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Cascades/Mount Rainier/ski areas, Washington

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Did You Know … ?

  • Mount Baker recorded the world’s heaviest snowfall in the 1998-1999 winter — 1,140 inches, nearly 100 feet.
  • More than half of all glaciers in the contiguous 48 states are in the region called the North Cascades.
  • Mount Rainier’s glaciers are the source of six major rivers.
  • The Mount St. Helens 1980 eruption destroyed enough trees to build 300,000 two-bedroom homes.
  • The ski lifts at Stevens Pass in the Cascades operate on wind power only.

Of glaciers and volcanoes

The Cascade Mountains stretch across Washington north to south, splitting the state into two and leaving it with a rainier region to the west and a drier landscape to the east.

The Cascades are home to the North Cascades National Park, the Mount Rainier National Park, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument plus several national recreation areas, designated wilderness areas, national forests and state parks.

Washington’s Cascades include five volcanoes that have been active within historic times: Glacier Peak, Mount Adams, Mount Baker, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens. The majority, but not all, of Washington’s ski areas are in the Cascades, too.

Mount Rainier, Washington’s tallest mountain at 14,410 feet, is deemed the most glaciated peak in the contiguous 48 states. Glaciers on Rainier and other Cascade peaks feed scores of rivers and lakes. The narrow, 50-mile-long Lake Chelan, framed by 8,000-foot peaks, is the state’s largest natural lake and is a child of glacial runoff. In a state with more than 1,000 dams, the inventory of lakes gets a significant boost from man. For example, the Ross Lake National Recreation Area features Diablo, Gorge and Ross lakes, all reservoirs created by dams on the Skagit River.

All of the above correctly implies a destination well suited to the venturesome lover of the outdoors, who may cycle or hike up and down the mountains, climb up them the hard way or snowboard down the steepest inclines. But visitors don’t have to be rock climbers to find their place among these mountains and their associated lakes. With hundreds of miles of trails, there are choices for gentle hikes or cross-country skiing, as well as alpine slopes — here or in the state’s smaller mountain ranges — for all skill levels. There are numerous sites in the Cascades for lake or river fishing, plus options for sightseeing cruises, wildlife viewing, volcano watching and even wine tasting.

The 1,766-square-mile Yakama Indian Reservation sits in Washington’s southern Cascades. Several roads through the mountains are designated scenic byways, and the towns along those roads or in the foothills offer accommodations and eateries visitors need, plus festivals, shopping and other diversions.

Things to do for Venturers

  • See Mount St. Helens from a helicopter. The excursion reveals the entire blast zone, remnant ghost forests and herds of elk.
  • Climb to Mount Rainier’s icy summit, with or without a guide.
  • From the town of Winthrop, go heli-skiing in the Cascades. It’s a lot tamer, but also consider Hurricane Ridge for skiing and the stunning panoramas in Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula.
  • Find your way on foot to Stehekin, a tiny town on Lake Chelan with no vehicular access. It’s a two-day, 23-mile trek from the west starting with a 1,700-foot climb up Cascade Pass.
  • If it’s August or September, pick as much as two quarts a day of blackberries, huckleberries or thimbleberries in Mount Rainier National Park. Or, from late summer to the first frost, on the park’s hiking route between Narada Falls and Longmire, look for chanterelles and other mushrooms, taking care to choose the edible (i.e., not poisonous) fungi.
  • Raft the Wenatchee River, which runs through the Cascades for 53 miles and offers Class IV rapids.

Things to do for Centrics

  • If you see a bear or bears at North Cascades National Park, consider filling out a bear monitoring form for the National Park Service to help park scientists to monitor these animals. More on wildlife: Look for elk in Mount Rainier National Park.
  • Take to cross-country skiing using the hut-to-hut system and 50 miles of trails (20 miles groomed) managed by the nonprofit Mount Tahoma Trails Association. Or, look at the Methow Trails Nordic ski trail system, with its 120 miles of skiing in Methow Valley.
  • Hike in the parks, which have hundreds of miles of trails. Another thought: Hike Bandera Mountain, accessible as an excursion from Seattle, a 45-minute drive away. The seven-mile trek climbs nearly 3,000 feet and offers appropriate rewards: panoramic views, abundant wildflowers and waterfalls.
  • Okanogan County has 1,000 miles of trails, depending on season, good for cycling or snowmobiling. Take advantage.
  • Descend the Cascades at the thousand-acre Mount Baker Ski Area, the place known for its heavy snowfalls. Or, consider the Cascades’ Summit at Snoqualme, a huge area with four distinct ski areas and all kinds of ski terrain.
  • Canoeing and kayaking are options on several Cascades lakes such as Lake McMurray and Sixteen Lake. Or, with a license, fish the rivers, or lakes such as Baker, Chelan, Diablo, Gorge and Ross.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Drive the 87-mile Chinook Scenic Byway through Mount Rainier National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, for memorable views of canyons, forests, lakes, waterfalls and Rainier itself.
  • Have a meal at Roslyn Cafe, seen on the hit TV show “Northern Exposure,” which was filmed in Roslyn.
  • See the movie and look into the Mount St. Helens crater — from a distance of 5.5 miles — at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Outdoors, follow trails that reveal both the volcano’s destruction and the landscape’s ongoing rebirth. (The observatory is closed in winter.)
  • Take the family skiing at 49 Degrees North, a 5,774-foot-tall ski hill east of Chewelah where 70% of the terrain is dedicated to beginner and intermediate runs.
  • Attend Winter Carnival at the White Pass Ski Resort. Or, in October, come to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge for the BirdFest and Bluegrass festivities celebrating the sandhill crane — and bluegrass.
  • At Lake Chelan, buy a ticket for the Lady of the Lake boat tour to the town of Stehekin at the lake’s northern tip. Also, the area is a new viticultural area, offering local wines to taste at dinner or vineyards to visit for on-site tastings.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Washington Tourism Alliance at