Forty years ago, the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the world received a loud reminder: Volcanoes can be as powerful as they are beautiful. On May 18, 1980, Washington's Mount St. Helens—a gleaming, symmetrical peak that sparkled with glaciers and snowfields above slopes of timeless old-growth forest—violently exploded and partially collapsed in a plume of ash, rock, and searing heat that jolted an entire region and forever changed the landscape.
Mount St. Helens still stands, a stark, brooding summit that lost 1,300 feet of its height but none of its wonder. Puffs of steam still occasionally waft from its two-mile-wide crater, now home to one of the world's newest glaciers. Volcanoes reinvent and rebuild themselves, seemingly on an endless mission to combine rocks, ice, and heat into massive works of natural splendor. From California to Alaska, the West is home to more than 114 active volcanoes, all stunning monuments to the creative forces of geology. Easily accessible by car and foot, these majestic marvels make for an ideal road trip, as do the charming towns that surround them.
"Volcanic landscapes are some of the most dramatic and breathtaking on this planet," says Elizabeth Westby, a geologist with the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Washington. "They make you feel humble and grateful at the same time."
Throughout the West, visitors are drawn to the views, trails, and adventures that surround volcanic peaks. Major eruptions are rare, and it's very unlikely that your volcano adventure will turn explosive, but it's still smart to stay informed. The U.S. Geological Survey posts updates and warnings for all the volcanoes in the Cascade Range on its website.
Here are some of the best places in the West to take a volcano vacation.