• Michael O'Keeffe

Ranking the Volcanoes of the Cascades (Based on my Favorites to Hike)

I seem to be writing a lot about the Pacific Northwest lately, reminiscing I guess. Here in Colorado, winter and spring are currently in their annual ritual of fighting for dominance. 60F and sunny one day, 30F and snowing the next. Frankly, my least favorite time of year, a small price to pay for 10 months of the year being pleasant. Anyway, for this week's post I wanted to do another list, this time ranking the volcanoes of the Cascades.

First and foremost, I should mention that these rankings are my favorite volcanoes in the Cascades based on which I enjoy hiking in the vicinity of more and beauty of the peak itself. These are very much opinion based. I haven't summited any of these peaks, the majority I have no desire to honestly. I enjoy viewing them from afar, seeing how they change depending on which direction you looking from or how close or far away you are. These rankings also take into account the surrounding landscape and what it offers.

Having said that, the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest are the pride of this region. These giant peaks soar well above the surrounding mountain ranges able to be seen from many miles away on a clear day. Any Seattleite will agree that nothing beats turning a corner on the way to work and seeing Mount Rainier rising above the horizon. It really never gets old, especially in the winter after a week or two of gloom. "The Mountain's out today" as they say.

It is an inspiring sight to say the least being among these volcanoes. Like ancient Gods quietly watching over the surrounding world, these peaks are capable of great destruction as well as rebirth and regeneration. We take for granted how special the volcanoes of the Cascades are and forget what they are capable of. Thousands of years of violent eruptions have shaped the landscape of the entire Pacific Northwest and in their wake left behind fertile volcanic soil that is responsible for some of the most productive agricultural farm land in North America.

I love Colorado and all that it offers, but I sure do miss the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest. So without further ado, here are my favorite volcanoes of the Cascades ranked.

9. Glacier Peak - Washington 10,541ft

Coming in at number 9 we have Glacier Peak in Washington. I considered keeping this off of the list as I have only hiked in the far vicinity of this peak. The Glacier Peak Wilderness that protects the peak and the 566,161 acres surrounding the peak is among Washington's largest making this volcano the most remote in the Cascades. Surprisingly, I have yet to step foot into the Glacier Peak Wilderness (that could change this summer) so for that reason Glacier Peak sits down at number 9. I have a feeling once I take a closer look this ranking may jump up as this is a stunning peak even from afar. I can only imagine what it looks like up close.

8. Mount Shasta - California 14,179ft

Mount Shasta is huge, absolutely massive coming in at 14,179 feet above sea level. Located in northern California this volcano is interesting not only due to its size but because there is not much else around it. Unlike the other volcanoes in the Cascades which are typically surrounded by other mountains, Shasta rises out of relatively gentle topography. In fact, Mount Shasta has some of the craziest prominence in the country rising 9,823 feet above the surrounding area. That on top of its very classic conical structure make it a sight to behold. Being in northern California (like way northern, 4 hours north of San Francisco) and despite being right off of I-5 it is a bit of a journey to get there from most major West Coast cities. I also do prefer Shasta from a distance as the slopes of the volcano are generally very dry and dusty once the snow melts. As you can see above there are some great vantage points of the mighty Mount Shasta.

7. Mount Hood - Oregon 11,249ft

What Mount Rainier is to Seattle, Mount Hood is to Portland. The highest peak in Oregon coming in at over 11,000 feet, Mount Hood can be seen from many different parts of the state. What I find interesting about Mount Hood is the how different the peak looks whether you facing the east or west, or whether you are close or far. The slopes of the peak are very fertile hosting incredible wildflower displays in summer and even feature a multi-day backpacking route known as the Timberline Loop. The area surrounding Mount Hood features a lot of variety as well whether exploring the waterfalls of the Columbia River Gorge, passing through the massive old growth forests of the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, or traversing airy ridgelines in the Badger Creek Wilderness. So there is good reason Mount Hood is the go to adventure hub for Portlanders.

6. Mount Saint Helens - Washington 8,363ft

On May 18, 1980 Mount Saint Helens changed everything we thought we knew about the Cascade volcanoes when the peak blew in a cataclysmic eruption unseen in the range for over a thousand years. Once reaching over 10,000 feet tall, Mount Saint Helens was nicknamed "The Mount Fuji of the Pacific Northwest" for its nearly perfect conical shape much like Mount Fuji in Japan. The slopes of the peak were heavily forested with the summit crowned in glaciers similar to its volcanic neighbors. However, when Saint Helens erupted on that fateful day in 1980 everything in the vicinity of that mountain was instantly destroyed. A once lush forest was completely demolished leaving behind a wasteland of ash and pumice. In nearby Spirit Lake, dead trees from the blast still float in the icy waters 40 years later.

Today, a visit to Mount Saint Helens will show you something unexpected, new life. The ash and pumice that was laid from the eruption has created rich fertile soil to allow new life to begin in the wake of the destruction. In early summer, wildflowers turn the eerily named "Blast Zone" into a dazzling kaleidoscope of color. New trees are also taking root in the Blast Zone. Few places on Earth offer such easy access to the aftermath of such a violent eruption where anyone can show up to see the lifecycle of these ancient giants and the life that emerges from the embers.

5. Crater Lake - Oregon 6,178ft

Crater Lake might have the craziest story of any of the Cascade volcanoes. 7,700 years ago sat Mount Mazama which is was estimated to be over 12,000 feet tall and covered in glaciers. Well, Mount Mazama erupted in spectacular fashion completely blowing its lid, much like Mount Saint Helens. In its wake was a crater over1,000 feet deep with the crater rim now only reaching to 8,000 feet above sea level. It should be noted that Crater Lake is Oregon's snowiest spot averaging over 600 inches a year. So over the centuries that crater began to fill with snowmelt. With no outlets for the water to escape the water began to fill the crater. Today, thousands of years of snowmelt has created the deepest lake in United States at 1,943 feet deep with some of the clearest water on Earth.

Something I feel gets forgotten is that Crater Lake is still potentially active with geothermal vents having been detected at the lake floor. Despite the lake's tranquil nature it still could cause trouble in the future. As for hiking, the area offers a bit less than its counter parts. With a road along the crater rim there isn't a lot of room for many major hiking trails, mainly overlooks. However, if you can brave it in winter they close the road, opening it into a trail to snowshoe or cross country ski. You can even snag a permit and camp on the crater rim, something you definitely can't do in summer.

4. Mount Adams - Washington 12,281ft

The only unexplained encounter I've ever had while hiking occurred while at Mount Adams (in fact the day I took the photo above). But that is a story for another time. Mount Adams is a weird place. It is far from everywhere, largely forgotten despite being the third tallest peak in the Cascades, has just gnarly terrain (lava flows, wildfire burns, boulder fields you name it), and might be home to Bigfoot...maybe. And that's why I love it! It is a wild place, a place where you can feel the energy. The volcano sits surrounded by a plateau formed by lava flows so the views from the slopes are far reaching. An ocean of forest is interrupted by the icy crowns of Mount Rainier to the north, Mount Saint Helens to the west, and Mount Hood to the south. Not to mention Mount Adams itself which is a Mount Rainier look a like but without all the roads, visitor centers, and crowds. It is also quiet, one of the quietest places I've ever been. For those seeking solitude it is about as good as it gets, even with the PCT traversing its slopes it is easy to escape the crowds here. The moral of this story, don't sleep on Mount Adams (figuratively). Maybe don't literally sleep there either or you might get eaten by a Bigfoot (this is joke lol). Jokes aside, there is an air of mystery to this mountain, and with the highest concentration of Bigfoot sightings in the country (a true statistic, though sightings are just that sightings) the possibility of the unknown certainly brings an added element to this wild and beautiful peak.

3. Three Sisters - Oregon 10,363ft

The Three Sisters in central Oregon are a geology nerds dreamscape! Consisting of three 10,000 foot tall stratovolcanoes so cleverly named North Sister, Middle Sister, and South Sister at the center, this is more of a volcanic region that just an individual peak. Obviously there are three separate volcanoes as part of the Three Sisters, but there is a lot more to the Three Sisters than well, the Sisters. What makes this volcanic area so unique is that there are examples of every type of volcanic structure and eruption event. Stratovolcanoes, cinder cones, shield volcanoes, plug domes, you name it. In all, there have been 466 eruptions in the past million years across the Three Sisters volcanic field, most of which were small single event eruptions.

The majority of these small scale eruptions are volcanic vents, which tend to shoot lava straight up into the air and lay a long trail of lava on the land. A great example of this is the volcano currently erupting in Iceland, the one where tourists can walk literally right up to the edge of the lava flow. Some of these vents have erupted within the last 1,000 years. What is also interesting is that each one of the Sisters is composed of different igneous (volcanic) rock formed at different periods of time. Scientists today believe that North and Middle Sister may be extinct or close to it, though South Sister (the tallest) is still potentially active. In fact, in the past month geologists have recorded growth in the volcano for the first time in 20 years, which signals magma is rising to the surface. Is that a sign of an impending eruption? Maybe, but it is too soon to tell. If the growth continues or more importantly the rate of growth increases over the next few months than all eyes may be on South Sister. Or the growth could stop and it may mean nothing at all. Regardless, it certainly means the volcano is still active and likely to erupt again at some point.

Oregon has some great hiking destinations, but the Three Sisters Wilderness is the go to spot in the state. Dozens of trails including the PCT cross through this magnificent wilderness area passing old growth forests, lovely alpine lakes, incredible wildflower filled meadows, and of course some of the wildest volcanic landscapes you can find. Whether passing through massive ancient lava flows peppered with beautiful obsidian or crossing a dusty pumice flat it has to be one of the most unique hiking destinations in the country hands down. Its proximity to Bend, Oregon (a great town) has made it a very very popular destination in recent years so today there are permit systems in place even for dayhikers during the summer months to visit this beautiful volcanic wonderland. Check it out, you won't regret it!

Side note - I took that photo above in August of 2017. I have never to this day seen so much snow still on the ground that late in the summer ever, anywhere. The winter they experienced prior to that summer must've been pretty wild.

2. Mount Rainier - Washington 14,491ft

King of the Cascades, the Crown Jewel of the Pacific Northwest, whatever you want to call it, Mount Rainier reigns supreme. At over 14,000 feet, Rainier is not only the tallest peak in the Cascades, but one of the tallest peaks in the Lower 48. Only Mount Whitney in California and Mount Elbert in Colorado are taller. However, those two peaks are surrounded by peaks of similar size. Rainier on the other hand rises over 7,000 feet above the surrounding mountains. It's sheer size and mass is unlike any mountain I've ever seen. It is hard to think of it as being just one peak, yet it is. A volcano at that, one lying dormant, one that will erupt again someday.

Mount Rainier is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world, in my opinion. It looks majestic from every angle. North, south, east, west. From close-up or far away. It is truly jaw dropping every single time. Just to get a scale of its immense size, when I lived in Seattle, Chyna and I lived in the Fremont neighborhood which is just north of downtown. Mount Rainier is 60 miles south of downtown Seattle as the crow flies. Fremont sits on the north side of Lake Union a little over a mile from downtown. Our southern view was obscured by the skyscrapers of downtown located just across the lake, however despite that even when standing on the street in Fremont on a clear day the top of Rainier can be seen peaking up from behind the skyscrapers. Just crazy!

Mount Rainier is a hiker's mountain, protected within the boundaries of Mount Rainier National Park, there is an extensive and wonderful trail network in the park. However, being close to Seattle the park is very crowded most days. To minimize that nearly all of the areas just outside the park are also protected with even more trails to explore. You could spend a lifetime exploring the trails surrounding Mount Rainier and honestly never tire of the wonderful views this mountain provides. Mount Rainier is more than a mountain, it is a symbol of the Pacific Northwest.

Mount Baker - Washington 10,786ft

Mount Baker may not be the tallest volcano in the Cascades, but it is certainly the prettiest. Located in far northern Washington, Mount Baker is a stunner. The peak is nearly perfectly conical with glaciers crowning the summit on all sides. It is a sight to see from any angle! However, the real draw to Mount Baker is the area surrounding the peak. Unlike other mountains such as Mount Adams or Mount Shasta which completely command the surrounding area, Mount Baker is barely higher than the surrounding peaks with nearby Mount Shuksan rising over 9,000 feet above sea level. What you get is this really interesting look of having this perfect stratovolcano set among a sea of razor sharp glacier covered peaks of the North Cascades. It is unique to the Cascades and one I never tire of.

With the mountain protected within the Mount Baker Wilderness which is bordered by North Cascades National Park, there is an incredible array of trails to explore. This IS a place I could spend a lifetime exploring every trail, you really can't go wrong. The deep valleys are home to incredibly lush old growth temperate rainforests where over 100 inches of precipitation may fall in a year. Ascending higher you have airy ridgelines with expansive views that reach from the Puget Sound to an endless sea of peaks and ridgelines. And then you have Mount Baker which may be a volcano we all are sleeping on. In 1975 the crater began to come alive with big geothermal vents opening up emitting steam and gases out from the summit. That activity continues today and can sometimes be seen rising from the peak especially on clear cold mornings. Unfortunately, measuring instruments are sparse on the peak making this volcano potentially dangerous as it seems to be awakening again. Not mention Baker is set further west than many of the other Cascade volcanoes placing it closer to the population centers of the Puget Sound which poses a real threat to those communities given an eruption.

Despite the potential looming threat, Mount Baker is my number one pick for its jaw dropping beauty and incredible surrounding wilderness. A special mountain in a special part of the world. One I hope to return to again and again.

Something I will mention is that these are not all of the major Cascade volcanoes. The last remaining few specifically Mount Jefferson, Lassen Peak, and the Newberry Volcano I have omitted because I simply haven't hiked them or spent enough time around them to feel I could give them a ranking. My hope is in the future I will get to visit these peaks as well. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this post and if so feel free to subscribe below to stay up to date on my latest adventures. Cheers!

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