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A Visit to the Cascade Mountains

If you are doing a trip to Seattle, Portland or both, you have to make a visit to the cascade mountains. Even if you can’t stay overnight, the cascades are worth the day trip. Both Mount St Helen’s and Mount Rainier can be done together in one day. Although the drive might seem slightly daunting, just do it… you won’t regret a second of it. 

Leaving from Portland

We left our hotel around 6am so that we could get an early start on the drive. We figured we might be able to make it by sunrise… in reality we should have left at about 5 or 530 but we aren’t super early risers so it didn’t work. Regardless of the time, the views were breathtaking.

The drive from Portland to Mount St Helen’s is about 1.5h. That turned in to about 2-2.5h for us because of all the photo stops we made. If you like to take pictures like we do, leave yourself some time. If not, it’ll be about a 1.5h drive.

Keep in mind that most of the drive for the day will be up in the mountains, which means that gas stations and restaurants are not readily available. You’ll want to have a full tank of gas, and plenty of snacks/water in your car just in case. I would also suggest bringing wipes or toilet paper in case you have to stop on the side of the road… we did.

Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (504)

This highway will take you all the way to the Johnston Observatory and is basically the only route to Mount St Helen’s once you exit off the 5. Being that we drove this way very early in the morning, in March which generally produces relatively bad winter weather and during COVID we got lucky and there was absolutely no one on the road. 

 

Keep in mind, this is a very scenic route. There are points all along the highway that will allow for amazing viewpoints and picture opportunities. During this time, a lot of the viewpoints were completely snow covered, but being that the road was empty this didn’t stop us from having some photo shoots. I’d say that there were at least 4 full on viewpoint stops to either pull over for or park in a lot to see. All of which had some sort of sign and/or information posted about the location. Stop at every point, if you can, even if you just look for a moment. 

 

Hiking Paths

The main point of our journey here was to do a hike in each location. Unfortunately, the Johnston Observatory, which is where a lot of the trail heads are was closed. We weren’t even able to drive the road up to the observatory. The main culprit of the closure was covid, but I do think in this case, weather may have played a part as well. 

 

If you are wanting to hike, make sure you check ahead of time to see if the trail heads are open, and what their conditions are. To see what hikes are available, their length, and trail heads click here. To see closures, conditions, and permit information click here

Had we been able to, our plan was to do Harry’s Ridge. It’s an 8mi hike roundtrip and is supposed to offer some of the best views of the volcano. While we weren’t able to do that because of the closures, we settled for a much smaller hike around Spirit Lake, which honestly offered spectacular views as well. 

We recommend you be prepared for very cold weather if you are interesting in hiking between Nov and April. The temperature was around 20-25 degrees in the mountains and even on a sunny day, it feels frigid. Our North Face thermoball jackets with gloves and hat really did the trick, but you will also need a boot with traction to brave the ice and snow. Asia wore Keen hiking boots, and I had a pair of Hunter rainboots. Rainboots aren’t ideal for long hikes, but for what we did it did the trick. 

On the way to Paradise

From Mount St Helens, we drove straight to Mount Rainier. This was about a 2.5h drive. Slightly less scenic than the drive down Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, but still worth it. Again, the roads were relatively empty which made for a very pleasant drive. There were 1 or 2 gas stations along the way… one that we stopped at for a quick bathroom break and to stock a few more snacks. 

We were able to make the entire journey from Portland to Seattle (stopping at each of the mountains) on 1 tank of gas in the Jeep Wrangler that we rented… just to give you an idea of how much gas you will need. 

Mount Rainier is an actual National Park that you have to pay to drive into. It was $30 per car for 7 consecutive days. Honestly, I didn’t want to pay, Asia made me, but I’m glad she did because we would really have missed out if we didn’t.

In the park, the rangers call the top of the mountain Paradise, and to be honest… it looks like it when you reach the top. We weren’t too sure of what we were looking for or where we were driving to. It was lucky that someone stopped us at one of the viewpoint locations and told us we needed to continue the drive. I’d say the drive to the top takes about 30-40min or so but you have to go all the way up.

Just like Mount St. Helen’s, there are tons of areas to stop at that include viewpoints or walkable trails. While we were there, there were only about 2 trails that we could walk due to the snow pileup, so we took advantage of them and did the little hikes we could. Both, again, provided amazing views.

For info on the road conditions and park restrictions, click here

Things to know before you go

  1. If you can, rent a truck/SUV of some sort. We were so grateful we rented a jeep, not because of the road conditions, but simply because there was so much snow pileup that we needed to sit on top of the jeep to see a lot of the views. 
  2. Be aware that between Nov 1st and May 1st you are required to have tire chains in your car while in the Mount Rainier National Park. Because the weather and road conditions weren’t bad during our visit, they did not have to be put on the tires, just needed to be in our trunk. Along the road into the park, there are several places you can rent the chains prior to getting to the entrance. We stopped at the Ukrainian Restaurant and rented ours for $20. 
  3. On a sunny day, especially in the winter/spring you need sunglasses. The sun beaming off all the white snow can be blinding. 
  4. It’s very very important to have a waterproof shoe with traction, if you don’t you’ll find it nearly impossible to walk on some of the snow covered areas. If you didn’t bring anything with you, or don’t own a shoe that is suitable, there’s a store in Portland called Keen Garage, where you can buy relatively well priced boots!
  5. If you’re looking to really hike and explore, it’s best to go between May and Oct when most of the snow has cleared out. 

On to Seattle

It only takes about 2h to get into Seattle from Mount Rainier. If you can, plan it perfectly so that you make it in to Seattle before 5pm. Especially if you are doing this day trip during the week. The city has pretty horrible traffic, if you can make it in before 5 you’ll be able to beat it!

As always, comment or email with any questions regarding this trip!

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