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UNDER THE SPELL OF VOLCANOES : Peak to peak by car, exploring seven geologic wonders in the Cascade Range

June 18, 1995|KENNETH REICH | Times Staff Writer

BEND, Ore. — Since college, volcanoes have drawn me like the proverbial moth to flame. Why? Perhaps because they are such primeval, incalculable forces, prone to unexpected revivals. They represent, perhaps even more clearly than earthquakes, the awesome power of nature.

About 75% of all the world's volcanoes lie along the so-called Ring of Fire around the Pacific, and a vital link of that ring is formed by the explosive volcanoes of the mighty Cascade Range, extending from Mt. Garibaldi in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in Northern California.

I have climbed a number of peaks, or explored their slopes, from Vesuvius and Etna in Italy to the great volcanoes of Hawaii: Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Haleakala. But the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest is one of the most geologically dynamic regions in North America, the site of periodic great natural events ranging from tremendous lava and mudflows to devastating blasts and ash falls that pose a potent, if infrequent, threat to urban centers of the Northwest. Scientists say that almost all of these peaks, with the exception of the small cinder cones, will one day erupt again.

For a volcano lover, the area is simply fascinating. But even if you aren't particularly interested in geology, the 673-mile drive detailed here, which passes by seven volcanoes and within sight of many others, is an easy trip through one of the most beautiful sections of the United States.

I've taken the trip several times over the years. My first visit was 15 years ago with my son David, then almost 6 years old, and we have kept repeating parts of it. It's an odyssey that just gets better as the government and private parties build new roads and open new museums and visitor centers. Each year there are more vistas, more hiking trails and more good places to stay and things to do.

Our most recent visit was in late May. With the snow still deep around Paulina Lake in central Oregon's relatively little-known Newberry Crater, David, now 20, clambered up the side of a mile-long obsidian flow of natural black glass, one of the purest forms of the rock to be found in North America. It was the highlight of yet another return to one leg of our 1980 trip.

Only two volcanoes have erupted in the 20th Century in what Alaskans like to call the Lower 48: Lassen Peak in 1914-'17 and Mt. St. Helens in 1980--and this drive begins at one and ends at the other, passing five other volcanoes along the way. The trip presents a tremendous diversity of geologic wonders: There are devastated zones (areas that remain barren of vegetation as the result of great explosions), superheated steam vents, lava caves, cinder cones, a 150-foot-high obsidian mountain, a 1,900-foot deep lake and a 14,000-foot snow-capped peak.

Four of the mountains can easily be climbed. A ranger told us that even children as young as 6 can, and often do, make it without undue strain to the top of 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, where the distinct smell of sulfur is still continually emitted.

Each leg of this trip is less than 200 miles, and at six of the sites there are decent--and some excellent--lodgings. Two of the volcanoes are in national parks, three in national monuments and even those not protected by the federal government are located in pristine areas. Another plus: Along the way are two cities, Portland and Bend, Ore., that offer their own great attractions.

Back in 1980, the year of the great Mt. St. Helens eruption, it seemed the perfect opportunity to take my young son to see a relatively rare geologic event, a mountain that had literally blown its top, and only 1,000 miles from Los Angeles (the volcano, in southern Washington, by car lies about 80 miles north of the Oregon border).

The only way to get up close to Mt. St. Helens that summer was to fly around it. The mudflows the day of the great eruption of May 18 had destroyed the key highway up the Toutle River Valley. Even our pilot seemed leery of getting really close.

David was a little scared; he looked away. But I couldn't help but stare, trying to imagine the fatal moment when the powerful explosion had so radically altered the Northwest landscape, killing 57 people who had no expectation they stood on dangerous ground. Here was nature exhibiting a hint of the energy that lies just below the Earth's peaceful crust.

Today, access by road to Mt. St. Helens is excellent. Roads have been completed from two sides, leading to easy views of the crater. Engineered with cliffhanging expertise, the roads have many turnouts that yield spectacular vistas.

At the ends of the roads, there are fine hiking trails for even closer views of the barren landscape. Mt. St. Helens vies in appearance with such great desert parks as the Grand Canyon or Zion. But this is no desert environment. Before the 1980 eruption, it was the site of a great rain forest, filled with bear, deer, elk and other wildlife. Even now, a glacier is forming in the shaded crater as snow collects year after year.

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