During my time back on the West Coast, my parents and I traveled drove down into Oregon and Washington State for a little family trip. We visited Portland, Oregon, and then went to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Mount Rainier National Park in southern Washington state.
The first destination of our trip was Portland, the biggest and most well known city in the state of Oregon. Getting there required crossing the border and driving down the I-5. The drive a bit longer than anticipated, since there was an hour line-up at the border crossing, and then traffic was slow in the Seattle Tacoma stretch. When we made it to Portland, the first place we went was the factory outlet in nearby Woodburn. To us Canadians, Oregon is known as a shopping destination because the state doesn’t have sales tax and stuff there seem to cost even less than Washington state. We didn’t go wild and buy a lot of stuff, but we had a couple extra bags by the end of the trip.
Other than shopping, we of course looked around Portland as well and visited some of the famous places in the city. Portland is bordered to the north by the Columbia River which serves as the border between Washington and Oregon, and the city center is split by the Willamette River. The thing I remember the most about Portland is its numerous bridge crossing the Willamette River to connect the city.
Within the city, we visited the Old Town Chinatown area. The Old Town is a commercial district with a decent number of stores and people walking around, but there seems to be quite a few homeless people around too. We went to Chinatown to see if there is some decent Chinese food. We didn’t have high expectations, but Portland’s Chinatown failed to even meet those low expectations. The so-called Chinatown had a gate and nice street signs, but it was devoid of people. There were a couple of restaurants and small stores that had no customers, and that was it. That was probably the most disappointing part of the trip.
We heard that for food and drinks, Portland is known for its beer, coffee and street food. Since none of us are connoisseurs of coffee or beer, we opted for street food instead. There was a parking lot in Old Town full of street food vendor carts which made things simple. I had a big lamb gyro, and it was pretty good and quite filling.
Since Portland is known as the City of Roses, we had to go visit the renowned International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park. Late July was the perfect time to see the garden; most if not all of the roses were in full bloom, and the weather was perfect. The garden had hundreds of varieties and the whole place was radiant with brightly colored roses. The garden is definitely worth visiting. There is also a Japanese garden and a zoo inside Washington Park, but we didn’t have the time.
Within the city limits, we also went to The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, better known as the Grotto. The Grotto is a Catholic shrine and botanical garden. Its most famous feature is the Our Lady’s Grotto which is a rock cave on the base of a cliff with a statue inside and an altar and benches in front of it. Basically the place is an outdoor church. It’s a peaceful, well-maintained place. About half of the Grotto is on top of the cliff, but we didn’t go up because using the elevator requires purchasing tokens.
Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls
A little ways from Portland is the Columbia River Gorge. On the Oregon side of the gorge lies the Historic Columbia River Highway that runs along side the I-84, and along this highway there are several waterfalls, the tallest of which is Multnomah Falls. At 612 feet tall from two drops, Multnomah Falls is the tallest waterfall in Oregon. It’s a pretty popular place to visit near Portland. We arrived in the morning and found a parking spot, but by noon the area around the Multnomah Lodge at the base of the waterfall was packed and parking was full. The view from the bottom of the falls is beautiful. Multnomah Falls doesn’t have a lot of flow, but the first drop is a staggering 543 feet. Other than viewing from below, we also hiked up to the top of the falls. The hike was not that easy even though the trail was paved. The trail has many switchbacks in order to scale the steep cliffs to reach the top, and thus it was quite the long walk. The trail does provide some excellent views to the river gorge and the hills on Washington’s side. There is a small platform for visitors to look down at top of the waterfall, but it doesn’t allow you to see the bottom of the falls.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
After touring Portland, we drove up north back into Washington State to visit Mount St. Helens. Mount St. Helens is an active volcano which famously erupted in 1980. The major eruption destroyed the top and north face of the mountain, wiped out a large stretch of forest around the mountain, and covered eastern Washington in darkness due the ash. Since the eruption, the area around Mount St. Helens has been preserved as a National Volcanic Monument and is allowed to recover at nature’s own pace.
There are multiple ways to approach the mountain. We approached from the west through Washington Route 504 which terminates at the Johnston Ridge Observatory which has a great, close-up view of Mount St. Helens from the northeast. When we left Portland on the I-5 the weather was overcast, but as we drove down Route 504 the weather started to clear up into blue, sunny skies. The drive up the winding Route 504 provided increasingly spectacular views of St Helens and the valleys, lakes, and rivers around it. As we get closer, the dense coniferous forest changes into a rocky landscape with grass and shrubs. While most of the trees that were blown down have been recovered, some trunks still litter the landscape, and other dead trees still stand after having their leaves and branches blown away by the eruption. The effects of the eruption are still clearly seen over 30 years after.
Along Route 504 there are several scenic viewpoints and visitor centers. We stopped by the Forest Learning Center, which has exhibits focusing on how the forest and local wildlife was affected by the eruption. There is also another visitor center at Coldwater Lake which is only open on weekends. We stopped at the Coldwater Lake recreation area and had a picnic lunch there. The lake and surroundings was pristine and the water was very blue. The lake was actually formed because of the 1980 eruption which once again demonstrates the power of St. Helens.
At the end of Route 504 is the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Johnston Ridge is named after volcanologist David A. Johnston who was overtaken by the 1980 eruption on that very ridge. Mount St. Helens and its collapsed north face lies right in the center of view, surrounded by the landscape that was devastated by the eruption. Even more than 30 years after the event, Mount St. Helen itself is still bare and largely devoid of vegetation, but further from the mountain life has taken hold again, with grass, wildflowers, and young trees having populated the landscape. The view of this desolate landscape slowly coming to life again is breathtaking and different from all the forested regions in the Pacific Northwest.
The observatory itself housed some cool exhibits focusing on the geology and the events of the eruption. There is an $8 per person entry fee which can be avoided by not entering the building, but we wanted to see the exhibits and felt like we should give some money to help preserve the area. The theatre in the observatory shows two 20-something minute films about the eruption, with one focusing more on the nature/wildlife side of things and the other on the geology. Both were informative and enjoyable, but the best part about watching these films is at the end where the screen and curtains raise up to reveal the real Mount St. Helens behind the big window.