Snoqualmie Falls and John Wayne Pioneer Trail, Mt. Rainier/Mt. St. Helens and Olympic Peninsula…
OK, you’re planning a vacation in the Seattle area. Once you’ve seen the top tourist draws of this lovely city (Space Needle, Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, the piers, aquarium and Ferris wheel along Elliott Bay, Queen Anne Hill, a ferry boat ride), what else might you want to include within a 100 miles or so?
Here are suggestions, based on our current visit and many previous tours of this emerald, aquatic empire:
Snoqualmie Falls and John Wayne Trail: With mountain bikes, we had to take a trip to the lovely Cascade Mountains. From Seattle, we toured to Snoqualmie Falls and continued further east to the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. Our initial destination was about 50 miles from Seattle – Snoqualmie Falls, the adjacent Salish Lodge for a delicious lunch, then into the little town of Snoqualmie, home to the Northwest Railway Museum, trainmuseum.org.
Iron Horse State Park is 14 miles further east along I-90, centered on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. Once the Milwaukee Railroad, it’s the longest rail trail conversion in the US, at 285 miles (though, much of the Eastern Washington portion is undeveloped). We accessed the gravel trail near pretty Rattlesnake Lake – here the City of Seattle constructed a masonry dam to enhance the Cedar Falls hydroelectric plant in 1915, flooding the old town of Moncton and forcing its 200 residents to relocate.
Peddling southwest on the trail we quickly found the concrete foundation of the old Cedar Falls railroad substation, where hydroelectricity once powered electric engines used to push heavy freight trains up and over Snoqualmie Pass. Following the easy railroad grade through pristine cedar forests, it’s another 18 miles to Snoqualmie Tunnel – bring your headlamps!
Mount St. Helens and Mt. Rainier, fiery volcanic monsters: From Seattle, you can visit both Mt. St. Helens Volcanic National Monument and Mt. Rainier National Park in one 250 mile scenic loop. Go south on Interstate 5, then east on WA 503. This route runs south of Mt. St. Helens and up the east side. Turn onto NF 99, the Windy Ridge spur road, where the might of the eruption becomes graphically apparent.
Mount St. Helens, just south of Mt. Rainier, had been menacing with volcanic activity for months prior to May 18, 1980. The young volcano (compared to other volcanic peaks in the Cascades like Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier) had released steam, sent plumes of ash miles into the atmosphere, the north side of the 9,677 foot asymmetrical peak had begun to bulge and small earthquakes were being felt.
On May 18, 8:32 AM, a 5.1 earthquake was prelude to Mt. St. Helens’s north slope erupting with cataclysmic force. Almost one cubic mile of the mountain’s north and northeast side exploded, releasing a pyroclastic flow that reduced the once grand 9,677 foot peak to 8,365 feet, leaving a gaping, one-mile-wide horseshoe crater. The explosion sent a 300 miles per hour surge of earth, rock, ice and gases, denuding an area about six miles wide and 20 miles in length.
The eruption offered a lesson in volcanic studies; of the 57 people killed, 53 of them were in areas that experts believed were safe from danger. A monster ash cloud rose six miles skyward and dropped ¼” of volcanic ash on Spokane, 250 miles away (we were in our Spokane backyard at Noon, when the volcanic cloud turned the sky black for the next day).
From Hwy. 503, take NF 99 to the Miner’s Car memorial, where the miner’s rusted and flattened Pontiac remains mute testimony of the volcano’s fury. Traveling nearer the base of St. Helens, most of the terrain remains much as it was 36 years ago, barren and devastated. Varied turnoffs look down on Spirit Lake, its northeast end still littered with the floating trunks of giant fir trees blown into the lake.
NF 99 ends about two miles from the base of the volcano (a gated road is open to hikers who want to trek closer to the peak). We chose to hike to the top of the Windy Ridge overlook: about 400 steps up one gains a true perspective of the explosion’s immensity, seeing the horseshoe crater, mile-upon-mile of devastated ridges and forest, Spirit Lake, and the Johnston Ridge Observatory, across the valley at the end of the Spirit Lake Highway.
Mt. Rainier’s majestic 14,410 foot volcanic peak is 50 miles north; we reached it the same day as our tour of St. Helens, passed our favorite Rainier campground, Ohanepekosh and headed up to the stunning Paradise area, high on Rainier’s southern flank. If you plan to do this eerie and scenic loop in one day, plan to leave early!
Olympic National Park and Peninsula: Another scenic destination is Olympic National Park, where we had tent-camped numerous times when our kids were much younger. On a recent visit, the day dawned hazy, becoming bright, and we reached Klalock Beach and Campground, with 170 camp sites right on the ocean (Klalock Lodge is nearby for a delicious lunch). We walked along the gorgeous coastline, all the more wonderful because the sun was peeking through the clouds. Take the time to tour up to Hurricane Ridge, to admire the towering Olympics and resident glaciers; be warned that weather can be very changeable!
Also within the Park, both Lake Quinault Lodge and Lake Crescent Lodge exude history and cozy accommodations, prompting our plan to return soon. From Port Angeles on the peninsula, you also have the option to take the ferry over to lovely and provincial Victoria, B.C. (bring your passports). We headed back by the Bainbridge Island Ferry, right into downtown Seattle!
For more information: John Wayne Pioneer Trail, trail’s website: johnwaynepioneertrail.org; Mt. St. Helens National Monument, fs.fed.us/pnw/mtsthelens/, (503) 808-2592; Mt. Rainier National Park, nps.gov/mora/, (360) 569-2211; Olympic National Park, ww.nps.gov/olym/, (800) 833-6388; Washington travel, experiencewa.com, (800) 544-1800.