What draws so many visitors to the West's volcanoes? They're places where vast powers that shape the earth are exposed for all to see.
Many natural forces—blazing sun, crashing surf, pouring rain—have sculpted the West, but none as dramatically as its volcanoes. Thanks to our position on the Ring of Fire, where one slice of the earth’s crust slides beneath another and melts under high heat and pressure, erupting magma has built up our now snowcapped peaks, blasted out lakebeds, and scattered cabin-size boulders. And these aren’t just ancient events.
“We’ve had on average one to two eruptions per century for the past 4,000 years,” says Carolyn Driedger of the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash. “Almost every generation of northwesterners or Northern Californians has experienced an eruption.”
Volcanic landmarks stretch from Northern California to British Columbia—a ready-made road trip for geology buffs and nature lovers. Those seeking the thrill of a live eruption can bet on Hawaii’s active Kilauea. On the mainland, the giants appear to slumber peacefully, carefully monitored by scientists for awakenings.
“You can’t get magma to the surface without its causing a lot of ruckus,” Driedger says. “We can detect that ruckus.” So check the latest conditions, pack your sense of wonder, and go see the earth remaking itself.
Mount Lassen Northern California Seeing Mount Lassen serenely reflected in the sapphire waters of Lake Helen, you can hardly imagine this same peak angrily blowing its top less than 100 years ago. But on May 14, 1915, after months of ominous steam explosions, witnesses watched glowing blocks of lava bounce down Lassen’s slopes. Days later, the volcano shot out a column of ash and vapor over five miles high, unleashing a pyroclastic flow of pumice, gas, and rock fragments that swept down at more than 60 miles an hour.
Today, the devastated area is a prime place to appreciate the volcano’s power, with the huge pink and gray lava rocks deposited here in 1915 and views of Lassen’s 10,457-foot summit—a favorite day hike for “volcano baggers.” The park actually embraces several different volcano types, some that once oozed molten lava, others that chucked out jagged rocks, producing cones of heaped-up cinders. “Everywhere you look is a volcano,” says Karen Haner, Lassen’s chief of interpretation. Powerful forces still roil beneath areas such as Bumpass Hell, home to belching mud pots, sizzling “frying pans,” and stinking fumaroles—a mini Yellowstone guaranteed to frighten and delight.
Mount Rainier Western Washington At 14,410 feet, Rainier towers over Puget Sound, an ice king wrapped in a glittering cloak of 25 glaciers. Arguably the most majestic volcano in the Cascade Range, Rainier is also the most dangerous, thanks to a history of lethal lahars—monstrous mudflows that can form when erupting lava melts the mountain’s ice pack. “You can envision what they look like,” says Carolyn Driedger of the Cascades Volcano Observatory. “Slurries of mud and rock and big boulders and vegetation and whatever else gets in the way.” Hardly a comfort to the 80,000 residents of the lahar-hazard zones in Tacoma and other nearby communities.
Thankfully Rainier has slumbered for centuries, allowing 2 million annual visitors to enjoy its beauty. Highlights include the historic Paradise Inn and 60-foot Myrtle Falls (both at Paradise), and the drive to Sunrise Visitor Center at 6,400 feet, where new exhibits detail geologic history and hazards. Trails from both areas lead to snowy volcano vistas, serene mountain lakes, and Rainier’s wildflower meadows, which John Muir called “the most extravagantly beautiful of all.”
The Big Island Hawaii Welcome to the only state in the Union where every beachfront condo, golf course, and coconut grove sits atop volcanic material. That’s because the Hawaiian Islands are volcanoes, created one by one as a slab of the earth’s crust—the Pacific Plate—inches like a conveyor belt over a hot spot in the earth’s mantle. The resulting volcanoes are famous for molten basalt lava so fluid and so hot—over 2,000°F—it can flow in fiery rivers, pool in seething lakes, and erupt in fountains taller than the Empire State Building.
Such dramatic displays make Hawaii Volcanoes National Park one of the world’s top places to witness a live eruption. And there are plenty of them: Although massive Mauna Loa has been silent for decades, the park’s Kilauea volcano has been spouting since 1983, ejecting enough lava every five days to bury a piece of countryside the area of Washington, D.C.
The 11-mile Crater Rim Drive offers access to Kilauea’s highlights, including the Jaggar Museum’s seismic exhibits, the subterranean spookiness of the Thurston Lava Tube, and steaming Halema‘uma‘u Crater, the legendary home of the fire goddess Pele. Another don’t-miss: Chain of Craters Road, which has been partially swallowed up by Blob-like lava flows, road signs and all.
Crater Lake Southern Oregon Talk about a bombshell. When Mount Mazama self-destructed some 7,700 years ago, the explosion was 42 times as powerful as the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption—a blast so violent it completely emptied the magma chamber beneath the peak. Like a giant, misshapen soufflé, the volcano collapsed in on itself, leaving a bowl-shaped caldera 4,000 feet deep. For the early Makalak people who witnessed the cataclysm, it must have been the ultimate magic act: an entire massive mountain vanishing before their eyes.
Luckily for modern travelers, Mother Nature’s show wasn’t over. In time, some 4.6 trillion gallons of rain and pure snowmelt collected in the caldera, creating a lake of an astonishingly blue hue. Today, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the nation and one of the clearest in the world, its ethereal beauty drawing half a million visitors to southern Oregon each year.
The highlight for most, in addition to the excellent hiking and fishing, is the 33-mile Rim Drive, with iconic views of Wizard Island, a cinder cone formed by later eruptions in the crater. Hop a boat to the island and you can actually stand atop a volcano inside a volcano, appreciating Mazama’s legacy—and long slumber.
Mount St. Helens Southern Washington “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” With these words on May 18, 1980, volcanologist David Johnston alerted the USGS base in Vancouver, Wash., that Mount St. Helens’s entire north face had collapsed, loosing the full fury of the massive volcano. Stationed only five miles from the summit, Johnston was killed by a lateral blast traveling up to 600 miles per hour that preceded the largest debris avalanche in recorded history. The ash eruption lasted nine hours, eventually took 56 other lives, and left a 230-square-mile nightmare of flattened forests and sickly gray mud.
Today, visitors marvel at the area’s devastation—and its rebirth. Although tree trunks still litter the blast zone, purple lupines, blushing pink fireweed, and leafy alder trees color the once-lunar landscape, providing habitat for birds, bobcats, bears, and elk. Even the mountain itself is being reborn as a new lava dome slowly rises in the old crater. Climbers with permits and chutzpah can see the dome, but any visitor can enjoy the Johnston Ridge Observatory at the heart of the blast zone with its new exhibits, nearby trails, and haunting views of the decimated peak.
Katmai Southern Alaska Anyone who has ever owned a nature calendar has seen the image of a spawning salmon snatched in midair by a massive brown bear. That’s the essence of Katmai National Park, a 4-million-acre realm of pristine waterways, epic sportfishing, and enormous omnivores such as those in the documentary Grizzly Man. But for many visitors, the park’s best story is the explosion of Novarupta volcano.
Alaska wasn’t even a state in 1912 when Novarupta hurled three cubic miles of ash and magma into the air, raining debris as far away as Seattle. Pumice and ash roared across Katmai’s Ukak River valley at temperatures reaching 2,000°F, obliterating all life and trapping water and snow beneath deposits up to 700 feet thick. By the time a National Geographic expedition arrived in 1916, this heated water was hissing up, inspiring the poetic moniker Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Though most of these fumaroles are now silent, the desolate valley remains a highlight, with its multicolored rocks, distant glaciers, and deep gorges.
Yellowstone Caldera Northern Wyoming It’s the most visited geothermal area on the planet—a wonderland of 10,000 brilliant hot springs, sulfurous steam vents, bubbling mud pots, and wildly erupting geysers. Yet for all of Yellowstone National Park’s fame, many of its 3 million annual visitors aren’t aware that its most jaw-dropping feature lies four miles beneath their feet: a chamber of partly molten rock the size of Rhode Island. Known as the Yellowstone Caldera, it’s a supervolcano capable of eruptions so powerful that they’ve buried vast swaths of the United States.
Noting three past cataclysms—the latest 640,000 years ago—some doomsayers avoid the park. “They’re missing out,” says Jake Lowenstern, scientist-in-charge at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. “It’s not easy to make this thing erupt.”
Photography by Greg Vaughn (Mount St. Helens); Jim Sugar/Corbis (blast zone); Craig Lovell/Eagle Visions Photography/Alamy (Mount Lassen); Rene Frederick/Getty Images (Mount Rainier); Brad Mitchell/Alamy (Crater Lake); courtesy of Jon Sullivan/pdphoto.org (Yellowstone Caldera); Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia (Kilauea/rainbow); Ivan Vtorov/Wikipedia (Kilauea/lava lake)
This article was first published in May 2013 and updated in February 2019. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.