Kick off your journey by heading southeast from Enumclaw on the Chinook Scenic Byway and you quickly find yourself in the shadow of a volcano. Between Enumclaw and Greenwater you are effectively driving along the Osceola mudflow, a huge lahar (mud slide of water, rock and ash) created 5800 years ago when 2000ft of Mt Rainier collapsed.
Continue up the White River Valley and into Mt Rainier National Park. If the mountain is visible (ie there’s clear weather) the detour up the switchbacking road to Sunrise, the highest part of the park reachable by vehicle, is a must. A pause midway at Sunrise Point offers a unique view of five volcanoes, but the view from the top reveals the true spectacular scale of Rainier.
This big-name draw can mean packed parking lots and full campgrounds on summer weekends. The antidote to this temporary park madness is Mt Adams, an overlooked 12,276ft gem wrapped in 46,000 acres of wilderness. Nestled at the foot of the mountain, 34 miles southeast of Randle, Takhlakh Lake offers perfect views of the peak from what is one of the nation’s most scenic campgrounds. Watching the glacier-covered peak blush pink with twilight’s alpenglow may just be the highlight of your trip.
From Takhlakh Lake cut westward to the Mt St Helens National Volcanic Monument. Most people visit the west side of the mountain, which is fine as this leaves the more remote eastern side just for us. The east slope may lack facilities, but with its eerie views of the felled forest and lifeless Spirit Lake, it offers a far more palpable impression of the cataclysmic 1981 eruption: a 600mph blast that sent 540 million tons of ash around the globe and melted 20 billion gallons of water off the peak in a single day. Yes, this is an awesome place.
As you head south from Hood River and the Columbia Gorge, snowcapped Mt Hood (11,239ft), Oregon’s highest peak, rises into full, glorious view. The Mt Hood Scenic Byway hooks south and then east around the mountain, offering fabulous views at every turn. Just as gorgeous, on the flanks of the mountain, is iconic Timberline Lodge. Film buffs will recognize the exterior of the hotel from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (and will love the axe in the lobby with 'Here's Johnny!' carved on it). The hotel's cozy Ram's Head Bar is the perfect place to toast the end of this great mountain odyssey.