Mount Lassen, is the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range. It reaches an elevation of 10,457 feet. It is also different in that it isn’t a stratovolcano like the others but a lava dome. In fact, it is the largest lava dome in the world. On May 22, 1915, a powerful explosive eruption devastated nearby areas and a series of eruptions (that actually lasted from 1914 to 1917) spread volcanic debris 280 miles to the east. Lassen Peak and Mount Saint Helens were the only two volcanoes in the contiguous United States to erupt during the 20th century. Mount Lassen is still considered alive, just dormant, and it has a magma chamber that’s still capable of erupting.
After the eruption, the whole area was named Lassen Volcanic National Park, as with Mount Saint Helens, to preserve its 100,000 acres for observation and study, to protect the nearby volcanic features, and to prevent anyone from settling too close. The park has become popular for recreational activities and has already developed more diverse flora and fauna than Mount Saint Helens. We drove through the entire park from the north, where a visitor center stands at the entrance. We had the most fun at the southern exit, where the grounds were like a mini Yellowstone Park. Interstate 5 is nearby as you exit, and we easily found our campground for the night.
These six lovely volcanoes of the Cascades have always made our drives through the Pacific Northwest such a pleasurable experience. Having stayed around some of them, our trips on Interstate 5 have more than come to life.