For over a century tourists have enjoyed the natural wonders of Washington State. Even back then, hardly a travel publication or book on geology was without a mention of the fact that Washington is volcano country. We’ve always known that volcanic eruption was a possibility in Washington, but few of us really felt it. The 18th of May 1980 changed all that. After weeks of ominous rumbling, Mount St. Helens fulfilled her promise and sent a cubic mile of rock into the air, which circled the world in a cloud of volcanic ash.
The land to the east was blanketed in ash. Giant timbers where flung like toothpicks. The great, gaping crater looked like the surface of the moon. But as devastating as it was, the blast left behind a renewed awareness of the power of nature, geologic time, and an educational legacy that has given school children a first hand understanding of volcanology.
The best and most comprehensive look at volcano country is to be found, of course, at the visitor areas and interpretive centers of Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument a day gives you a solid, glimpse; several days or a week will solidify the education like cooled lava.
Skamania, Cowlitz and Lewis Counties share the reigning star of Washington’s volcano heritage, but the experience is hardly complete with a visit to Mount St. Helens alone. Mount Rainier has lessons to teach, as does the Columbia Gorge from Clark County east. The palisades and basalt outcroppings along the gorge are ancient proof of the regions fiery past. Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center and Big Lava Bed in Skamania County offer potent insight into the lives of volcanoes, as do the scenic wonders of Klickitat County from White Salmon east to Maryhill Museum. And once on that stretch of the gorge, the replica of Stonehenge, as out of place as it may seem, is a quirky reminder of man’s long standing worship of nature.
Any of these areas can be reached in a day-long, but fascinating roundtrip from Tacoma or Olympia. Both are excellent places to headquarter. Both are great discoveries on their own, from Tacoma’s booming waterfront and historic districts, to Point Defiance Park with its excellent zoo; from Olympia’s regal capitol to the cheek-by-jowl shops that line its old downtown, right on to the Farmer’s Market.
Set aside a chunk of time for Washington’s south Puget Sound and Volcano Country. You’ll come home positively erupting with knowledge and a new appreciation of Washington State.
Tacoma and Pierce County
Centrally situated in western Washington, Pierce County stretches from south Puget Sound to the lofty summit of Mount Rainier. The area features a wealth of outdoor recreation opportunities, extensive cultural attractions, fascinating history and stunning natural beauty. Tacoma is its major city – and Washington State’s third largest municipality.
Tacoma is easily accessible from Interstate 5 by car and just 18 miles south of the Seattle – Tacoma International Airport. The city provides an ideal base from which to explore Pierce County and south Puget Sound.
North of Tacoma, Fife is known for its easy Interstate 5 access and moderately priced accommodations and restaurants. Visiting families can enjoy the city’s Swim Center with a saltwater pool and the Grand Prix Raceway Indoor Carting Center.
South of Tacoma, Lakewood boasts 10 acre Lakewood Gardens, a formerly private property now regarded as one of the nation’s finest estate gardens. Lakewood is also home to Fort Steilacoom, where the first official U.S. presence in Washington Territory was established in 1849. Nearby American Lake have two parks with many recreational opportunities; American Lake North Park & Marina and Harry Todd Park both offer boat launches and picnicking sites.
Military history buffs will want to visit the Fort Lewis Military Museum, which highlights U.S. Army history in the Northwest from Lewis & Clark to the present. Nearby, McChord Air Museum has a fine exhibit of vintage aircraft and memorabilia and a chance to sit inside an F-106 cockpit simulator. Perched on Puget Sound, historic Steilacoom is the oldest incorporated town in Washington. Steilacoom also gave Washington its first Protestant church, first library, and first jail and is the site of the oldest standing church in the state. The entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places. Don’t miss the nearby Steilacoom Tribal Cultural Museum, showcasing the local tribe’s heritage.
Most people know Puyallup for its popular Western Washington Fair, but the town also boasts the Ezra Meeker Mansion, built in 1890 by pioneer Ezra Meeker. The 17 room Victorian manor has been restored to its original grandeur with hand-stenciled ceiling artwork, elegant woodwork and stained glass.
In spring you’ll see fields of blooming daffodils and other bulbs for which Puyallup is famous. Puyallup celebrates its heritage every April with the daffodil Festival and Grand Floral Parade, one of the nation’s top floral festivals.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge connects Tacoma to the Kitsap Peninsula and Gig Harbor – a dramatic span built in 1950 to replace the ill-fated “Galloping Gertie” bridge. As you cross one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, take advantage of the grand and stunning views of south Puget Sound.
Perched on the Kitsap Peninsula and a convenient gateway to the Olympic Peninsula, Gig Harbor retains the flavor of a Scandinavian and Croatian fishing village. Now filled with waterfront shops, boutiques, galleries and restaurants as well as fishing boats, Gig Harbor is a charming village and gateway destination. You can stay in a wide range of B & B’s and hotels, dine in excellent restaurants, browse the shops and truly relax.
The peninsula’s varied shoreline is ideal for many outdoor activities including boating, sailing, kayaking, swimming, and beach combing. Scuba divers might meet some of the world’s largest octopi exploring the remains of “Galloping Gertie” that lie at the bottom of the Tacoma Narrows.
There are three state parks near Gig Harbor, Kopachuck, Penrose and Joemma Beach, which provide campers with beach access, hiking and bicycling venues. Also, the Gig Harbor City Park features a children’s playground, cooking facility and creek access.
Towering over Pierce County’s smaller communities in the Nisqually River Valley is “The Mountain” – majestic, 14.411 foot Mount Rainier. It is the focal point of Mount Rainier National Park, which is nearly all within Pierce County’s borders. The park is Pierce County’s major attraction and an absolute paradise to those who love the outdoors, whether you come for active sp orts or simply to enjoy the spectacular alpine scenery.
En route to Mount Rainier, you pass through the little towns of Eatonville, Elbe and Ashford. Don’t miss Northwest Trek Wildlife Park near Eatonville, a 635 acre sanctuary where native animals roam free and a fascinating tram ride features close-up viewing. Also near Eatonville is the Pioneer Farm Museum & Ohop Indian Village, where you can take a “hands on” living history guided tour of an 1880’s homestead, trading post and native dwellings.
Olympia and Thurston County
Thurston County, home to Olympia, Washington’s state capital, celebrates culture, history and recreation every day, all year long. Whether walking through one of the county’s 52 parks, spending an evening at the theatre after an exquisite meal or investigating the rich history of the state capital, this community provides residents and visitors with a wealth of entertaining options. It also provides the opportunity for some delightful afternoon or day trips – offering easy access to the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula, Pacific Ocean beaches and Mount Rainier.
Olympia, named for its spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains, has been Washington’s state capital since 1853. The city is prized for its quality of life, elegant old homes and three lined streets. Be sure to visit the Legislative Building, standing 28 stories high and the last great domed capital to be built in the United States. Other self-guided tours at the capital include the Justice Building, the Vietnam Memorial, and the World War II Memorial.
Olympia hosts the annual week-long Olympia Film Festival each October providing a variety of theater experiences. Tour the Yashiro Japanese Garden and Watershed Park, both stunning in-city respites. There’s a 1.5 mile boardwalk with artwork and interpretive displays at Percival Landing on the Olympia waterfront that’s delight to tour, and bring your appetite to the Olympia Farmers Market on the city’s waterfront and historic Budd Inlet. Family fun is always available at the Hands on Children’s Museum with interactive experiences for children of all ages.
Tumwater – Chinook word meaning “falling water” – has a very nice historic district featuring the Schmidt House, the falls of the Deschutes River and Tumwater Falls Park. Tumwater Historical Park is perfect for picnicking or walking along trails beside the Deschutes River.
Incorporate Lacey’s 400 acres of wooded parkland with three freshwater lakes into your vacation plans. Also, be sure to visit the 3.700 acre Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, established for the protection of migrating birds.
Wolf Haven International in Tenino provides sanctuary for captive-born wolves. There, you’ll enjoy a comprehensive, education about wolves in the wild and the ongoing efforts to restore their increasingly dwindling numbers. Priest Point Park offers a three mile nature trail, picnic areas, play areas and breathtaking views of the Olympic Mountains.
Like any capital city in the nation, this community has a wealth of cultural and historic sights. Combined with the abundance of natural resources and direct access to mountains or seashores, Thurston County is ideally located to get a full taste of the best Washington has to offer.
Lewis County – Naturally spectacular
In a state renowned for its parks and wilderness areas, southwest Washington’s Lewis County boasts some of the best and most varied outdoor opportunities for camping, fishing, hiking, and family fun. Terrain ranging from gently rolling prairies and river valleys in the west, to the rugged Cascade Mountains in the east, provides the perfect setting for every imaginable outdoor sport or activity.
The cities of Centralia and Chehalis, nestled along Interstate 5 midway between Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, combine the best of the region’s history with small-town charm. Downtown Centralia boasts sixteen murals portraying the history of the area and nearly 125 historic buildings in the process of restoration.
While in Centralia, visit Fort Borst Park, the Joseph Borst Home and Blockhouse, and the newly restored 1912 Railroad Depot, now offering daily Amtrak service. If shopping is your favorite pastime, be sure to head to the regional factory outlet center or unique antique shopping districts.
Downtown Chehalis and two of its residential districts are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Lewis County Historical Museum, housed in the original turn-of-the-century train depot, features displays of an old-time parlor, kitchen, schoolhouse, and early 20th century logging equipment.
A fabulous way to experience the beauty of the area is aboard a vintage steam train that runs on weekends during summer months. This relaxing, nostalgic 12 mile round-trip chugs through the peaceful Chehalis River Valley.
There are a variety of accommodation selections from historic bed and breakfasts to clean and welcoming hotels. Camping and RV facilities are conveniently located throughout the area.
The word “majesty” has varying interpretations and the collection of mountains within sight of Lewis County is certainly worthy of the title. The Tri-Mountain area, including the snow-capped peaks of Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams, presents spectacular scenery and is renowned for recreational adventure. You can golf, fish, hike, bird watch, or accelerate the adrenaline with white-water rafting, hang gliding or mountain climbing. Downhill skiers flock to White Pass, a 6.000 foot summit, and brag about the short lines and economical prices.
A road trip along the White Pass Scenic Byway on Highway 12 will lead to beautiful mountain country with plenty of fun stops along the way.
Morton, the hub of East Lewis County, is the crossroads for those traveling from the south to the Paradise entrance of Mount Rainier or those from the north to Mount St. Helens. This community boasts the East Lewis County Historical Museum, filled with antique logging and mining equipment. In addition to the museum, Gust Backstrom Park, located on the banks of the Tilton River offers fishing nearly year-round and 13 acres of RV camping and a new community center. In winter, kayakers travel the Tilton to Lake Mayfield through the Bear Canyon Gorge. Morton is at the end of a historic railroad line with a newly restored Railroad Depot. With friendly accommodations and home cooked food, Morton is well worth the visit.
Nearby Randle is a gateway to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. This drive brings you within four miles of the gaping crater and provides great views of Spirit Lake at the Windy Ridge Viewpoint. You’ll be awestruck by the sight of thousands of blasted trees and inspired by the wonder of nature’s restoration process.
Further east on Highway 12, at the foot of the Cascade and Tatoosh Ranges, is the town of Packwood. Just twenty miles west of the White Pass Ski Area, Packwood is dramatically accented with the Cowlitz River and wonderful steelhead salmon fishing. Other casting opportunities can be found in Skate Creek, a small tributary that merges with the Cowlitz through a scenic gorge. The gentle pace of life can be experienced on horseback, mountain bike, and kayak or on foot.
Mushrooms abound in the forest, and pickers come from all over the world for the many exotic varieties to be found here. The luscious tang of huckleberries and wild mountain blackberries lure berry pickers into the wilderness. If you want to stay, Packwood has a friendly selection of motels, restaurants and shops for a peaceful, remote getaway.
The southeast entrance to Mount Rainier National Park is just outside Packwood in Ohanapecosh, where you can stand amidst the Grove of the Patriarchs with its 1.000 year old red cedar and Douglas-fir trees.
Two popular visitor centers off Highway 123, Paradise and Sunrise provide great bases for Mount Rainier exploration. Sunrise is less populated if you want to avoid the crowds and typically opens a little earlier due to its location on the drier side of the mountain. Come summer, hike the trails, and when the air begins to chill, take advantage of the snow parks and cross-country skiing, snow shoeing and snowmobiling trails.
If you value the peace that a fishing pole and a few hours of solitude bring, go to Riffe Lake, a 12.000 acre reservoir on the Cowlitz River with cutthroat, Coho and kokanee salmon and the ever popular largemouth bass. A few minutes away, Mayfield Lake is open year round and full of fighting tiger muskiest and rainbow trout.
Campers will want to take advantage of the numerous parks within Lewis County. The Lewis and Clark State Park, home to the nation’s last remaining old-growth lowland forest, is located on the historic Jackson Highway near Interstate 5.
When your travels lead you back to Interstate 5, be sure to swing through hometown America at its best in the communities of Toledo, Winlock and Vader. From ghost towns to the World’s Largest Egg, these quaint towns in South Lewis County offer many hidden treasures. On the way to neighboring Mount St. Helens, explore historic St. Francis Mission where founding fathers first celebrated services in 1838. Gravesites of these early settlers are located in the pioneer cemetery on these grounds.
You can head in any direction in Lewis County, with any agenda, whether it’s shopping, sporting, or simply sightseeing, and return home content and enriched.
Cowlitz County probably qualifies more as “Volcano Country” than anywhere else in the continental United States. On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens changed this landscape irrevocably with a major eruption and the largest recorded landslide in our country’s history. The opportunity to witness the devastation and the ensuing natural restoration is just too tantalizing to miss. But the mountain is certainly not the only draw here. Cowlitz County has an extraordinary collection of welcoming cities and towns, plenty of recreational venues, and an abundance of places to explore and enjoy.
Castle Rock, located at the Interstate 5 / Highway 504 interchange, is known as the “Gateway to Mount St. Helens”. Just five miles east of the town, you’ll find the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center, with outstanding interpretive exhibits of the mountain’s history and monumental eruption. Be sure to take a walk on the one-mile Silver Lake Wetlands Trail to discover how the lake was formed by a previous eruption, and then go boating or bass fishing.
There are several other visitor centers in the Toutle River Valley that provide a broad reach of educational and interactive experiences. The Johnston Ridge Observatory, built like a military bunker, is just six miles from the mountain and has a wide-screen theater and interpretive exhibits. The Hoffstad Bluffs Visitor Center is a lodge-style building with great views of the mountain, Memorial Grove, and full-service dining.
The waterways in the Toutle River Valley offer great fishing; pack your gear and meander the Cowlitz, Toutle and Green Rivers for steelhead and salmon fishing, or cast for trout and enjoy non-motorized boating at Coldwater Lake.
Kelso, located at the confluence of the Cowlitz, Coweeman and Columbia Rivers, is the Cowlitz county seat and hosts a Volcano Information Center. The Cowlitz County Museum showcases the cultural heritage of the people of the Lower Columbia region and includes an 1884 log cabin and Indian artifacts. Each September, the city celebrates its Scottish heritage with the annual Highlander Festival, and the Sunday Bridge Market, open from July through October, is the perfect spot to purchase fresh produce and local crafts.
Kelso’s next door neighbor is Longview, the only planned city of its magnitude in the state, built entirely with private funds with designated areas for business, industrial, and residential areas. You can learn more about this distinctive city at The Merk – The Planned City Historical Display. In downtown Longview, enjoy the shopping and be sure to include a stroll beside lovely Lake Sacajewea.
Founded in 1840, Kalama has a distinctive 140 foot single-tree totem pole in the town’s Marine Park. Kalama is also a popular destination spot for antique browsers; there are eight antique malls here awaiting your perusal. Fishing is another popular pastime. Catch trophy bass at Kress Lake or try your luck at hooking the trout and salmon that flourish beneath the surface of the Kalama and Columbia Rivers.
The Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in nearby Woodland is a “must visit”. A national historic site, these gardens are representative of the Victorian era with rare and unusual trees and shrubs and over three acres of lilacs. Each spring during the popular Lilac Festival, the original 1889 Klager home is open for tours and features displays of quilts, artworks, antiques and collectibles. Gets fresh ground wheat at the fully restored Cedar Creek Grist Mill, one of the oldest surviving waterwheel wheat grinding mills in the United States. On the way to the mill, you’ll want to pass through and photograph the unique covered bridge.
If you’re traveling north on Interstate 5 into Cowlitz County, the Lewis River Highway provides another good approach to the southern flanks of Mount St. Helens. Winding along the Lewis River Valley through tiny communities like Ariel, Yale and Cougar, this area is a hotbed of year-round recreation. There are trails that explore ancient lava remains at the Trail of two Forests, Ape Cave and Lava Canyon, with hiking, mountain biking or horseback riding. Cougar is the nearest community to Mount St. Helens and a good home base if you plan a hike to the summit. Come winter, fill crisp days with cross-country skiing, snowshoe, or hop aboard a snowmobile on the valley’s winter recreation trails. Every Thanksgiving weekend, Ariel holds a unique event that commemorates the exploits of the world’s first skyjacker, D. B. Cooper.
Cowlitz County’s signature attraction of Mount St. Helens is reason alone to visit here, so spend a day or two touring this spectacular site, then take advantage of the outdoor charms of the entire region.
Vancouver and Clark County
When Lewis and Clark arrived in what is now Clark County, they were amazed at the abundance of food, wildlife and friendliness of the native people. That welcoming tradition and hearty bounty continues to this day and William Clark would be proud to know that the area now bears his name.
Nestled against the Cascade Mountains on the shores of the Columbia River just a bridge crossing away from downtown Portland, Clark County offers a unique blend of interactive nature and urban comforts.
The metropolitan center of Clark County is Vancouver, the state’s oldest and fourth largest city. Bustling and vibrant today, historically Vancouver and Clark County have played a major role in the development and settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Indians have lived here for thousand of years and established early trade routes to share goods obtained from the rich yield of the land, river and sea. They were the first, but certainly not the last, to appreciate and benefit from the bountiful harvest the natural resources here provide.
This region was initially established as the final destination for the Oregon Trail and United States history is evident throughout the local communities, most prominently, the National Historic Reserve in Vancouver. The Reserve encompasses many attractions, including Fort Vancouver, Officer’s Row and Pearson Air Museum. The museum is located on historic Pearson Field, the oldest continuously active airfield in the United States. This is the first step in a three phase project to recreate a pre-WWII Army Air Corps Field that existed at Pearson Field in the 1920s and 1930s. Explore the aviation milestones that have taken place on site with interactive exhibits and displays focused on the pioneering days of aviation in the Northwest.
Fort Vancouver is a highlight of any visit to this city. In the early 1800s this fort was established as a trading outpost for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The site, selected for its central location no major tributaries and natural resources, became the center of political and commercial activities in the Northwest. The site now features nine major buildings that have been reconstructed and furnished to replicate the original fort, with tours and reenactments offered daily. Officers Row, which has been converted to residential and office space, served as housing for officers and their families stationed at the Vancouver Barracks for more than 100 years.
If the family needs an in-city recreation break, venture to the Chelsea Anderson Memorial Play Station where kids can run across bridges, climb or slide down poles, pretend to drive a fire truck and much more. Or, if splashing around in an Olympic-sized swimming pool sounds appealing, try the Marshal Community Center.
A fun side-trip from the Vancouver area is The Pomeroy House and Living History Farm located in Yacolt, just north of Battle Ground. Here, 1920s agrarian life in southwest Washington State is featured on weekends from June through September. Volunteers dress in period costume and provide hands-on experiences for visitors. There’s family log home, working blacksmith shop, barn, herb and vegetable gardens. The Farm also hosts two annual festivals.
The Herb Festival, which draws 2.000 to 3.000 visitors from all the western states and Canada, is held the third weekend in May. It features over 12.000 herb plants for sale, vendors, a Farm Café, and entertainment. The first weekend of October the Farm hosts the Pumpkin Festival, with hayrides, scarecrow making, pumpkin painting, animal petting and a children’s maze.
Situated at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, Clark County is a natural playground for water sports with year-round boating, swimming and windsurfing. If you’re seeking some more intense thrills, try rafting on the local rivers. Some say it’s the perfect way to see the surrounding countryside. Other popular methods of exploration include driving or riding a bike along the back roads, paths, and trails that reveal the community’s unique charm and history.
Whether you claim the title of golfer, hiker, bird watcher, fisher or nature enthusiast, Clark County has a venue to accommodate your favored activity. With Vancouver guaranteeing entertainment and plenty of lodging options from quaint bed and breakfast inns and magnificent rustic lodges to recognized brand hotels, Clark County’s welcome remains as steadfast and friendly today as it was when Lewis and Clark first ventured here.