Experience natural wonders in Washington’s national places

June 28, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

The landscape surrounding Mount St. Helens reflects signs of destruction from the 1980 eruption and the return of life to the blast zone. By Matthew Staerk

Splendor is not limited to Mount Rainier.

Mount Rainier dominates the landscape in Western Washington. The active volcano is unparalleled as a natural icon for the region — Mount Rainier even appeared on the state quarter — but the peak is not the only nearby national treasure.

Landscapes in the shadow of Mount Rainier and farther afield deserve attention, too.

Spaces set aside for conservation and recreation — national parks, national forests, national recreation areas, even a national volcanic monument — stretch from British Columbia to the Columbia River.

Discover the signature mountain and, along the way, a handful of other national treasures.

North Cascades National Park

Established: 1968

Size: 504,781 acres

Operating season: The park is open year round, but winter weather dictates when most facilities and roads open. From late May to late October, campgrounds, visitor centers and roads are open for summer parkgoers.

Fees: The park has no entrance fee, but camping fees vary by campground and season.

Connect: www.nps.gov/noca

The postcard-perfect mountains, meadows, lakes and waterfalls in North Cascades National Park earned the remote region the nickname the North American Alps.

The superlatives stack up to describe the 504,781-acre national park. The area is among the most mountainous in North America. The park includes more than 300 glaciers to form the highest concentration of glaciers in the lower 48 states.

Mountains inside the park bear disquieting names — Despair, Fury and Terror — but the landscape is tranquil.

Below the craggy peaks, emerald eddies roil the Skagit River into a froth the same shade as snow.

In North Cascades National Park, rugged peaks and alpine lakes define the landscape in a region dubbed the North American Alps. By Matthew Staerk

The speed limit along the North Cascades Highway slows at Newhalem, a company town for a Seattle City Light hydroelectric project along the Skagit River.

Travelers cross the river on a footbridge to see the lush landscape surrounding Ladder Creek Falls.

In the 1920s, a City Light superintendent envisioned a light show on Ladder Creek Falls and lights installed throughout the adjacent forest as a glittering, jewel-toned monument to electricity.

City Light restored the light show in 2008, and the nighttime attraction is a popular destination after a day along the North Cascades’ trails and lakes.

Deeper inside the park, bottle-green Diablo Lake and the Ross Lake National Recreation Area lure adventurers in boats, canoes and kayaks. Silt from the glaciers, called rock flour, turns bodies of water in the park to a deep, milky hue.

In the old-growth forests and stark peaks, black bears, mountain goats and even a small grizzly bear population inhabit the landscape.

Olympic National Park

Established: 1938

Size: 922,650 acres

Operating season: The park is open 24 hours a day year round, although some roads, campgrounds and other visitor facilities close for the winter.

Fees: The entrance fee for a single visit in a motor vehicle is $15. For adults on foot, bicycle or motorcycle, the fee is $5. Children 15 and younger receive free admission. Campsite fees range from $10 to $18.

Connect: www.nps.gov/olym

Water thunders almost 90 feet from a mossy cliff over Marymere Falls, plunges into a pool and courses into Barnes Creek. By Matthew Staerk

Olympic National Park spans ecosystems, from glacier-clad peaks to moss-draped rainforests to salt-splashed tide pools. The park is full of landscapes lifted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The largest national park in Washington encompasses swaths on the Olympic Peninsula. U.S. Route 101 loops around the park, so access to the Hoh Rain Forest, Hurricane Ridge, Lake Crescent and other popular sites is easy.

Crystalline Lake Crescent, carved by glaciers in the last Ice Age, is a tamer destination in a park noted for the intense gales atop Hurricane Ridge.

The lodge along the Lake Crescent shoreline appears lifted from a Works Progress Administration brochure. Inside the lobby, a stuffed elk head holds court above a stone fireplace.

Elsewhere, a landmark ecological restoration effort to remove dams along the Elwha River is meant to restore the waterway for salmon and other species.

Perhaps the most iconic locale in Olympic National Park is the mysterious Hoh Rain Forest. The verdant landscape receives 12 feet to 14 feet — yes, feet — of rain each year. The temperate rainforest unfurls beneath a lush canopy.

San Juan Island National Historical Park

Established: 1966

Size: 2,072 acres

Operating season: American Camp Visitor Center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept. 3. The grounds open to parkgoers from sunrise to 11 p.m. daily. The English Camp Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept. 3. The grounds open to parkgoers from 8 a.m. to sunset daily.

Fees: The park has no entrance fee, but a special-use permit is needed for horseback riding and other activities.

Connect: www.nps.gov/sajh

The ferry Evergreen State chugs past snowcapped Mount Baker and a sailboat en route to Anacortes from the San Juan Islands. By Matthew Staerk

The crunch underfoot on 4th of July Beach, a crescent of pebbles along smooth-as-glass Griffin Bay, is the only sound, except for the occasional blast from a ferry whistle in nearby Friday Harbor.

The sun bakes kelp leaves to the consistency of tissue paper. Bleached driftwood logs scatter the landscape like discarded Tinker Toys.

Mountains rise in the distance. Snowcapped Mount Baker plays peek-a-boo from behind high clouds.

The windswept island possesses unassuming beauty — no rugged landscapes or skyscraping peaks. Instead, wildflowers and coastal grasses carpet hillsides to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The island is home to Columbian black-tailed deer, red foxes — and the foxes’ favorite meal, Townsend’s vole — and other species.

From a viewpoint on Mount Finlayson, parkgoers can glimpse other national parks — North Cascades, Olympic and, on especially clear days, Mount Rainier.

San Juan Island National Historical Park is not far from civilization — million-dollar homes sit just outside the park boundaries — but the location is remote. Parkgoers must board a ferry in Anacortes for the 60-minute journey to the island.

Situated at the northern and southern tips of San Juan Island, the park commemorates a footnote in history.

In 1859, a territorial dispute between the United States and Great Britain erupted into the Pig War, after a Yankee settler shot a pig owned by a British subject. The otherwise-bloodless dispute ended after both sides agreed to joint military occupation on the island.

Nowadays, parkgoers trek to the historic sites at the American Camp on the southern tip and the English Camp on the northern tip.

Uphill from the settlement, the English Camp Cemetery is eerie, especially at dusk. Behind a white picket fence, a small Union Jack marks graves of Royal Marines and a civilian lost to accidents during the British occupation.

Mount Rainier National Park

Established: 1899

Size: 236,381 acres

Operating season: Mount Rainier National Park is open year round. Parking is limited in many areas, especially on busy summer weekends and holidays. Vehicle access to Mount Rainier in the winter is only available from the Nisqually Entrance, en route to Paradise. In winter, the Carbon River Entrance is open to foot and bicycle traffic only.

Fees: The entrance fee is $15 for a motor vehicle or $5 for each visitor 16 and older entering on foot, or by motorcycle, bicycle or horseback, or for individuals traveling together as a noncommercial, organized group. Everyone needs a climbing pass to travel above 10,000 feet or onto any glaciers. Campsite fees range from $12 to $64.

Connect: www.nps.gov/mora

Mount Rainier rises from a landscape of boulders and evergreens along the road to Paradise, a popular visitor destination in the park. By Matthew Staerk

The oldest national park in Washington is also a crown jewel in the coast-to-coast national park system.

Parkgoers travel to poetically named Sunrise and Paradise to see the splendor in the untouched landscape around the active volcano. Historic Longmire, another frequent destination, interprets the efforts to conserve Mount Rainier.

In late spring, Mount Rainier is still a winter wonderland. The popular Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise remains buried beneath a deep snowpack. On many days, gloom obscures the summit, even from the vantage point 5,400 feet up on the southern slope.

Navigating the deep snow above Paradise, sans skis or snowshoes, is akin to a haphazard series of dance steps, unchoreographed and complicated.

The change of seasons reveals alpine splendor — meadows carpeted in wildflowers, thundering streams and a panorama as picturesque and unblemished as a painted film backdrop.

Upstream on the Carbon River is the lowest-elevation glacier in the lower 48 states.

Throughout the park, streams fed by glaciers high above rush past lichens glued to rocks. Some, such as Narada Falls on the Paradise River, drop over cliffs in dramatic style.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

Established: 1982

Size: 110,000 acres

Johnston Ridge Observatory

Operating season: Johnston Ridge Observatory is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Oct. 28.

Fees: The entrance fee for the observatory is $8 per person. Recreation passes do not cover fees for winter recreation areas, cabin rentals, developed campgrounds, or climbing and wilderness permits. Everyone must have a climbing permit to go above 4,800 feet elevation on Mount St. Helens.

Connect: www.fs.usda.gov/mountsthelens

The lonely highway to Mount St. Helens leads 32 years into the past, to the cataclysmic 1980 eruption.

The eruption lopped off the cone-shaped top, destroyed 150,000 acres of forest and transformed the surrounding forest into a moonscape for years. Spirit Lake, a popular recreation area before the eruption, shrunk as Mount St. Helens disgorged earth.

Long after the hellfire subsided and the landscape cooled, Mount St. Helens appears crouched, mired in debris, in a valley reshaped by the eruption.

The crater looms above ubiquitous signs of rebirth — prairie lupine, a dainty flower and regal conifers poke from soil blasted from the mountain by the eruption. Mammals large and small, elk and marmot alike, pad across resurgent landscape as birds soar overhead.

In decades after the earth ripped open at Mount St. Helens, life abounds in the blast zone — a place once so barren that President Jimmy Carter said the lunar surface appeared more hospitable.

Still, reminders from the fateful May morning in 1980 remain indelible. The panorama from Johnston Ridge Observatory allows visitors to peer into the maw opened by the eruption.

The peak, nestled inside the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, is a destination for people curious about the most-destructive volcanic eruption to occur on U.S. soil.

The observatory — named for a volcanologist lost in the eruption — includes a striking topographical map illuminated by fiber optic pinpricks of light to illustrate the unfolding disaster.

The drama is more subtle in a documentary exhibited at the observatory about the eruption and aftermath, titled “Eruption of Life.” The film ends as the curtain rises from panoramic windows to reveal the crater outside — and a glimpse into the past.

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