Archive for the ‘volcanoes’ Tag

The Cascades III: Mount Rainier, Part 1   8 comments

Mount Rainier is reflected in a small tarn in the subalpine meadows called Indian Henry's Hunting Ground.

Mount Rainier is reflected in a small tarn in the subalpine meadows called Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.

It’s no use stalling anymore.  Let’s continue my series on the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  Check out Part I, an introduction to the Range’s geography & geology.  So which mountain should be next?  Well, there are many interesting options.  There are the little-known “climber’s” peaks of Mount Jefferson and North Sister, Glacier Peak and Mount Stuart.  There are the popular recreation meccas of Mounts Baker, Bachelor and Hood.  But there is just one mountain I can’t put on hold any longer: the Big Kahuna, the sleeping giant, the Mother of Waters, training ground for Everest, Seattle’s sky-ornament, Tahoma, Mount Rainier.

The images you see here are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry about that.  If you want to see purchase information, just click on the images you’re interested in.  If you have any questions, please contact me.  Thanks for your interest!

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Mt. Rainier, at 14,411 feet (4392 meters), is one of America’s most spectacular mountains.  It sticks up hugely and dramatically a little more than 50 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington.  Rainier’s prominence is enhanced by a total of 26 glaciers with over 35 square miles of ice.  In North America, only Alaska and the Canadian Rockies have more dramatic, glaciated mountains.  By the way, don’t get confused about Part III and Part 1.  It’s just that with this particular mountain, there’s too much to fit into one post.  Stay tuned for one or two more posts on Rainier, but we’ll still be on the Cascades Part III until we jump to another mountain.

Mount Rainier's Paradise Park

Mount Rainier’s Paradise Park

The hairy pasqueflower blooms in contrast with indian paintbrush.

The hairy pasqueflower blooms in contrast with indian paintbrush.

Mount Rainier was named by Captain Vancouver of England for a friend of his, Rear Admiral Rainier.  It’s original name, from a local American Indian tribe the Puyallup is Tahoma (or Tacoma).

A Dangerous Volcano

Rainier is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, and there are a few important reasons for this. Like Vesuvius in Italy, Rainier is situated quite close to population centers.  That is the most important factor that makes it dangerous.  The second most important reason is not, as you’d expect, the volcano’s activity level.  Rainier sleeps for long periods.  Instead, what makes it potentially deadly is the fact that it is steep and weak.  In other words, the same thing that makes it dramatic, sticking up so steeply as it does, also makes it dangerous.

Spray Falls on Rainier's northwest side is a spectacular cascade.

Spray Falls on Rainier’s northwest side is a spectacular cascade.  The mountain receives abundant precipitation, much of it in the form of snow.

The glaciers, with their incredible erosive power, have done a very good job of steepening the volcano.  But how is it weakened?  As the mountain sleeps between eruptions, it sits above the magma chamber below and literally stews in its own juices. Rainier is in a wet climate, and the mountain’s bulk draws even more precipitation its way.  Because of this, Rainier’s rocks are wet.  Add heat and acidic gases from below and you have a corrosive mix.  As a result the rocks are altered to clays, greatly weakening Rainier’s steep cone over time.  In other words, much of the peak is literally rotten.  Add these two things together, the volcano’s steepness and its inherent weakness, and you have a very real and constant hazard on your hands.

Fields of lupine bloom in the subalpine meadows of Mount Rainier, Washington.

Fields of lupine bloom in the subalpine meadows of Mount Rainier, Washington.

The biggest volcanic hazard at Rainier is not from lava flows but from mudflows (aka lahars).  If the mountain erupts lava or hot ash, large amounts of ice could melt quickly, causing a catastrophic flow of mud, rocks, trees, bridges, cars, etc. that cascades down river valleys, wiping out everything in its path.  But here’s the thing: an eruption is not really necessary to bring destruction to the surrounding populated valleys.

Now imagine a small earthquake, perhaps during an unusually warm summer when much of the ice high on the mountain is melting (can you say global warming?).  This could easily trigger a large and very destructive mudflow.  Geologists know this has happened in the past.  In fact, a good portion of the city of Tacoma (plus some of Seattle) is built on deposits from an enormous Rainier mudflow that buried the area some 5000 years ago.

Bears are not that uncommon at Mount Rainier.

Bears are not that uncommon at Mount Rainier.

The Rainier region now has a warning system made up of sirens that are triggered when mudflows higher on the mountain begin.  Citizens of towns like Orting and Enumclaw are taught to heed these sirens by escaping to high ground.  Mudflows are powerful enough to sweep away large bridges and buildings like a spoiled toddler kicks over his leggos.  But all their dirty work is limited to river bottoms, so getting up out of the valley will save your life.

The last of the day's light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

The last of the day’s light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

The Cascades II: Mount Adams   3 comments

Mount Adams viewed from Hood River Valley in Oregon.

Mount Adams viewed from Hood River Valley in Oregon.

This is part of a series I’m doing on the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest.  Part I, which is an overview of the geology of the Cascade Range, is worth checking out, especially if you’re something of a geo-nerd like me.  I was going to start the tour with Mount Hood, the closest one to my home.  But this past weekend I summited Mt. Adams in Washington.  So I’ll start there.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Mount Adams, at 12,281 feet (3743 meters), was named for America’s second president.  It is one of the larger volcanoes in the Cascades.  If Mt. Rainier was not close by, Adams would get more attention.  As it is, the second-highest mountain in Washington is a popular climbing & hiking destination.

The way this mountain was named is an interesting story.  Native Americans named it Pahto, brother of Wy East (Mt Hood).  The legend is that in the competition for the beautiful La wa la Clough (sometimes also called Loowit – St. Helens), Pahto won.  Wy East grew angry and pounded Pahto over the head, accounting for the flat stubby summit of the mountain.  Wy East’s anger also caused the landslide that led to the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River.

The east side of Mount Adams is rugged and gouged by glaciers.

The east side of Mount Adams is rugged and gouged by glaciers.

First sighted by Lewis and Clark (and misidentified as St. Helens), Adams has always been one of the more remote Cascade peaks.  For a time it appeared as if the Cascades might be renamed the President’s Range, and many of the individual peaks are named after U.S. presidents.  In the case of Adams, named for the second president, it was to be Hood that received the name.  But a mistake by a mapmaker put the name Adams quite a distance to the north and east.  Instead of the error being discovered and fixed, it happened that the location was occupied by a little-known but large mountain, and it was retained.  Now THAT’S a coincidence!

Mount St. Helens lies to the west as viewed from the summit of Mount Adams.

Mount St. Helens lies to the west as viewed from the summit of Mount Adams.

 

SURROUNDING AREA

Although Rainier has more extensive glaciers and subalpine meadow areas, Mount Adams has arguably a more beautiful surrounding area.  To the south, the only paved access route to the mountain traverses a gorgeous valley.  The White Salmon River, which runs down the valley, is a fantastic whitewater rafting or kayaking trip.  Apple orchards and scattered forest populate the valley.  The tiny town of Trout Lake greets you as you draw closer to the mountain.  It is a bulky mountain too, totally unlike the spire of Mount Hood across the Columbia River to the south.

The Klickitat River drains the east side of Adams, and proceeds through a beautiful forested area, ending on the drier east side of the Columbia River Gorge.  You can drive this route from Hwy. 14 on the Columbia up to Trout Lake.  It is a wonderful route, very scenic.  The Klickitat River is a fantastic whitewater trip.  In fact, doing both the White Salmon and the Klickitat (both one-day trips) is a great way to spend a long whitewater weekend.

Looking down the spine of the Cascade Range from high up on Mount Adams in Washington.

Looking down the spine of the Cascade Range from high up on Mount Adams in Washington.

The east side of Adams is covered by the Yakima American Indian reservation.  It’s worth obtaining a permit to hike through the beautiful Bird Creek Meadows on this side.  This is one of the finest flower meadows in the Cascades.  A recent forest fire has impacted both the south and east side though.  You can camp in this area at either Bench Lake or Bird Lake.  I think this area along with Adams Meadows on the north side are the finest subalpine meadows at Mt Adams.

A fantastic rugged backpacking trip can be had by traveling north from Bird Creek Meadows.  You will travel off-trail and cross an icefield.  There are some potentially serious stream crossings too.  But your reward is camping in pristine meadows, likely seeing no other person.  In Avalanche Valley, there is a spring that is amazing.  Its flow is so great that a river pops into existence and begins flowing across a lovely meadow.

Viewed from the summit of Mt Adams, the Klickitat River winds its way down through the forest.

Viewed from the summit of Mt Adams, the Klickitat River winds its way down through the forest.

GEOLOGY

Adams is like other Cascade strato-volcanoes a young cone with most of the eruptions occurring in the Pleistocene.  The volcano is characterized by long periods of dormancy.  In fact, the last eruption was some 1400 years ago.  It is not extinct though.  As mentioned, it is a bulky mountain.  It’s second in volume only to Shasta in California.  Several overlapping cones cover the summit and account for its flat nature.  Though it is no Rainier, the mountain does have its share of glaciers.  In fact, Adams Glacier on the NW side is the second largest glacier in the Cascades (Carbon Glacier on Rainier is the largest).

It is the only volcano in the Cascades whose summit has been subjected to mining activity.  In 1929 Wade Dean filed claims, built a mule trail to the summit, and conducted small-scale drilling for sulfur.  There was not enough ore found to make it economic, and that was that.

Mount St. Helens looms to the east of Adams.

Mount St. Helens looms to the east of Adams.

CLIMBING ADAMS

Mount Adams is a fairly straightforward climb, at least on the south side.  The South Spur trail starts from Cold Springs, trail #183.  You need to stop at the ranger station in Trout Lake for information and a $15 climbing permit.  The mountain attracts great amounts of snow, so unless you want a long approach, you’d do well to wait until June at the earliest.  You can climb it with ice axe and crampons, but might not need them.  No rope is needed.  Although it can be done in one long day, we opted to camp at the so-called Lunch Counter.  This is a flattish area at about 9000 feet (2743 meters), popular for camping and yes, lunch.

Descending from the summit of Mt Adams with Mount Hood, Oregon in the background.

Descending from the summit of Mount Adams with Mount Hood, Oregon in the background.

It was a beautiful evening.  Next morning, since I had skis and the snow had frozen hard overnight, I slept in to 6 a.m.  My companions started ahead of me.  The climb from the Lunch Counter ascends steeply to the False Summit (aka Piker’s Peak) at 11,700 feet (3566 meters).  From here it is a slight drop then on up to the summit.  I was on top before noon.  What a view!  I skied over to the east side of the summit crater and peaked down the steep east-side route.  The descent was perfect!  I haven’t skied for a long time (because of the broken ribs), so was tentative on those first few steep turns.  The snow was firm yet forgiving, and soon I was carving telemark turns down the mountain.  My friends had a great time glissading down from the False Summit.  Glissading is sliding on your butt.

Night falls on the eve of summit day at the Lunch Counter on Mount Adams, Washington.

Night falls on the eve of summit day at the Lunch Counter on Mount Adams, Washington.

Mount Adams is a great volcano which offers hiking, camping and flower photography, not to mention horse-back riding, whitewater rafting & kayaking.  In the winter, it makes an excellent, uncrowded cross-country skiing destination.  Climbing Adams is a great physical challenge.  It’s perfect for novice climbers who want some safe practice with crampons and ice axe.  But realize that altitude can be a factor, depending on your body’s particular reaction to it.  Since it is high up, weather can change rapidly and violently.  Storms and lightning are very real hazards, and people have died on this mountain.

Stay tuned for more on this series.  If you’re interested in any of these images, just click on them.  If you end up in a gallery and are having trouble finding the image, simply contact me.  They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission, sorry.  Thanks for your interest and thanks for reading!

Sunset from the flat Lunch Counter on Mount Adams.

Sunset from the flat Lunch Counter on Mount Adams.

 

The Cascades I: Volcanoes Give and Take Away   16 comments

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

This is the mountain range I’m most familiar with, my home range.  I’ve climbed all of the high Oregon Cascades and many of the bigger Washington ones as well.  So I have personal experience and knowledge of these peaks.  Named for the many waterfalls that tumble over their volcanic cliffs, the Cascades are essentially a northern analogue of the Andes in South America.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named occur all through the range, including here at Toketee Falls.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named  include Toketee Falls.

GEOGRAPHY

The Cascades are volcanoes that still erupt from time to time, but with the exception of a single mountain are not the most active volcanic chain in the world by any means.  More on the exception below.  The Cascade Range, which stretches for 700 miles (1100 km.) in a north-south direction from Mount Garibaldi in Canada to Mount Lassen in California, is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (see below).  This whole region of the western Pacific Northwest is often called Cascadia.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The dramatic and beautiful mountains that make up the Cascades in most cases exceed 10,000 feet (3000 meters).  The high peaks are generally well-spaced, with many miles of forested lower mountains and hills between each snow-capped peak.  Oregon’s Three Sisters area (which actually includes 5 big volcanoes) is an exception to this wide spacing.  The bunched-up and much more rugged North Cascades in Washington are a whole different range geologically, one that happens to coincide in space (but not time) with the volcanoes of the Cascades.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

GEOLOGY

The highest peaks in the Cascades are quite young, most less than 100,000 years old – a moment in the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history.  They are built upon a much older eroded volcanic range, arranged along an axis situated slightly to the west of the present locus of volcanic activity.  These older volcanoes began erupting some 37 million years ago.  It’s lucky for life (including us) that these older, heavily eroded volcanoes are around.  It’s the reason we have those lush forests, those cold streams that nourish the region’s great fish runs, and the habitat for the region’s other wildlife.  And let’s not forget the many waterfalls!

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

The older ancestral Cascades are also responsible for the region’s enormous timber resources plus the very rich soils that drew settlers west along the Oregon Trail.  Volcanoes combine with ample rainfall to make rich soil for farming.  By the way, many often wonder why so many people, worldwide, live near dangerous volcanoes.  It’s simple:  the rich soils around volcanoes, the productive farmland.  There is really not much choice.  We must eat, and so we must live near volcanoes.

While the Western Cascades are responsible for many of the Northwest’s assets, let’s not totally dismiss the younger High Cascades.  Their snowpack, lasting well into summer, gives farmers and ranchers (especially those to the east) water for their crops through typically dry summers.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The Cascades are stratovolcanoes (aka composite cones).  These are the steep-sided, conical volcanoes you drew as a kid in school.  They are made of alternating layers of lava-rock and pyroclastic (ash) deposits.  The volcanic rock is characteristically lighter colored than the basalt which covers the region to the east of the Cascades.  A typical volcanic rock for the Cascades is andesite (named for the Andes), which flows over the ground in a somewhat stickier manner than more fluid basalt (Hawaiian volcanoes erupt basalt).  The Cascades do have their share of basalt too, along with dacite and a few other types of volcanic rock.

An uncommon volcanic rock of the Cascades is obsidian.  It is very rich in silica (SiO2), which is also what quartz is made of.  In liquid lava, dissolved silica acts to make it stickier, more viscous.  Water does the opposite, makes lava less viscous – more fluid.  Obsidian is so rich in silica and erupts so dry that it literally squeezes out of the ground like thick toothpaste, heaping up into mounds and ridges.  Once cooled, obsidian is a beautiful natural glass, normally black, that can be sharp enough to serve as surgical instruments.  Obsidian arrowheads left along old American Indian trails and hunting grounds can still be found throughout the Northwest.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades.  That is Mount Adams in Washington.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades. That is Mount Adams in Washington.

THE RING OF FIRE AND PLATE TECTONICS

The Pacific Ring of Fire is that huge circle of volcanoes and earthquake activity that circles the Pacific ocean basin.  Some of the world’s most spectacular eruptions and devastating earthquakes happen along the Ring of Fire.  Truly an enormous geologic feature, it exists because the earth’s tectonic plates rub against and collide with each other (see addendum below if you don’t know about plate tectonics already).  Although they act slowly, the forces are gargantuan.  And something has to occasionally give.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

One example of the power and beauty of the Ring of Fire lies in the remote Aleutian Islands and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.  Here the huge Pacific Plate dives under the North American continental plate (plus a smaller one called the Okhotsk Plate) along a so-called subduction zone.  The plate partially melts as it descends, because of the heat of course – but also because of it is loaded with water (which acts as a flux).  Plumes of magma rising from the descending and melting plate eventually erupt into some of the world’s most active (and thankfully remote) volcanoes.  In the Southern Hemisphere on the opposite side of the Ring of Fire, the oceanic Nazca Plate subducts under the South American plate to form the longest volcanic range in the world, the Andes.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

All throughout the Ring of Fire there are earthquakes.  Some of the largest happen as a result of subduction and are called megathrust quakes (how’s that for a name!).  The earthquake that caused the destructive Japanese tsunami of 2011 was of the  megathrust variety.  This enormous earthquake happened where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath Japan’s Honshu Island.  The Pacific Plate moved as much as 20 meters (66 feet) west during the minutes-long quake.  Honshu drew closer to America by about 2.5 meters (8 feet).  The equally destructive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was also generated by a megathrust quake along a subduction zone.

Other earthquakes happen when two tectonic plates slide past each other.  The San Andreas in California is the most famous example of this so-called transform boundary.  Because these earthquakes happen on land and have fairly shallow epicenters, they can be very destructive.  This is despite the quakes being generally smaller than subduction-zone, megathrust earthquakes.

Climbing in the Cascades.  Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

Climbing in the Cascades. Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

ADDENDUM: PLATE TECTONICS

The crust of the earth (plus some extra beneath it) is broken into enormous semi-rigid plates.  Over time, the plates move across the planet’s surface, on average about as fast as your fingernails grow.  That’s an average; during big quakes they can move up to a hundred feet!  But overall it’s a very slow process.  It can take over a million years for a plate to move 50 miles.  They ride atop enormous convection currents in the semi-molten part of the upper mantle.  The mantle is that layer that lies directly beneath the earth’s crust.  The weight of tectonic plates as they descend into the mantle along subduction zones (like the one that lies just off the Pacific Northwest coast) helps to pull the oceanic plates along.

Why do we have tectonics while the other planets don’t seem to?  For one thing the energy that drives the convection currents comes from heat given off by the still cooling interior of the earth.   Mars is too small to have much heat left.  For Earth, much of the core is still molten, and our fast spin sets up complex circulation patterns (which cause our magnetic field).  Combined with heat from the decay of radioactive elements, this gives rise to huge, slowly rising zones of heat.  When they hit the colder, more rigid upper parts of the earth, the crust, the currents spread outward horizontally.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

But there’s another reason for plate tectonics.  It is because we are a water planet that all this partly molten rock is around.  Venus is much too dry for plate tectonics to get going.  Without water the pressures deep below would not allow enough melting.  Water essentially lubricates the earth’s tectonic system.  And without plate tectonics complex life would most likely not be possible, yet another way water is crucial to a living earth.

This series will continue.  If you are interested in any of the images, just click on them.  They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

Mount St Helens – Early Season   4 comments

The Hummocks near Mount St. Helens is an area filled with remnant debris from the devastating eruption of 1980.

The Hummocks near Mount St. Helens is an area filled with remnant debris from the devastating eruption of 1980.

I visited the north side of Mount St. Helens yesterday with my uncle and my dog.  St. Helens is a sleeping volcano, by far the most active in the Cascade Range.  It erupted with extreme violence on May 18th, 1980, killing 57 people.  Now it is a National Monument managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and is in full-on recovery mode.

Since the monument is only partially open now, the snow just having recently melted off the highway, we had it to ourselves.  And what a gorgeous day to be there with only a few other lucky souls!  The mountain was glittering with rapidly melting snow, the water was pouring down through creeks and over waterfalls, and the birds and amphibians were busy with their lives on the shores of full lakes and ponds.

Beautiful Coldwater Lake at Mount St. Helens in Washington state.

Beautiful Coldwater Lake at Mount St. Helens in Washington state.

GEOLOGY

This whole area was transformed by the eruption of St Helens in 1980.  The volcano awoke on March 16th of that year with a series of small earthquakes.  A week and a half later the mountain erupted, blasting a small crater out of the snow-covered summit.  The mountain then proceeded to work up to its big blast 8 weeks later.  The north flank of the mountain slowly bulged outward as magma moved upward.

Finally, on that beautiful Sunday morning, while folks were in church or tending their gardens, the bulge gave way and history’s largest recorded landslide occurred.  The volcano was essentially uncorked, and as the massive debris avalanche slid toward Spirit Lake (where Harry Truman – the old character who refused to evacuate his lakeside cabin – awaited his fate), the mountain erupted in a powerful lateral blast.  It had the force of 24 megatons, 1600 times the energy released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.  Whole forests were mowed down and the mountain’s height reduced by 1300 feet.

The mass of rock, mud and ash cascaded down the North Fork Toutle River valley, burying the river and damming Coldwater Creek.  These types of debris avalanches typically form mounds (hummocks) where the debris comes to rest, and this is what happened here.  Erosion by streams further sculpts the landscape.  Actually, this strange hummocky terrain, which occurs in places worldwide, was a bit of a puzzle to geologists before St. Helens showed geologists how it is formed.  Beautiful Coldwater Lake, along with the adjacent hummocks and melt-water ponds with their unique ecosystem, owe their existence to the 1980 landslide and eruption.  Volcanoes destroy, but they also create.

Coldwater Creek at Mount St. Helens near its confluence with the Toutle River.

Coldwater Creek at Mount St. Helens near its confluence with the Toutle River.

We hiked partway around Coldwater Lake.  We had planned to make the 12-mile loop around this rather large lake, which was created when the debris avalanche from the 1980 eruption dammed Coldwater Creek.  But a wide, tumbling creek stopped us.  I hopped across, getting my feet wet.  Seeing my uncle hesitate, I built a very rough bridge out of logs for him to cross.  But at age 73, he has gotten very cautious.  He just doesn’t like doing anything even remotely hazardous.  And stream crossings are something he REALLY does not like on a hike.  So we turned back.

The beautiful Coldwater Lake near Mount St. Helens was formerly covered with huge trees before the devastating eruption of 1980.

The beautiful Coldwater Lake near Mount St. Helens was formerly covered with huge trees before the devastating eruption of 1980.

I was pretty disappointed.  The hike around the lake was promising to be one spectacular trek.  I’ll just have to get back up there soon to do the whole thing.  But I snapped quickly out of my funk when we found a great alternative just across the road from the lake.

Trees are reflected in one of the many ponds at Mount St. Helens' Hummocks area in Washington.

Trees are reflected in one of the many ponds at Mount St. Helens’ Hummocks area in Washington.

The Hummocks Trail is a very interesting 2.5-mile loop through strange mounds created by the 1980 debris avalanche.  At this time of year there are beautifully full ponds trapped between the hummocks, alive with frogs, toads and salamanders.  The trail also passes a couple fantastic viewpoints up the Toutle River to the hulking volcano, with its horseshoe-shaped crater and (often steaming) lava dome.  Interpretive signs along the trail teach about the eruption and formation of the hummocks.

Algae combined with bubbling oxygen from a meltwater pond at Mount St. Helens forms fascinating patterns.

Algae combined with bubbling oxygen from a meltwater pond at Mount St. Helens forms fascinating patterns.

After a late picnic at Coldwater Lake, where we did some birdwatching and general lazing about, I headed back up the Hummocks Trail to one of the ponds for sunset pictures.  We made a full day of it after all, and didn’t get back to Portland until near 11 p.m.  It had been a couple years since I had been up to St. Helens, and I am determined to not let that much time go by again.  It is just too nearby, too special and beautiful a place to neglect.

The rapidly melting foothills near Mount St. Helens in Washington are reflected in meltwater ponds.

The rapidly melting foothills near Mount St. Helens in Washington are reflected in meltwater ponds.

To get there, travel north on I5 from Portland, Oregon (or south from Seattle).  Get off the freeway at the exit for Castle Rock and travel east on Highway 504 about 45 miles to Coldwater Lake.  During the summer season, this highway is open all the way to it’s end at Johnston Ridge Observatory, 7 miles on from the lake.  Find the trail around the lake either from the boat ramp or the Science & Learning Center up on the hill above the lake.  The Hummocks Trail is directly across Hwy. 504 from the turnoff for Coldwater Lake.  This part of Mount St. Helens is open from about late April until the snow flies in November.  Johnston Ridge is open from mid-May until late October.  There is an $8 fee to use Coldwater Lake or Johnston Ridge Observatories during the summer season.

Sundown at Mount St. Helens from the beautiful Hummocks area.

Sundown at Mount St. Helens from the beautiful Hummocks area.

Larch Mountain, Oregon   8 comments

The full moon rises over Larch Mountain at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

The full moon rises over Larch Mountain at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

I’m taking a quick breather from the heavy science stuff  to highlight one of my favorite features of the area around Portland, Oregon, where I live:  the amazing extinct volcanoes.  There are at least 32 in the Portland metro area.  Oh right, well maybe this will involve a little bit of geology, which is science I suppose.  Sorry ’bout that.

The volcanoes, which were active up until about 300,000 years ago, are cinder cones and generally small shield volcanoes (like in Hawaii, except those are BIG shield volcanoes).  Many lie within the city limits, and several have city parks covering their summits.  I happen to live quite close to two of them: Rocky Butte and Mount Tabor.  Both have parks, but the one at Mt Tabor is much more extensive, with hiking trails, tennis courts, a large playground, picnic areas and more.  There is even a natural amphitheater at Tabor where live music is often hosted on warm summer evenings.  This popular venue occupies the volcano’s old explosion crater.  How cool is that?

The Columbia River flows west below the foggy forests of the Larch Mountain, Oregon.

The Columbia River flows west below the foggy forests of Larch Mountain, Oregon.

While each of these old volcanoes in Portland have their own character and personality, one stands out above the rest.  It is the king of them all, a looming hulk over 4000 feet (1240 meters) high on the east Portland skyline.  I’m speaking of Larch Mountain.  There are no larches on this well-forested shield volcano, so one might wonder how it got its name.  Early lumbermen sold noble fir from the mountain and labeled them “larch”.  How come misnomers so often stick?

Larch is quite a large mountain, but most people do not take notice of it at all.  Beyond Larch Mountain lies the Cascade Range, with big snow-capped peaks like Hood and Adams.  These more dramatic peaks draw the eye away from foreground mountains like Larch in Oregon and Silver Star in Washington.  But try to ride your bicycle up Larch’s 16-mile long road, and you quickly discover how big this mountain actually is.  Like most shield volcanoes (named for their resemblance to a shield laid concave side down), Larch can easily escape notice.  This is because they are so broad, with gentle slopes.  And the gentle slope is because most of what pours out of a shield volcano during eruptive phases is a very liquid form of lava – basalt.  Basalt is the hottest and most dense lava on Earth, and it covers most of the ocean floor.  Because of its relatively low silica content, basalt flows very easily, forming smooth shallow slopes and a broad volcanic edifice.

The view to the east from Larch Mountain's summit is dominated by Mount Hood and its cloak of forest.

The view to the east from Larch Mountain’s summit is dominated by Mount Hood and its cloak of forest.

Copious quantities of basalt flowed out of Larch Mountain’s summit vent during the early ice ages.  It’s part of what geologists call the Boring lava field.  The name does not describe geologists’ feelings about this very interesting volcanic feature.  Rather the name comes from the little town of Boring, which is southeast of Portland.  The volcanoes are actually quite interesting because of their position far to the west of the main axis of volcanism represented by the Cascade Range.

Whenever my eyes drift up toward the east, I’m always impressed by the sheer bulk of Larch Mountain.  In certain light conditions it is almost lost, but in other light you can get an accurate feel for how dominant the mountain really is.  The views from the top are absolutely stunning.  You can look east to see an interesting angle on Mt Hood, north to see Mounts Rainier, St Helens and Adams in Washington, or west down the length of the Columbia River.  I often ride my motorcycle up there for sunset when the road is open (snow closes it in winter).  And stargazing from the summit is quite excellent, despite the proximity of Portland’s light pollution.

If you ever find yourself in Portland and want to catch the sunset from a high viewpoint, make the drive up to Larch Mountain.  Just head out the Historic Columbia Highway from Troutdale.  Not far past Corbett, and just before you come to Crown Point, you will see a sign where the road angles up to the right.  Don’t forget your camera!

Larch Mountain dominates the view from the wetlands of Portland's Smith and Bybee Lakes.

Larch Mountain dominates the view from the wetlands of Portland’s Smith and Bybee Lakes.

I Love Mountains II   13 comments

Everest (center) stands tall betwen its equally enormous neighbors.

Everest (center) stands tall betwen its equally enormous neighbors.

This is the second of two parts on mountains, inspired by the theme post on Where’s my Backpack.  I have a ton of mountain images, and quite a few stories as well.  So I split the theme into two posts.  Check the first one out too.

I fell in love with mountains when I was young and we started to go camping in the Appalachians of Virginia.  Like many kids I loved climbing around on rocks.  I still remember a favorite rock in the park near where I grew up.  I called it the Big Rock (I know, original).  We played for hours in the woods around that rock, using it as a sort of base.  Not many years ago, I returned to that place and walked through the park.  It was strange revisiting all of my childhood haunts.

Mount Rainier in Washington is mantled with lovely subalpine meadows.

Mount Rainier in Washington is mantled with lovely subalpine meadows.

On my first trip west, at the age of 12, we visited my uncle in Colorado (he was stationed at Colorado Springs in the Air Force).  As we approached the Front Range, in a bus on the plains of eastern Colorado, I remember my first view of truly big mountains.  I thought they were clouds.  Then when I realized what they were I was just floored.  I was hooked.  Right then I knew most of my life would be spent around big mountains.

The evening light is beautiful at base camp on the evening before climbing Island Peak in the Everest region of Nepal.

The evening light is beautiful at base camp on the evening before climbing Island Peak in the Everest region of Nepal.

Right after I got my license some friends all piled in my Pontiac and we went camping in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.  It was freezing cold, and we climbed up through the woods in an out-of-the-way part of the park.  We camped up on a ridge, and I had to stay up and keep the fire going to avoid freezing to death.  Our gear was pretty sad.  Next day we found the trail and climbed up a mountain called Old Rag.  Those familiar with Shenandoah probably know of this peak.  We did it from the opposite side, away from Skyline Drive.  It was really my first climb.  It was the first time where the entire goal of the trip was to stand upon the summit of a mountain; the first of many to come.

Mount Hood, near home in Oregon, is decked out in winter white.

Mount Hood, near home in Oregon, is decked out in winter white.

I learned on that trip that you really have to WANT to make the summit in order to be successful.  That drive for the summit has stayed with me all my life.  In younger years that drive almost cost me my life on several occasions.  It is good that the Lord looks after the young and foolish to some extent.  I’m smart enough to know I’ve used up my second chances, and I’m much more likely to turn around in unsuitable conditions now.

Glaciated mountains like the Himalaya have turquoise jewels for lakes, because of the fine rock flour that glacial erosion produces.

Glaciated mountains like the Himalaya have turquoise jewels for lakes, because of the fine rock flour that glacial erosion produces.

The environment around mountains is special.  The plants, trees, wild animals, all of it really, is perfectly suited to living in a harsh climate.  All climbers and hikers should feel humble in the presence of these beings who are much more at home here than humans could ever be.

A glacial tarn reflects the high Rocky Mountains in Wyoming.

A moose lives in the spectacular shadow of the Grand Teton in Wyoming.

Two Himalayan tahr descend the Himalayas of Nepal

Descending on snow is always so much fun.  One time coming off of Oregon’s South Sister, we foot-glissaded (sliding upright on your feet) down a steep slope.  One after the other, the four of us slid down.  I was last and after each guy went down, he disappeared from view and after 5 or 10 seconds I heard a distant shout/scream.  I didn’t see any choice but to follow, and we all ended up crashing together in a heap at the bottom, laughing our butts off.

Another time in Alaska a friend and I got caught in a “wet slide”, which is a relatively slow-moving avalanche that happens when the snow is soft and the weather warm.  We were in a chute, and at first it was fun, like being on a big conveyor belt.  But then it sped up and we saw that we would end up going over a huge cliff if we didn’t get out.  We both were able to grab hold of little bushes on the edge of the chute and drag ourselves out of the slide.  We got separated doing so, and it was an hour or so later that I found my friend.  We were both afraid the other hadn’t made it.

A mountain covered in winter snow is just begging to be skied.

Mountains come in all shapes and sizes, from huge pieces of the seafloor that have been uplifted miles into the sky (as in the Himalaya) to tropical Karst mountains (above) to volcanoes whether snow-covered or steaming.  Some mountains are old and eroded while others are young, jagged, and still rising.

Crater lake in Oregon was formed 7000 years ago when the volcano in Oregon erupted and collapsed back into its magma chamber, forming a caldera that later filled with snowmelt.

Rinjani Crater Lake

Rinjani volcano on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, has a crater lake formed in a similar way to Oregon’s Crater Lake. The water, however, comes from tropical rainfall not snowmelt.

This rugged mountain Nepal is young and still rising.

Karst mountains are unique in their shape. This region of Thailand is covered in limestone karst terrain like this.

Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome is an enormous mass of granite.

The Brooks Range in Alaska is one of the state’s oldest mountain ranges, and so is eroded into gentle forms.

Sunrise from the highest volcano in Central America, Tajamulco, is a fantastic reward for the climb.

Of course mountain weather can be dangerous.  It’s always a good idea to consider turning around no matter how close to the summit you are if the weather turns nasty, because it can change much more rapidly than you think.  One time climbing in California we were very close to the top of a peak in the White Mountains after a long slog, including deep snow.  A storm was moving in as we approached the summit, and we weren’t willing to turn around when we had already worked so hard.  But the moment we summited, the storm hit.  As we scrambled off the peak, I looked over and saw my friend’s hair standing completely straight away from his head.  I heard a loud buzzing and felt electricity in my hands and feet.  The peak was struck spectacularly by lightning only a few minutes after we got off the summit.

This was taken of my partner as he climbed the last few meters to the top of a peak in Nepal.

Lenticular clouds form over Mt Hood in Oregon.

I love how the mountains draw the mist and clouds up their slopes.

I love how the mountains draw the mist and clouds up their slopes.

Mountain weather can be seen and experience, as here at Mt Rainier.

As I said in part I, I would love to live right up in the mountains one day.  The people I’ve met who have mountains in their blood are some of the finest salt-of-the-earth people in the world.  They work hard, they have faces as weathered as mine, and they are reserved yet very warm and welcoming, like me.

Two young Sherpa girls know nothing but mountain life.  Here they are weary after a long climb hauling heavy loads.

Two young Sherpa girls know nothing but mountain life. Here they are weary after a long climb hauling heavy loads.

A Sherpa from Khumbu region, Nepal, had summited Everest 8 times by the time I met him, all without oxygen.

A Sherpa from Khumbu region, Nepal, had summited Everest 8 times by the time I met him, all without oxygen.

Trekking in Nepal is nown in other places as hiking, walking, rambling, scrambling, tramping, & going for a walkabout.

Many of these stories and pictures are from much younger days.  My climbs are few and far between now, sad to say.  I’m still healthy and strong enough to climb of course, but the crazy stuff is behind me.  This post has reminded me to get back up there into the mountains I love, and soon!

The Colorado Rockies in fall is for mountain lovers the right place at the right time.

The Colorado Rockies in fall is for mountain lovers the right place at the right time.

By the way, please contact me if you are interested in any of these pictures.  I’ll make sure you get the high resolution versions, or can also ship fully mounted and framed pieces.  These versions are much too small to use.  Also, they are copyrighted.  Thanks for your interest and cooperation.

Alpenglow highlights the spectacular western face of Nup Tse near Mt Everest in Nepal.

Alpenglow highlights the spectacular western face of Nup Tse near Mt Everest in Nepal.

Mount Rainier I   2 comments

Mount Rainier is reflected in a pond in the subalpine meadows on the west side of the mountain.

I spent the past week at Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, about 3 hours north of here (Portland).  I haven’t spent quality time there for years.  A long time ago I worked a season at Rainier, living in the park cabins at Longmire and hiking out every day to track elk and document their impacts.  I worked with a young biologist, but spent much of my time sketching and describing the glacial features in the park.  That is, when I wasn’t trail running, an addiction I developed at around that time.  We would literally throw a dart at the map of the park on some mornings and just go there looking for elk.  You could count on one hand the number of times we saw our supervisor.

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Another interesting part of the job was flying in a light aircraft once a week to count elk and mountain goat.  Of course, I was “green around the gills’ the entire time in the air.  I’m cursed with motion sickness, have been my entire life.  But thankfully it takes some doing.  Flying a light plane close to that mountain was the (easy) doing.  The best part about the job: no ranger uniform.  Yes indeed, we were blessedly incognito! Mount Rainier, at 14,410 feet (4265 meters) and heavily glaciated, is probably most famous as one of the finest climbing challenges in the lower 48 states.

I’ve climbed it twice, once from the south and once from the north.  The north side climb was most fun.  It was about five years ago now, three of us (the perfect climbing team size) ascended the Emmons Glacier (the largest glacier in the lower 48).  We started around midnight, and were the first group up.  I led most of the way, being the most comfortable member of our little group with glacier travel.  We skirted crevasses by headlamp and climbing up into the darkness.  I’ll never forget that feeling, like ascending into the starry sky.  I’ve never had a climb precisely like that one.

It’s understandable that Rainier, being the Cascades’ most massive and most heavily glaciated peak, attracts climbers.  Quite a number have died on the mountain, but the dangers it presents are no more than average for a mountain of its size.  As is the case with Mt Hood in Oregon, it comes down to numbers and probability.  More climbers equals more accidents.  It’s that simple.

Rainier is a sleeping giant.  It is a composite volcano, meaning it’s made of layers of ash and lava.  The type of lava that dominates is andesite, named for that great mountain range in South America where this kind of volcano is abundant.  This mixed layered makeup of the mountain, combined with relatively recent glaciation, which scoured (and still scours) the sides of the volcano, means the mountain stands tall and steep.  Acidic gases vent from the summit area on a constant basis, converting much of the rock there to a crumbly mess.  When winter releases its icy grip, and especially during very warm periods in late spring/early summer, there is a very real risk of huge avalanches of rock and ice cutting loose from high up on the mountain.  These can quickly turn into floods or even mudflows lower on the mountain, channeled into furious destruction by the major river drainages.

Mudflows (or lahars, the Indonesian word preferred by geologists) are a sort of dense flood.  A slurry, the consistency of wet concrete, complete with trees, rocks, chunks of ice, cars, buildings, bridges, etc. races down-valley at speeds of 30, 40 or even 50 mph.  A lahar don’t take prisoners.  The reason I mention this mechanism for starting a mudflow is that it does not require a volcanic eruption, just melting.  An earthquake could easily trigger one as well.

Of course Rainier is only sleeping and could erupt.  In that case, you have not only the likelihood of mudflows, but also pyroclastic flows, lava flows and ash falls.  The French term for pyroclastic flow is nuee ardente, which means glowing cloud.  And that’s what they are.  Made of pulverized rock superheated to hundreds of degrees, they race down the mountain at speeds of 100 mph. or more.  The deadliest thing a volcano throws out, they kill even more quickly than mudflows.  Ask the ghost-like corpses at Pompei, the ancient Roman graveyard at the foot of Vesuvius.  They’ll tell you how much time you have to get out of the way.

The stars are reflected in Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

So this park is one of the more geologically dangerous in the country.  Yellowstone is a much bigger volcano, but one that goes ages between eruptions.  Rainier will almost certainly erupt well before Yellowstone’s caldera does.  By the way, Rainier has one of the world’s few warning systems for mudflows.  Sensors high on the mountain are triggered when a probable mudflow starts, sending a signal to loud alarms near towns like Orting down-valley.  Residents are trained to flee to high ground.  And if you visit the park, and hear a loud rumbling sound (especially if an earthquake preceded it), that’s what you should do.  Get out of whatever valley you’re in, and quickly!

High in the Cascade Mountains of Washington gives a heavenly viewpoint on a moonlit night.

What many don’t realize about Mt Rainier is that, despite its great climbing, the park actually has much more to offer hikers than climbers.  You can spend months exploring this park without ever going much above treeline.  If you go to climb the mountain you are essentially exploring a much smaller aspect of the park than if you were to go for a week with no thought of climbing.  Rainier has the most extensive subalpine and alpine meadow system in the Cascades, with the spectacular flower displays that go along with that fact.  I love the park because of this.  For this trip I tried for the peak of the flower bloom (normally mid to late August), and although a week earlier would have been perfect, I was able to hike through and photograph a stunning profusion.

I headed up there late on a Saturday, arriving near midnight. This seems a strange time to go I realize, but I wanted to photograph the mountain under stars, then have it get light with the promise of the park to explore for much of the week.  I love arriving at a place in the dark, and then having the morning light reveal where I am.  Of course, since I’m a photographer and have to shoot at sunrise, doing night photography means I only get a few hours sleep.  But I found a quiet, shady spot to sleep the rest of the morning away.  There is definitely an advantage in having my camper van (it’s an 87 Westphalia).

Blue gentian bloom in the meadows of Mount Rainier National Park.

My faithful companion Charl accompanied me.  He’s my little buddy, a shih tsu with an enormous personality.  Most important, he can sleep for hours and hours, and can hold his pee for an unbelievable period.  When he was young I took him on hikes, many of them long & tough.  But he’s old now (14) and can’t do more than a mile or two, and that only on an easy trail in cool weather.  So I leave him in the van, parked in shade with plenty of ventilation, water and snacks. It was forecast to be fairly cool, and that’s what it was, perfect for hiking.  In fact, one morning it dipped below freezing.  Every day but one had plenty of sunshine.

I already mentioned this is a hiker’s park.  Unlike some parks, where there are plenty of things to do that don’t involve much in the way of strenuous hiking, Rainier rewards the fit.  In fact, it’s hilarious watching people visiting the park.  They don’t know what to do with themselves, and seem confused at the general lack of overlooks.  The National Park overlook is an institution in the U.S.  I believe I should write a post on the psychology behind N.P. overlooks.  There is a definite behavior associated with them. Many parks are inundated with overlooks (Shenandoah, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon are a few examples).  And parks like Yellowstone are chock full of small parking areas where one can stroll along a super-short, flat trail to a geyser or some-such sight.  The same sort of effect applies there as with the simple stop and gawk overlook.

But at Rainier, visitors are forced to drive for miles without pulling over.  They crowd the few short trails, and hang about the smallish visitor centers,  looking a bit lost.  They’ll stop at the smallest wide spot in the road, with no real view, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a National Park.  Like I said, it’s hilarious watching them.  If these same people ever visited parks like Kobuk Valley in Alaska, I think they’d end up insisting that their entry fee be returned.

So Rainier is, generally speaking, lacking in the standard National Park crutches.  (I haven’t mentioned the Disney-esque gateway towns that one must pass through, like a gauntlet, at many parks – think Dollywood on the way into the Great Smokies.)   There are a few stops and sights at Rainier, but they’re generally low-key.  Longmire is one.  It’s a low-elevation meadow among old-growth forest in the SW corner of the park.  A short nature trail circles the meadow, and there is a small gift shop and ranger station, but little else. The two main destinations, however, are Paradise and Sunrise, on opposite sides of the mountain and high up in the subalpine zone.

Paradise, the park’s most popular destination, has some relatively short trails, plus the park’s only real lodge (the Paradise Inn).  There is a great view of the mountain from the large patio in front of the visitor center here, and the crowds on a weekend can be breathtakingly enormous.  The metropolis of Seattle-Tacoma is close-by, after all.  I love the girl watching at Paradise; so many beautiful Asian women (National Parks get many more foreign visitors these days than they did in the past).  It was here at Paradise that I came that Sunday, after my morning sleep.

I soon grew tired of watching the people milling about and struck out on the trail to Panorama Point.  This starts out as a paved trail, then it turns upward through flowery meadows.  It grows steeper and you drop 90% of the other hikers.  I was amazed and surprised when I saw a bear, then another, near the top of the trail.  It was a mother and her older cub, feeding on early season berries.  You could tell she was getting ready to say goodbye to her youngster.  The two never got more than a few hundred, but never closer than 100, yards from each other.  Given their location, these were obviously bears that were used to people, though try as I might, they wouldn’t let me get too close.  And since I was in the park’s most crowded area, I didn’t think of lugging my 100-400 telephoto zoom lens.  So my pictures needed some serious cropping.  I had a lot of fun stalking the two, trying to get close enough for my 200 mm.

A black bear prowls the meadows of Mt Rainier looking for berries.

Note that black bears present no serious danger, so long as you don’t get between a mom and her cubs, nor bother one on a kill.  There is an exception, when a black bear is in a remote wilderness well away from humans, you need to take more care.  In this case they can stalk and kill, treating you as prey.  At Rainier, there has never been a bear fatality, and this indicates how used to, and wary of, humans the ursines are in this and most national parks.  Well, finally the pair of bears gave me the slip, and I still can’t figure out how they got by me.  I thought I had all the “exits” covered!

I ended up spending the whole week at Rainier.  I visited an area where I did many elk surveys years ago, and also went to a place I have never been, Mowich Lake.  I had an adventure climbing Unicorn Peak, nearly having to spend the night in hypothermic conditions, and had a delightful romp (me and a billion mosquitos) in the flower fields of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.  I will do the pics and write on that in my next post. Thanks for reading!

The last of the day’s light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

Crater Lake   2 comments

As our state’s only National Park, we in Oregon really cherish this paradise in the southern corner of the state.  Crater Lake is North America’s deepest and one of the world’s clearest lakes.  It is famous for its deep blue color, its clarity, and its geologic background.  When John Hilman became the first white explorer to see it in 1853, he was astounded, calling it a very deep, blue lake.   For me, it seemed past time to re-explore Crater Lake during the summer-time, when it is most accessible.  My last visit a year and a half ago was during the depths of winter, when cross-country skis and snowshoes are the only mode of transport.  I spent three days there last week.

Crater Lake in southern Oregon was described by the first white person to see it as a “deep blue lake”.

Crater Lake is about 6 miles across and almost 2000 feet (600 meters) deep.  What makes it such an awesome and unique lake is that it lies within the throat of a big collapsed volcano, a caldera, which suffered its climactic eruption about 7000 years ago.  It is not technically a volcanic crater, which is the word geologists apply to the hole in the top of a volcano created when the volcano explodes and ejects material out over the countryside.  Geologists figure that the original volcano, which is called Mount Mazama, was over 12,000 feet (3600 meters) high and quite massive.

The Phantom Ship, a small island in Crater Lake, Oregon, is so called because in certain light conditions it seems to disappear.

Calderas are generally larger than craters, and are created when the volcano erupts magma from beneath its summit, leaving a void underneath which leads to a massive and catastrophic collapse of the summit area.  Caldera eruptions can be large, and they can be enormous!  They are almost never modest in size.  They are this planet’s biggest volcanic eruptions.  And speaking of volcanoes and National Parks, Yellowstone (the world’s oldest park) is occupied by what is probably the world’s largest active caldera.  It could erupt any year now (or it could take 10,000 more years!), and with devastating consequences.

In Crater Lake’s case, rain and snowmelt (mostly snow) filled the caldera over the period of a few hundred years, and now evaporation is balanced with precipitation so that the water level never fluctuates by much (it’s varied only about 16 feet (10 meters) over the last 100 years.  There are no streams leading into or out of the lake.  The rim of the caldera, where most visitors congregate, is at an elevation of over 7000 feet (2000 meters), and at this latitude, and next to the moist North Pacific, that means major snowfall – 40 or more feet (13 meters) every winter.

One of America’s most scenic roads follows the treeline rim around, with numerous pull-offs.  So like most American National Parks, one can certainly experience “overlook fatigue”.  But probably not as much as some (Blue Ridge Parkway & Bryce Canyon spring to mind).

It is at least 1000 feet (300 meters) down to the lake from the rim, and it is so steep that only in one spot is it possible to hike down to it.  Here is your cure for overlook fatigue.  Hike down to Cleetwood Cove, and take a scenic boat cruise out to the largest island in the lake, a volcanic cinder cone known as Wizard Island.  Here you can swim in the cold lake and hike to the summit of the cone, spending hours on the island.  There are also numerous hikes from spots along the rim, including The Watchman and Mount Scott.

I came here to reconnect with one of my favorite National Parks, and to try for some great shots of the stars over the lake (later post).   The park is unlike the popular National Parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Great Smokies.  There are few policemen posing as rangers here, so you can pretty much do your own thing and not be hassled.  For example, I rode my motorcycle there, arriving at night after one night spent near McKenzie Pass, a stunning spot in its own right.

Once inside the park, I parked at a picnic area and walked up to a level spot on the rim to pitch my tent.  I had to find a site screened from the road below, but otherwise had no worries about rangers prowling the roads at night, hoping to catch scofflaws like me camping illegally.  I had a stunning view out over the lake, as the Milky Way soared above.  Then at dawn, I woke to take pictures of  sunrise over the vast expanse of blue water below.  Coffee was conveniently taken at the picnic area where I parked the bike.

I left my tent there for the next two nights, sleeping as late as I wanted with only hawks for company.  I was on the quiet north rim, well away the park’s only real concentration of people (at Rim Village on the south side of the lake).  There is one large campground a few miles below Rim Village, called Mazama.  This is where RVers go, and where most official campsites in the park are.  There is also a small, tent-only campground at Lost Creek, in the southeastern corner of the park.  But since there are only 16 sites, it always fills early in the day.  It is worth trying for this camp first, and if that fails, going to Mazama (which can also fill, even during the week).

Wildflowers at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, include pink monkeyflower.

I did one major hike and a few smaller ones.  I hiked to the top of Mount Scott, the highest peak in the park.  At almost 9000 feet, it was the only remaining major Cascades peak in Oregon that I had not yet climbed.  Some of my climbs have been technical, some (like Scott here) just hikes.  But I have been longing to return to Crater Lake in summer for no other reason than to finish my quest.  Now it is time to finish the rest of the Cascades, a few in Washington and one in Canada.  Wildflowers and some friendly fellow-hikers were my reward.  The view was rather hazy because of fires in the region.

On my last full day at Crater Lake the smoke cleared in late afternoon and I was able to get some nice shots of a small island called Phantom Ship in late-day light (image above).  Then I ate a picnic dinner, lay back and watched the stars come out one by one.  I finally jumped on my bike and rounded the lake to a point where the Milky Way was perfectly placed.  There I spent a couple hours shooting long exposures, stars over the lake with a starkly beautiful whitebark pine snag for foreground.

Hiking up to my campsite on the rim at about 1 a.m. I fell immediately into a deep sleep.  Utter peace for this moment in my life, atop a giant volcano that had its day of great thunder long ago, and now lies also in deep slumber, beneath the deep & cold, clear-blue waters of Crater Lake!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunset over Crater Lake from the highest point on the rim, Cloud Cap.

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