Exploring the Pacific Northwest
Exploring the Pacific Northwest

by Cindy Ross

Tucked away in the far northwestern reaches of the Continental United States, the Pacific Northwest forms a land of endless diversity and unparalleled beauty, from looming volcanoes to wave-battered coastline, from rainforests to glacial peaks.

On the edge of it all, an expanse of glimmering skyscrapers in the city of Seattle.

Seattle is the commercial and cultural capital of Washington behind which floats the surrealistic, hulking backdrop of the Cascade Mountains and Mount Rainier. It is the perfect location to begin a trip to explore the Pacific Northwest.


Seattle is a city of outdoor markets, public artwork and cafe culture and merits at least a few days exploration before heading out for adventure.

Pikes Place Market beckons with its subterranean book and record stores, produce stands and fish vendors. The hollering vendors toss the fish into the air whenever someone makes a purchase, the show of theatrics a favorite for onlookers. Other lanes waft with the aroma of flowers, as countless bouquets create an explosion of color.

The Music and Science Fiction Museum enchants with fascinating interactive displays, while the National Park Service's free Klondike Gold Rush Museum, guides us in the footsteps of prospectors and gold seekers. Artifacts and films describe the 1897 Rush, when Seattle secured its place on the national map. Many undertook the rugged journey west, but few were successful at finding gold.

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington showcases Native American cultures in the Pacific Northwest and should be a must-see on any visit to the area.

To get an overview of Seattle and the role it played in the founding of our country, we also take Argosy Cruises' very informative Harbor Cruise. And, of course, our stay wouldn't be complete without a ride up the 650-foot Space Needle, a relic from Seattle's 1962 World's Fair.

Mt. Rainier National Park

Hiking to the top of the world, almost. Exploring the Pacific Northwest Seattle, Washington State's National Parks & the Oregon Coast - Cindy Ross World's Fare
Mt. Rainier National Park

Mt. Rainier National Park is located 90 miles southeast of Seattle and includes the tallest and most accessible mountain in the Cascades.

Looming at 14,410 feet, Tahoma, or "Snowiest Peak," as the local Native Americans called it, wears a perpetual armor of snow and ice, a sight that causes eyes to widen and jaws to drop.

Although higher elevation trails are seldom cleared until mid-June, the park continues to draw streams of outdoor enthusiasts.

The 93-mile Wonderland Trail encircles the mountain and offers either a 10- to 14-day immersion in wilderness. However, a network of much shorter trails appeals to all ages and park rangers offer a summer program of guided walks.

During our stay at the Mt. Rainier National Park, we made sure to hike the five-mile Skyline Trail.

The trail meanders through meadows of alpine flowers as streams of melt-water tumble down amid stands of hemlock and fir. There are views of the glacier below and sometimes the sullen clouds part to expose the summit's face.

Even on an imperfect day, Mt. Rainier demands your respect. It is impossible not to be humbled by its greatness.

Mt. St. Helens National Monument

Mt. St. Helens is the next stop on our adventure.

In May of 1980, the mountain blew its top, spewing hot ash and pulverized rock 12 miles skyward. Mudslides of ash and melted snow rocketed down the slopes knocking trees flat for 17 miles. What was once a picturesque snowy peak is now a moonscape of raw earth and rock.

One can visit this surreal world by driving to Mt. St. Helens National Monument, south of Rainier, located 100 miles from Portland and 200 miles from Olympia.

A pair of Visitor Center's -- Coldwater Ridge and Johnston Ridge Observatory -- offer keen observation points from the northwest.

We took the time to watch a documentary film and go on a brief day hike.

The maw of the volcano, although stark and lifeless, appears peaceful, but somewhere deep below a heart of magma burns. Fortunately, on the outskirts of this tortured landscape, trees are regenerating. This is a heartening sight, providing proof that, against all odds, nature will mend its scars.

Columbia River Gorge

Multnomah Falls, Oregon's top natural attraction. A picturesque stone bridge spans it. Exploring the Pacific Northwest Seattle, Washington State's National Parks & the Oregon Coast - Cindy Ross World's Fare
Columbia River Gorge

From Mt. St. Helens, we head to the Columbia River Gorge, which defines the border between Oregon and Washington.

On the Oregon side, the Columbia River Highway snakes 22 miles, linking together wonderful vistas, waterfalls and some of the best windsurfing spots in the nation.

Multnomah Falls, Oregon's top natural attraction is here.

Spanned by a picturesque stone bridge, the second tallest, year-round waterfall in the United States plunges 610 feet in a lacy cascade. A blacktop trail, wheelchair accessible, winds to the brink of the falls, where a slender stream takes the plunge.

For a picnic lunch along the highway, we break at Chanticleer Point, which offers some of the most spectacular views of the gorge. Basalt cliffs descend to the broad river, where wind-surfers skim the whitecaps.

In addition to stunning natural wonders, the gorge is rich in history.

In 1806, Meriwether Louis and William Clark charted it in their arduous journey across the continent. Not 40 years later, pioneer families aboard flimsy rafts navigated the turbulent river during the final stretch of the Oregon Trail.

In 1861, the river transformed into a highway for miners and farmers when gold was discovered in eastern Oregon.

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake, vast and strikingly blue, is the deepest freshwater lake in the country and the seventh deepest in the world. Exploring the Pacific Northwest Seattle, Washington State's National Parks & the Oregon Coast - Cindy Ross World's Fare
Crater Lake National Park

Occupying the cavity of the ancient volcano Mt. Mazama, Crater Lake, vast and strikingly blue, is the deepest freshwater lake in the country and the seventh deepest in the world.

For 500,000 years the volcano sputtered, occasionally emitting ashes, cinders and pumice.

When it finally exploded, the force was 62 times as powerful as Mt. St. Helen's most recent eruption. After an age-long metamorphosis, spring-water and snowmelt accumulated in the caldera. The result is a gem of unspoiled natural beauty and Oregon's only national park.

Although the entrance off Highway 138 is closed from mid-October to late June, Highway 67 provides year-round access to the park. Open during the summer, the sinuous Rim Drive traces the upper slopes for 33 miles.

Crater Lake National Park offers many hiking trails. Exploring the Pacific Northwest Seattle, Washington State's National Parks & the Oregon Coast - Cindy Ross World's Fare
Crater Lake National Park

If you wish to leave behind the blacktop, try one of the numerous hiking trails in the park. Most popular is the climb up 8,054-foot Garfield's Peak.

Along the hike we marvel at the flawless blue waters and a view so expansive it is difficult to fit into the frame of a camera. A tendril of mist works its way into the crater, adding a spectral backdrop to the Phantom Ship, a spiny rock outcropping in the lake.

If you want to experience Crater Lake up close and personal, try a pleasure boat cruise.

They run regularly July through September and cost $22 for an hour and 45 minute tour. To reach the lakeshore one must first endure a mile of switchbacks descending from the crater rim, but the zigzagging is worth it for the unique perspective offered below.

Fascinating geological features are pointed out along the way, including seams of magma that remained after the summit collapsed, castle-like protrusions of pumice, conical Wizard Island and an up-close look at Phantom Ship.

We slowly circle its spires, which are reminiscent ship masts.

The Oregon Coast

The bleached bones of trees polished by the Pacific Ocean. Exploring the Pacific Northwest Seattle, Washington State's National Parks & the Oregon Coast - Cindy Ross World's Fare
The Oregon Coast

From Crater Lake we circle around and continue up Highway 101, along the Oregon coast.

The coast stretches for 350 miles, boasting an array of fabulous state parks, well-protected beaches and seaside towns. The scenery is dramatic, everything from Sahara-like sand dunes to isolated sea stacks and towers of basalt flanking the shoreline.

On this occasion the weather is far from comforting, bruised skies and fog-laden winds, but even in this environment the coast has much to offer.

Take Cape Argao, for example.

It has some striking rock formations, but more importantly thousands of Stellar Sea Lions gravitate there in August. Viewed from a distance, the offshore rocks are blanketed in dark gray and buff-colored bodies, lolling in the surf or filling the air with animated barking.

The Pacific Northwest offers views so expansive they are difficult to fit into the frame of a camera. Exploring the Pacific Northwest Seattle, Washington State's National Parks & the Oregon Coast - Cindy Ross World's Fare

Another worthwhile stop is Cape Perpetua, one of the most scenic peaks on the coast and veined by 10 hiking trails. A seaside trail leads to the fearsome Devil's Churn, where waves are funneled chaotically through the rocky chute.

We also make sure to visit the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and the coastal towns of Bandon and Newport for a bowl of clam chowder that only the Pacific Northwest can produce.

Olympic National Park

West of Seattle sits Olympic National Park, which boasts of snow-capped peaks, coastline and the only temperate rainforests in North America.

Six hundred miles of hiking trails offer plenty of opportunities to get a taste of the land. On the west side of the park, annual precipitation reaches 140 inches, and the substantially drier east side receives its fair share of rainfall as well.

Before entering the 1.5 million-acre park, gather information at an Olympic National Park Visitor Center and Wilderness Information Center. Smaller visitor's centers at Hurricane Ridge and Hoh Rainforest operate within the park.

Hoh Rainforest, the most popular of the rainforests, features the 3/4-mile Hall of the Mosses Trail, land that serves as inspiration for fairy tales with moss that hangs like draperies from the canopy and encircles trees like a shag rug. Some deciduous trees are festooned with 1,000 pounds of moss on their horizontal branches.

In certain areas of the park, trees grow to mammoth proportions. Queets Rainforest is home to the biggest Douglas fir, 220 feet in height, with a circumference of 45 feet.

Leave behind the bearded forests and wander the coastline for a while.

Here you'll find the bleached bones of trees polished by the Pacific Ocean, as well as tide pools that are loaded with green sea anemones and purple and ochre-colored starfish. Barnacles encrust nearly every surface and mussels form chain maille over the rocks.

When its time to come full circle, we leave behind the lush Olympic Peninsula and once again head to Seattle, hopping on a ferry to sail across Puget Sound and Elliot Bay. In the distance we can already see the familiar skyline. Mt. Rainier lingers on the horizon like a mirage, as if reminding us that adventure is never far away in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle Convention and Visitor's Bureau, www.visitseattle.org, www.AmericanParkNetwork.com.


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Vacations & Travel "Exploring the Pacific Northwest"