I Ate the State – Mount Rainier Edition

Greetings!

I hope this finds you happily ensconced in the (slowly) unfolding spring.  Hmmm… The word ensconced makes me think of scones… Scones are delicious!  Especially with fresh, clotted cream and strawberry preserves… Great.  Now I want a scone.

ANYhoozen – On to other food-related topics…

With this entry, I’d planned on featuring Clallam County, located in the uppermost western tip of Washington State.  I’d also planned on posting it much sooner, but due to a surly and unexpected encounter with a gas pump hose, I ended up with a broken elbow and a couple months recovery.  Granted, I lucked out and needed only a sling, but it was a bit awkward at the keyboard for many weeks.  I will indeed carry on with the Clallam County plan, but want to add in my notes from a recent sojourn to the area.

In the meantime, I bring you tales from another favorite part of the state… Mount Rainier National Park – and its surrounding areas.  (Located in Pierce County and Lewis County – double whammy!)

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Mount Rainier as seen from the Paradise side.

My love affair with Mt. Rainier National Park has been going strong for quite some time.  Since first viewing it atop Raven’s Roost lookout on childhood camping trips and seeing it standing guard over the city while visiting Seattle on family vacations, I’ve been in love with ‘The Mountain.’ (As it’s affectionately referred to in the greater Seattle area)  So enamored, in fact, I spent many a summer working at both the Sunrise and Paradise lodges along with occasionally volunteering with the National Park Service working on trails, fire look-out, etc.  Some of my very fondest memories have taken place in the shadow of The Mountain…

If you’re on the hunt for food within the park, I can offer no better suggestion than to pack a picnic and hike off into the never-ending beauty of the area.  (Tolmie Peak, Spray Park, Grand Park, Glacier Basin, Camp Muir, Van Trump Trail and Narada Falls are just a few lovely options.  (*Always pack the “10 Essentials”, check road status before you go, let someone know your destination, stay on the trail and make sure you have the proper permits if you’ll be camping or climbing. Safety first!)  However, if you’re on a road trip and would like to enjoy the area’s culinary offerings via wheels, allow me to suggest the following destinations:

SUNRISE area (SR 410, SR 123, SR 165 for Carbon River/Mowich)

If you’re heading from the eastern part of the state, you’ll be coming up SR 410 from Yakima.  A great stop coming or going is one I’ve highlighted previously, Whistlin’ Jack Lodge.  It’s located directly alongside 410 – you can’t miss it!  Check out my feature on this locale – it’s one of my very favorite places!

If you happen to be venturing from the west, you’ll inevitably hook up to SR 410 in Enumclaw.  (‘The Claw’)  Always a great place to fuel up and grab snacks, check out Enumclaw’s growing restaurant scene as well.  (The Mint, The Pie Goddess andRendezvous Wine & Brew are a few great options.)  Located in Buckley, just before you get to Enumclaw is the turnoff for State Route 165 which will take you to the park’s Carbon River entrance.  (Mowich Lake and Spray Park are beautiful!  No services are offered in this area, but it’s a lesser visited part of the park and completely worth a visit.  BRING BUG SPRAY!)

After you pass through The Claw, you’ll eventually find yourself driving through the very small community of Greenwater.  Don’t blink, you’ll miss it!  (NOTE: This is the last point to get gas on 410.  There is NO fuel available within the park and the next spot to gas up on 410 is over Chinook Pass at… Whistlin’ Jack Lodge! Where apparently all paths lead to in this entry.)  While although small, Greenwater is definitely worth a stop – if only to make sure you don’t run out of gas further down the road!  The Naches Tavern is a decent place to pop in for a cold drink and burger – especially after a long day of hiking or skiing.  Wapiti Woolies is a great place to stop for a beautiful, hand-knit ski hat or a nice cup of coffee. (Seriously – they have great hats!)

Heading further east on 410, you’ll see the turnoff to Crystal Mountain Ski Resort on your left, just before you officially enter Mount Rainier National Park.  Crystal Mountain is one of my favorite places to ski and they offer great hiking, mountain biking and sightseeing in the summer as well.  They have several dining options during the winter and a pretty kickass taco truck which I believe now sits near the base lodge on a regular basis during the ski season.  Even if you don’t ski, take the gondola up to theSummit House for a breathtaking view of Mt. Rainier and surrounding areas.  They also host great ‘Sunset Dinners’ at the Summit House in the summer months.  (Book ahead!)

After entering the park, travel along 410 for a few miles until you come to the Mather Memorial Parkway marker.  At this point you can continue east on 410 towards WHISTLIN’ JACK LODGE or towards the west side of Mount Rainier via Cayuse Pass (SR 123) OR – take a right onto the Sunrise access road and head up to Sunrise Lodge.  (Highest drivable point in the park at 6400’ – many car commercials have been filmed on this road over the years – it’s a spectacular, 17-mile twister!)

Sunrise Lodge is a day lodge and offers basic sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs and snack bar fare.  As I mentioned, I spent many a summer working in the park, much of that time at Sunrise Lodge.  (Actually living upstairs in the lodge – great fun!)  We always used to joke that with the rise of elevation came the rise of prices. Seriously – how can a 6 oz. can of juice cost $20?? Okay, I may be slightly exaggerating the $20 price tag, but I won’t lie – you’ll pay a lot more in the park restaurants and gift shops for basic items.  Regardless, I love Sunrise Lodge.  I could write a book based solely on my excellent and ridiculous adventures experienced during my tenure – it occupies a very important and indelible place of importance in my heart.  It was built nearly 100 years ago and remains a bastion of rustic elegance in an otherwise undeveloped part of the park and state.  And even though chilled beer wasn’t around on the mountain 100 years ago and one from the snack bar will likely set you back your kid’s college fund, it’s well worth it after a couple hours exploring the area trails.

There are many amazing hikes that take off from the Sunrise area, some shorter and perfect for family outings and some perfect for a few days away from civilization.  Check out the Northern Loop for a glorious, 3-day backpacking getaway.  If there happens to be a full moon, head up to Second Burroughs at dusk, locate the stone “couch” and sit back and watch the “movie.”  (There’s no actual movie, but the view from the stone couch puts you smack in front of the massive amazingness of Mount Rainier – it’s your own, personal IMAX experience.)  Just settle in and watch the magic as the night unfolds over the snowy majesty… The full moon only adds to the magic. (A thermos filled with Baileys and coffee is also a nice addition.)  Sunrise is also an amazing place to check out the yearly Perseids meteor shower.

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Wildflowers in the Paradise meadows.

LONGMIRE/PARADISE area (SR 123, US 12, WA 167, WA 161, SR 706)

If you’re interested in visiting the side of the park opposite Sunrise, there are several available routes.  Take US 12 past Yakima if you’re coming from the east, SR 123 in the summer if you’re coming over from Sunrise or any number of routes from the Seattle/Tacoma area that will connect you to SR 706. (Always check ahead for seasonal road restrictions and updates.)

There are many great places to eat along the way, but since it’s such a large area to cover, I’ll focus on the places closer to the park entrance on the Paradise side.  (Nisqually entrance)

As you come up SR 706, you’ll pass through a couple areas with good food options.  One of the first ‘towns’ you’ll encounter will be, Elbe.  Home to the ridiculously quaint,Elbe Historic Church and the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, it is also host to my local favorite,Scaleburgers.  During the busy summer season, you might have a little wait as it’s a small (really small!) place with a small kitchen. (Really, really small!)  However, the classic burgers, onion rings and shakes are worth it.  YUM!  (Check out previous posts to gain more perspective on my love of the old-skool burger joint…)

A few miles past Elbe, you’ll find the slightly larger community of Ashford.  Check out historic Whittaker’s Bunkhouse for one of many services.  It’s a motel, café, guide service and shop – and then some!  It’s also owned and operated by mountaineering legend,Lou Whittaker.  Improve your Mount Rainier pedigree by stopping in for a visit.  It’s incredibly charming, well-run and a part of local culture and history.  Also in the area is the Highlander, if you’re looking for good bar food and a bit of local color. Alexander’s Country Inn is also a lovely place to stop for the night and they serve a wonderful, fresh-caught trout dinner.  It is definitely one of the more elegant destinations in the area.  (NOTE:  Ashford is the last place to gas up before entering the park.)

Just before you enter the park, don’t miss the Copper Creek Inn on the left of SR 706.  Everything I’ve tried there has been very tasty, but I can’t say enough about the homemade bread and blackberry pie.  It has a very cozy, relaxing vibe and is a great destination in and of itself.  (They also have many well-appointed cabins nearby – well worth investigating.)

Once you’ve passed through the Nisqually entrance into the park, your dining options become reduced.  However, somewhat inflated pricing aside, it can still be an enjoyable affair.  The National Park Inn restaurant, located in theLongmire area is the first dining option you’ll encounter within the park.  Featuring rustic architecture and a respite-worthy front porch, it also hosts lodging, a gift shop and nearby is a museum featuring park history.  (Housed in the original park headquarters)  It’s also a great jump-off point for winter show shoeing and cross-country ski adventures.

The next and final destination on the beautiful and windy mountain road will be Paradise Inn.  Built in 1916, it is truly a gem in the crown of ‘National Park Service Rustic’ design and architecture.  The main, Paradise Inn Dining Room features breakfast, lunch and dinner and highlights great NW fare such as salmon, crab cakes and all things blackberry.  Check out the Sunday brunch for more classic NW dishes.  The lodge is open seasonally from mid-May through early October.  Reservations are recommended for the dining room and lodging options fill quickly every year.  There are also snack bar and café offerings in the Paradise area housed in both the Paradise Inn and the Jackson Visitors Center.  The café and snack bars also offer trail lunches to accompany you while viewing the amazing vistas, wildflowers, wildlife and towering slopes of the mountain.  Beautiful!

And with that, I bring to an end my foray into the travel and culinary offerings of the Mount Rainier National Park area.  I hate to admit it, but I’ve really only touched on a small portion of what the park and surrounding areas have to offer.  I’ve been exploring the area since childhood and still don’t feel like I’ve scratched the surface – but will certainly keep trying.  And on the note of scratching – Seriously – BRING BUG SPRAY!  (In the summer months, at least 😉

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My travel buddy, Eli – First visit to Mount Rainier/Paradise.

Until next time… Cheers!

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