Top 10 Volcanoes on Our Trip

Mountains tend to sit in ranges and are usually surrounded by other mountains.  Whereas volcanoes are typically solitary masses that rise straight up from the surrounding plain.  As a result, volcanoes make an imposing feature on the landscape.  The height of the volcano’s peak above the plain is known as its “prominence.”  For example, Mt. Rainier in Washington has a prominence of more than 13,000 feet and is visible from Seattle 60 miles away.

But it’s not only the size of a volcano that makes it daunting.  It’s the possibility that a volcano could blow at any time and rain destruction down on everyone and everything in the vicinity.  Fortunately most volcanoes give plenty of seismic warning before becoming a real threat to people and property.

Following are the Top 10 Favorite Volcanoes of our trip:


1. Mt. St. Helens

Tree debris in Spirit Lake below Mt. St. Helens

Type: Active stratovolcano
Last Eruption: July 10, 2008
Last Major Eruption: May 18, 1980 (57 deaths)
Elevation: 8,366’;  Prominence: 4,605’
Location: Mt. St. Helens National Monument, Washington

On the clear morning of May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens erupted in a violent fury that became the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in United States history.  57 people were killed.  250 homes, 47 bridges, 185 miles of highway, and 15 miles of railroads were destroyed.  This was our favorite volcano of our trip because evidence of its destructive power was still quite evident everywhere we looked, from the flattened forests, to the tree-filled Spirit Lake (shown above).  It was both exciting and unnerving to realize that if we had been standing there 32 years ago, we would’ve been instantly seared to death by ash and hot gas travelling 670 miles per hour.


2. Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier

Type: Active stratovolcano
Last Eruption: 1894
Last Major Eruption: 1820-1854
Elevation: 14,411’; Prominence: 13,211’
Location: Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington

Mt. Rainier is often shrouded with clouds that dump enormous amounts of rain and snow on the peak.  However the weather was perfect during our visit, and Mt. Rainier was out in full glory.  It’s the highest point in the Cascade Range and is draped with 25 glaciers and snowfields totaling 35 square miles.  Mt. Rainier is considered as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  Though it still has an active hydrothermal system, the primary danger is not from eruption.  The biggest risk is that the volcano will collapse unto itself, sending the massive glaciers and ice fields down the slope in a giant lahar (a debris flow composed of a slurry of pyroclastic material, rocky debris, and water).  This last happened just 5,600 years ago.  Today more than 150,000 people are at risk living in communities built atop these old mudflows.


3. Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood

Type: Active stratovolcano
Last Eruption: 1907
Last Major Eruption: 1866
Elevation: 11,249’; Prominence: 7,706’
Location: Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon

There have been several earthquake swarms around Mt. Hood since 1950, but another eruption is not expected anytime soon (about a 5% chance in the next 30 years).  We dispersed camp in Mt. Hood National Forest and had arguably the best view of our entire trip.  We could look out the bedroom and dining room windows of our RV and see this spectacular volcano just a few miles away.  We joked that we were camping for free with a million-dollar view.


4. Mt. Lassen

Mt. Lassen reflecting off Manzanita Lake

Type: Active stratovolcano
Last Eruption: 1917
Last Major Eruption: May 22, 1915
Elevation: 10,462’; Prominence: 5,229’
Location: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Peak is the largest plug dome volcano in the world.  A plug dome volcano is made of solid lava.  After the volcano erupts, lava fills up the vent and continues to flow for years or centuries, building up a huge dome.  However, scientists believe that Lassen Peak formed relatively quickly in just a few years.  Lassen Peak is the southern-most active volcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, which stretches north into British Columbia and includes many of the other volcanoes on this list.  Lassen Peak was created on the northeastern flank of Mount Tehama, a truly massive stratovolcano that stopped erupting about 400,000 years ago, and has since eroded away.


5. Lassen Cinder Cone

Theresa getting ready to climb Lassen Cinder Cone

Type: Extinct cinder cone
Last Eruption: 1650s
Elevation: 6,907’; Prominence: 750’
Location: Lassen Volcanic National Park

This is a 750-foot tall cinder cone volcano that spread ash over 30 square miles.  Its age has been controversial since it was first discovered in the 1850s, but carbon dating of trees killed by the eruption indicate the cinder cone was formed in just a few months during the 1650s.  The crater is 1,000 feet in diameter and 230 feet deep.  We climbed to the top of the cone and then hiked down into the crater.


6. Crater Lake

Crater Lake

Type: Collapsed extinct stratovolcano
Last Eruption: 7,700 years ago
Elevation: 6,178’
Location: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake is what happens when a volcano collapses in on itself and fills deep with water.  With a depth of 1,943 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, second deepest in North America, and ninth deepest in the world.  Because there are no streams carrying sediment into Crater Lake, it’s the purest large body of water in the world.  Astonishingly, the water in Crater Lake is more pure than the water that comes out of most home faucets!  In 2003, scientists were amazed to discover that UV rays penetrated deeper in Crater Lake than was thought theoretically possible, so a benchmark in physics had to be reset.


7. Newberry Volcano

East Lake and the Big Obisidian Flow in the Newberry Volcano caldera

Type: Potentially active shield volcano
Last Eruption: 690 A.D. +/- 100 years
Elevation: 7,989’
Location: Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Oregon

Two crystal blue lakes and a giant obsidian flow of black volcanic glass are the highlights of the expansive Newberry Volcano, which is 20 miles in diameter and has a 4-5 mile diameter caldera.  The Big Obsidian Flow is Oregon’s youngest lava flow at 1,300 years old.  Over 170 million cubic yards of obsidian and pumice erupted from a vent within the Newberry Caldera.  Obsidian is quite rare and found only in a few places in the world.  The hard and brittle rock is used to make jewelry, tools, weapons, sculptures, and ceremonial objects.  Obsidian blades are the sharpest objects in the world because they can be sharpened to a width of just one molecule!


8. Mt. Wrangell

Mt. Wrangell

Type: Active shield volcano
Last Eruption: 2002
Last Major Eruption: 200,000 years ago 
Elevation: 14,163’; Prominence: 5,614’
Location: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

We had the pleasure to fall asleep four nights in a row to a view of the majestic Mt. Wrangell out our bedroom window.  I took this photo about 12:30 at night, here in the land of the midnight sun.  Mt. Wrangell has a massive volume of over 220 cubic miles, making it one of the largest volcanoes in North America.  At the top is an ice-filled caldera about 3 miles in diameter.  Mt. Wrangell has an eruptive history starting 750,000 years ago, with the last minor eruption in 2002, and fumarolic activity continuing today.  The geothermal heat produced by Mt. Wrangell has been rising steadily since 1950, indicating the possibility of another eruption in the relatively near future.


9. Mt. Redoubt

Mt. Redoubt

Type: Active stratovolcano
Last Major Eruption: March 22, 2009
Elevation: 10,197’; Prominence: 9,150’
Location: Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Mt. Redoubt (and its nearby companion Mt. Iliamna) teased us for days by peaking out from the clouds for just a few minutes each day.  But on our final morning there, the clouds parted, and we had a clear view of the most recent volcano to erupt violently in the United States.  A fog bank on the Cook Inlet hadn’t lifted yet, so it appeared as if the volcano was floating in mid-air.  A major eruption in 1989 covered nearby Anchorage with ash and caused all four engines to fail on 747 jet when it flew into the ash cloud (the jet eventually landed safely).  That eruption caused $160 million in damage and cleanup, and was the second costliest eruption in United States history after Mt. St. Helens.


10. Mt. Adams


Type: Potentially active stratovolcano
Last Eruption: 550 B.C. +/- 1000 years
Elevation: 12,281’; Prominence: 8,116’
Location: Mt. Adams Wilderness, Washington

My first date with my wife Theresa was 21 years ago in Mt. Adams… a hill in Cincinnati, Ohio covered with bars and restaurants.  But this particular Mt. Adams is a quiet volcano in Washington state.  Mt. Adams has not erupted in 1400 years but is still volcanically active.

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