Sunday, August 02, 2009

The trip, part three: Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier

Our plan after leaving my family had been to stay in one place and drive to our various destinations and back until it was time to head out of the state of Washington. After seeing how much traffic there was on a weekend, we decided that it would be better to check out each day, drive to whatever we were seeing, and then drive close to the next day's adventure.

After seeing my family, we drove to Olympia, at the bottom of Lake Washington, to spend the night since we were going to Mount St. Helens the next day. Downtown Olympia is strange - there are about five or six tattoo parlors in just a few square blocks. The people hanging out in the park reminded me very much of grunge-type people. This wasn't a bad thing, but it was a little unexpected since I thought grunge was sort of over.

The next morning we headed out to Mount St. Helens. I wanted to go there because I remembered the 1980 eruption; I was living in Edmonton at the time and I remember seeing ash drops left after it rained. And of course I watched coverage on tv then and afterward. Fortunately, it's not that far from Olympia.

There are several access points to Mount St. Helens and we'd heard that it was worthwhile to go to the main Johnson Ridge Observatory. It has a direct view of the crater, so we drove there first. We stopped in one or two lookouts on the way there. There's a huge area around the crater itself that has been designated a volcanic monument and that is being allowed to regenerate naturally. This area still hasn't completely grown back; there are hardly any trees or plants or anything. Some plants are starting to grow and there are elk in the area, so eventually some of the area will grow back.

Seeing the Mount St Helens crater was awe-inspiring. Even now, ash is drifting up from the crater. It sort of looks like the crater is cloudy all the time but when you get a good look at it, it's clearly ash. The devastation from the 1980 eruption is still evident everywhere there. The whole area looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland... and it's beautiful in its own way, as only barren rock can be beautiful.

Once we saw what we could see from the Johnson Ridge Observatory, we decided that we'd like to see another viewpoint. We decided on Windy Ridge, which looked pretty close - there's a hiking trail connecting the two points, so how far apart could they be?

Really far apart, as it turns out. There's only one road in or out of the Johnson Ridge Observatory, so to get anywhere else you have to backtrack along that road. It's about a 1 1/2 hour drive along that road, and then we needed to get to the next view point. So what we thought was going to be a short trip turned out to be a rather majour detour.

We had some very lucky moments during this trip; the first one came during our drive to Windy Ridge. We took the shortest route there (the other route was much, much longer) and it turned out that this route had only been open for about a month. The road washed away at one point over a year ago and the one-lane bridge has only been open for a month or so. The area that had been washed away was obvious but we didn't know that the road had only recently been opened. Good thing luck was on our side.

Even though it took forever to get to Windy Ridge, it was well worth it. This viewpoint overlooks Spirit Lake, has a side view of the crater and good views of Mount Adams and Mount Hood when it's clear... which it was. The day had started out cloudy but ended up almost perfectly, unusually clear. The only downside to Windy Ridge is that you have to climb 368 steps to get to the top, and the steps are not all the same size. Even so, it's well worth the trip.

Once we finished looking around at Mount St. Helens, it was pretty late. We knew we were going to see Mount Rainier the next day so we checked our maps and decided to stay in Yakima. I'd never heard of it before, but it's in the southern part of the US okanagan. The town has a railroad, a small airport, and lots and lots of warehouse with crates. Of course Yakima is on the other side of the Cascade mountain range, so we had to cross the range. I didn't say that we were taking the shortest route overall, did I? :)

Mount Rainier has several viewpoints. After some thinking, we decided to go to Sunrise, which has good views of the mountain and has a sub-alpine mountain meadow. Sunrise is also the viewpoint at the highest elevation that can be reached by car at about 6400 ft.

We stopped at Tipsoo Lake, just inside the park boundary, for a short lunch. This was one of the most beautiful, serene places I've ever seen. There's a lake surrounded by meadow-covered hills. And snow - the snow hadn't yet melted when we got there. Oh, it was so beautiful there.

At Sunrise we decided to go on (what we thought was) a short hike through mountain meadow to Frozen Lake and back. The trail was mostly easy and I had no problem with it, except for the part that went across the snow. The snow was slippery and crusty as it had been melted and re-froze a number of times. I fell while covering that part, but I wasn't hurt or anything. I felt pretty silly, though. :)

We were very lucky to get a clear, blue sky there; apparently Mount Rainier is normally covered in clouds. We actually got a sunburn while we were walking! We could see Mount Rainier from every angle as well as other ridges and hills. There were many, many, many flowers and interesting bugs and stuff and hardly any people on the trails. there were enough so that you knew you weren't alone, but not so many that you felt totally surrounded. The only thing that surrounded us were the mosquitoes and the flies. Once they found us, they wouldn't leave us alone. This was easily the worst part of the two days - mosquito bites over a sunburn aren't fun at all.

We did misjudge our trail, though.. we'd thought that it was a couple of kilometers and it turned out to be about 3.5 or so. And we'd chosen a detour that was even longer. By the time we stumbled back to the car, we were some kind of tired and our feets were sore. You could say that we overdid it... especially since the day before we'd walked around at Mount St. Helens and then driven to Yakima.

That was quite enough of a day for us so we decided to head back. We'd planned to spend the next day in Seattle so of course we wanted to stay somewhere where we could easily get there. Any guesses as to what that meant? If you'd guessed "driving back across the Cascades" you'd be right. We'd thought to stay in Kent but after driving around for what seemed like forever, we ended up staying in Seatac, the town that encompasses the airport.

I loved these two days. The mountains are so very beautiful and being able to see them and experience an area that is so different from anything else I'd seen was an unforgettable experience. I'm so glad that we were able to see these mountains, even though we did overdo the hiking and driving these days. We could've spent days and days and days there, if we'd had the time.

I loved that these mountains were so different from other mountains I've seen. Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier tower over the rest of the Cascades... it's like the Cascades define a new ground level and these mountains are cones coming out of the "ground". These mountains look exactly like the mountains that kids draw and that are shown in kids books - they're cone-shaped with snow/glaciers at the top and rock and trees below. I remember when I saw the Rockies for the first time; they almost didn't seem like mountains to me because they didn't have that "classic" cone shape.

Another difference is that the mountains we visited have different rocks. I know that sounds sort of silly. :) But they're sort of hexagonal and three-dimensional, if that makes sense, whereas the rocks in the Rockies are more rectangular with striations. Even the rocks in the Canadian Shield have some striations and aren't hexagonal like the ones we saw.

I know that in the past, we've taken pictures but haven't had time to go through and edit them for you. Lucky for you, this time, we took lots of pictures and I've been able to go through and pull some out for your viewing pleasure.

There are pictures from Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, of course, but there are some other ones, too. Seeing mountains isn't just about seeing the majestic snow-capped mountains; it's also about seeing the little things that make up the big picture. Things like the flowers, and the rocks, and the insects. Ian took a lot of these kinds of pictures so you can look at some lovely pictures of plants and animals, too. :)

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