Humanity has long been fascinated by volcanoes - and so have tourists. In North America, one of the landscapes that has been most shaped by volcanic activity is the Pacific Northwest, where majestic mountains, dramatic craters, preserved lava flows and bubbling hot springs are all associated with the region’s volcanic legacy. There is a 700-mile string of active volcanoes in the Cascade Range, encompassing such well known attractions as Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood.
It’s possible to put together a road trip stretching from Washington to northern California that takes in some of the continent’s most spectacular volcanic scenery. The total driving time outlined here is about 24 hours, but it will likely take at least a week to actually see all the sites. If you can’t do the entire trip at once, it’s easy enough to carve out just a section of the journey to enjoy. Also, some of the roads are closed in winter, so you'll need to plan accordingly: the optimal season is from late May into October.
Washington: Mt. Baker to Mt. St. Helens
If you want to trace the full range of Cascade volcanoes, you should begin near Bellingham, Washington, at Mount Baker
, which is the northernmost volcano in the range. You can drive the 57-mile Mount Baker Scenic Byway, which ends with dramatic views from Artist Point at 5,140-feet.
From here, you just continue dipping south, winding your way through the volcanic history and landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Next up is Mount Rainier, which is four hours away, though you may want to extend the trip with a stop in the lovely city of Seattle along the way.
The 14,411-foot high Mount Rainier is one of the most well-known sites in the Pacific Northwest. It’s also an active volcano, with the most recent eruption occurring in the 19th
century. You can begin your explorations in Mount Rainier National Park
, which encompasses 368-square miles of mountains, glaciers, forest, waterfalls and wildflower meadows. There are numerous hiking trails and scenic drives in the area, as well as guided walks with park rangers.
About two hours south of Mount Rainier is Mount Adams. Much of the drive is through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest
and a few of the miles are on gravel roads. But you'll be rewarded with a picturesque trek through an old growth forest strewn with gigantic Douglas firs, ending with a fantastic view of Mount Adams from Takhlakh Lake
Next, head west for 2-3 hours and you'll come face to face with Mount St. Helens, which erupted ferociously in 1980, killing 57 people and causing more than a billion dollars worth of damage. The eruption decapitated the top of the volcano and ejected a 200 mph torrent of steam, rock and ash, as it melted glaciers and triggered mudslides. In all, 250 homes, 47 bridges and 185 miles of roadway were destroyed. Today, this area is part of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
. Aside from the stunning scenery that you’ll glimpse from your car, there are visitor centers with educational exhibits, walking trails, and interpretive talks. You can also visit Ape Cave, where it’s possible to hike through a lava tube.
Oregon: Mt. Hood to Crater Lake
Now that you’ve seen this quartet of Washington state volcanoes, it’s time to leave the national forest and head south on the interstate into Oregon. Portland is another beautiful and fascinating city that is worth a stopover, but 50 miles to its east is the 11,240-foot snowcapped peak of Mount Hood
, which was last active two centuries ago. You can enjoy the scenery south and east of Oregon’s highest mountain along the Mount Hood Scenic Byway, or to the north on the Historic Colombia River Highway. There are numerous day hikes in the area, and two of the most picturesque views of Mount Hood are from Trillium Lake and Mirror Lake.
When departing Mt. Hood, skip the interstate and instead travel south on Rte. 97. Just past the city of Bend is Newberry National Volcanic Monument
. The Newberry Caldera was formed by the collapse of the volcano's cone, perhaps as long as 500,000 years ago. Visitors can drive to the 7,985-foot top of Paulina Peak for a panoramic view, relax by Paulina Lake or East Lake within the caldera, or explore Lava River Cave.
It’s another 2-3 hours to your next volcanic destination and you won’t regret your time at Crater Lake
, which was created by the eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. That explosion also caused this volcano's cone to crumple, forming a huge caldera that eventually filled with water and became the country's deepest lake. The view from the rim of this now dormant volcano is stunning, with vivid blue water encircled by trees and a snowcapped landscape. In Crater Lake National Park
, you can journey around the 33-mile Rim Drive and its 30 overlooks. You can also take a boat tour of the lake, or hike along some of the area's 100 miles of trails.
California: The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway
From Crater Lake, your tour continues south into California along the two-state Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway
. You'll pass through Klamath Falls, Oregon, and then cross into California. If you like lava tube caves, then you'll love your next stop at Lava Beds National Monument
. The park contains hundreds of caves and more than 30 different lava flows, some from two million years ago. About two dozen caves have marked entrances and trails. The monument also includes a large selection of American Indian rock art.
Soon after departing Lava Beds, you'll find your gaze fixed upon 14,179-foot Mount Shasta
, which last erupted in 1786 and is the second highest peak in the Cascades. For centuries this mountain has attracted spiritual seekers, from American Indians to modern day mystics. One of the best ways to enjoy the view is from 15-mile Everitt Memorial Highway, which begins in the charming town of Mt. Shasta and climbs to about 7,800 feet.
You won't lack for natural beauty as you continue your drive, particularly at the McCloud River Waterfalls in McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, which President Theodore Roosevelt once called "the eighth wonder of the world." But our tour concludes at Lassen Volcanic National Park
. The 10,457-foot Lassen Peak is the southernmost of the Cascade volcanoes and it erupted powerfully as recently as 1915.
Lassen Park Road is a scenic 30-mile drive through the landscape. There are also more than 150 miles of hiking trails. A popular one is the 3-mile roundtrip to Bumpass Hell, where you'll see the park's largest concentration of hydrothermal features, including steaming pools and boiling mudpots. This display of bubbling passions just beneath the surface of the earth is a fitting end to our captivating volcanic tour of the Pacific Northwest.
Map and directions
Here is a map of the road trip. If you click on the “volcano trail” link
, it will take you to a larger map and more detailed information.
View Volcano Trail of the Pacific Northwest in a larger map
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Photo credit: Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.