Growing up in Wisconsin, I was easily impressed. There were extravagant vistas to be enjoyed at places called Blue Mounds, Cascade Mountain, Kettle Moraine, Rib Mountain, Military Ridge and Timm’s Hill, the highest elevation in the state soaring 1,952 feet into the sky.
People in Washington state scoff at that real estate for they are adequately described as ridges, mountains and hills. Washington state boasts of 63 named mountains and all but 11 are significantly higher than the “mountains” of Wisconsin.
The people of Alaska, which boasts 13 of America’s 14 highest peaks, starting with Denali at 20,310 feet. The people of Colorado have their share of mountains, too, where 10 of America’s Top 25 highest places reside.
But what makes Washington different is that its peaks aren’t situated along one mountain range, like the Rockies. These sleeping volcanoes often look out of place as they tower over an endless see of pine trees. It’s a surreal visualization as though someone painted a single mountain rising out of virtually nowhere.
Surprisingly, Washington’s Top 5 mountains are all situated within a few hours of Seattle — and almost all of them are located in national recreation areas.
Mount Rainier is the icon of Washington which appears on the state’s vehicle license plates. You see images of it everywhere and it’s hard to miss. Stretching 14,410 feet above the ground, Mount Rainier offers a host of recreational opportunities.
Although native Americans referred to it as “Tahoma,” it was named by explorer George Vancouver in honor of his Revolutionary War comrade Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. It is considered by the United Nations to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. Thank goodness it is sleeping today.
Residents of the Seattle area often ask, “Is Mount Rainier out?” as though a monster of that size can make an appearance of its own choosing. Located just 54 miles from Seattle, it is very visible on a clear day.
With 550 feet of snow this year alone and 16 feet on the ground at the 5,000-foot level, it is a skiers paradise, but in summer, people camp in its shadows and hike along fields of endless wildflowers. The mountain retains its snow capped peak all summer long and on clear days, the glacier ice can appear blue.
There are four visitor centers surrounding Mount Ranier, two of which open in May and the last July 1. RVing is permitted at three campsites, but the largest RV they can accommodate is 35 feet.
For more information about Mount Rainier National Park, visit www.nps.gov/mora.
The second largest mountain in Washington was named after America’s second president, John Adams. Located 34 miles east of Mount Saint Helens, it forms a triangle with Seattle and Portland.
It is also an active volcano, but has not erupted in more than 1,000 years. The native Americans referred to the mountain as Klickitat after a tribe who lived in that area.
Mount Adams stands at 12,281 feet and is recognized by its relatively flat top. It resides on National Forest Service property in the Gifford Pinchot forest. The 46,353-acre recreation area features fresh water streams, excellent hiking opportunities and wildflowers scattered among ancient lava flows.
There are ample camping areas in the area, some of which are open year round and others accessible only during specific times and often via not-so-smooth forest service roads. For a list of camping areas and interpretive sites, click here.
For more information about Mount Adams and its recreational opportunities, especially its hiking trails that range from easy to very difficult, click here.
At 10,781 feet, Mount Baker is Washington’s third highest mountain. It was named after a third lieutenant on explorer Vancouver’s ship Discovery. Wonder what price he paid or deed he performed for naming rights.
Known by natives as Kulshan, it is second most thermally active volcano in the Cascade mountain range, right after Mount St. Helens. It receives a lot of snow. In fact, the snow pack is measured to be nearly one-half mile. In fact, it set the world record for recorded snowfall in 1999 with a whopping 1,140 inches.
It is located in the Snoqualmie National Forest Service and is one of the most visited forests in the country. Recreational opportunities include mountain climbing, hiking, camping and horseback riding. It is also very popular among bicyclists and fishermen.
The Forest Service recommends six scenic drives to and around the mountain. To view the routes, click here.
There are 27 official campgrounds in the Mount Baker recreation area. Again, some are modern sites suitable for RVs, others are primitive sites better suited for backpackers. But, to see the list of campgrounds, click here.
To plan a trip to Mount Baker, click here.
Mount St. Helens
The Cowlitz tribe called this mountain Lawetlat’la, or “the smoker,” for her reputation for acting up. Mount St. Helens actually erupted May 18, 1980, triggering one of the largest recorded landslides in world history, killing 57 people, destroying 250 homes 47 bridges and 150 miles of roadway.
To watch a quick video of the eruption, click here.
The mountain was named by Vancouver after a British diplomat Lord St. Helens, it is today easily recognizable because half of the mountain is sloped down creating a massive crater. Even today, visitors can still see signs of the massive devastation that occurred during its eruption that leveled thousands of acres of trees and littered the region in inches of ash.
During summer months, its easy to drive to observation areas that offer breathtaking views of the scene, and forest service staff schedule walks, talks and theatrical presentations. Located 96 miles south of Seattle also in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Congress declared the 1.3 million-acre property to be a national volcanic monument in 1982.
Mount St. Helens isn’t all about destruction, life has emerged over the past 36 years and millions of people today enjoy swimming, fishing, boating, biking, climbing and hiking. There are more than 200 miles of hiking trails alone.
To see some of the recreational opportunities and best routes to view the mountain, click here.
Explorer John Meares thought the mountain looked like it would be home to a Greek god, so he named it Mount Olympus.
Located on the western side of Puget Sound, it rises to 7,980 feet and forms the centerpiece of the Olympic National Park. Heavy winter snowfalls help support a host of incredibly lush rain forests, which are exquisite places to visit themselves with their moss covered trees and water trickling everywhere.
What makes this area special is the different ecosystems incorporated into the park: subalpine, coastal, temperate rain forest and lowland forest. As a result, it serves as a living laboratory and is designated as an international biosphere reserve.
The park service has developed several suggested itineraries based on a one-day or longer visit to the region. To view the suggested itineraries, click here. Note, there are no roads that go directly through the park and over the mountain. You’ll have to drive around.
Because of the area’s isolation from the lights of the major cities, the western side of Mount Olympus is ideal for dark sky stargazing. The ocean level is known for its tide pools that trap sea creatures for a shot while until the tide comes in again.
The Olympic National Park is also home to thousands of elk and and mountain goats. During certain times of year, the bluffs of the ocean allow glimpses of passing whales.
There is one campground supported by the National Park Service, Kalaloch, which is on a bluff overlooking the Pacific ocean. It has 168 campsites and more information can be found by clicking here.
For more information on Olympic National Park and Mount Olympus, click here.
Washington state is my favorite state to visit due to the multitude of things to do and see. But, the awe-inspiring mountains give me pause every time. Especially for a Wisconsin boy, the mountains of Washington are a sight to behold.