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Driving Mt. Rainier’s Scenic Loop

Mt Rainier5 (1280x960)Washington’s Mount Rainier, at 14,410 feet the state’s tallest mountain, is a marvelous destination any season of the year. There’s skiing and other snow sports, fishing and other water sports, cycling and hiking, wildflowers, photo ops and vistas you’ll remember forever. The year-round natural beauty is the draw here, of course, but there’s also any number of year-round festivals to enjoy, great shopping, incredible restaurants, and fabulous places to stay.

Day One: Enumclaw, “Gateway to Mt. Rainier,” to Greenwater

Starting from Seattle, we grab a coffee-to-go and travel just one hour to Enumclaw, via the I-5 south, then Hwy 164 southeast. Enumclaw, this west-side “Gateway to Mt. Rainer,” is a town of about 11,000 people, with a downtown core of well-kept, early 1900’s storefront buildings. We’ll spend more time in Enumclaw at the end of our little trip, so for now, we limit our shopping to must-have reading from The Sequel Used Bookstore and Espresso, and another coffee to go.

Wapiti Woolies sells iconic wool caps and all kinds of clothing for your outdoor adventure.

Wapiti Woolies sells cozy wool caps and all kinds of clothing for your outdoor adventure.

Heading east on Highway 410, we stop to chat with Bob and Debbie of Greenwater’s Wapiti Woolies. Since 1974, they’ve made knit hats, and today, they sell outdoor clothing and equipment, snacks, coffee and their famous huckleberry ice cream. This is the place where the town’s citizens gather for conversation as well. I pick up some fireweed honey and huckleberry jam, which I know will be eagerly enjoyed by family back home.

We spend the day exploring hiking trails and foraging for mushrooms and berries off Hwy 410, stopping for a picnic lunch up at beautiful Lonesome Lake, then on to Federation Forest State Park, where there are 600+ acres of forest and 18,000 feet of White River shoreline. Amid all this natural beauty is bit of either silliness or magic, depending on your perspective—Gnome Village, where gnomes and other magical creatures live and work in all their quirkiness.

Alta Crustal Lodge offers chalets, suites and even a honeymoon cabin.

Alta Crystal Resort offers chalets, suites and even a honeymoon cabin.

Greenwater’s Alta Crystal Resort where we spend a restful night offers well-appointed chalets, one bedroom suites and even a honeymoon cabin within the national park. All cozy units have fully stocked kitchens and stone fireplaces. Owners Vivian and Steve have owned the lodge for 18 years and enjoy organizing regular evening activities like BBQs and “glamping nights” for guests. There’s a year-round heated 90 degree pool, a hot tub, bike and ski rentals, outdoor games; everything you need, and just 10 minutes away from Crystal Mountain for still more things to do.

Day Two: Crystal Mountain to Ashford

Crystal Mountain Resort is one of Washington’s premier ski and winter sports destinations and that’s no surprise given the 486” of snow that here falls each year. Summertime is also high season at the resort because of the area’s hiking, camping (on your own or trips organized by the resort), horseback riding and the must-do gondola ride up 2,500 vertical feet over alpine meadows.

Mt. Rainier's must-do gondola offers spectacular views.

Mt. Rainier’s must-do gondola offers spectacular views.

At the top of the gondola, visitors can enjoy lunch at Summit House. At 6,872’, it’s Washington’s highest elevation restaurant and offers Northwest dishes with incredible alpine views, including imposing Mt. Rainier and the Cascade Mountains. We sit outdoors and check out the menu filled with soups, salads, seafood, burgers, and steaks as well as beverages and desserts. My cioppino is full of sweet-briny seafood and vegetables in a tasty broth, and fish and chips, pastas and sandwiches are equally enjoyed by everyone else in the group.

Iconic Paradise Inn is a favorite place to stay in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Iconic Paradise Inn is a favorite place to stay in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Entering Mt. Rainer National Park, we stop at Paradise Inn, the 121-room lodge built in 1916. Constructed with huge first-growth beams, the main floor and open loft above offers cozy nooks. The historic red, green, and yellow color palette has been maintained since it was built and the ironwork and other craftsmanship are timeless.

The Visitor’s Center provides geological history and a guide to the many wild flowers we see on our hikes. When the clouds part, the view of Nisqually Glacier right outside the lodge is jaw-dropping.

We drive on, stopping at Narada Falls; then further to Naches Peak Loop Trail, another trial system within the park, walking around little Tipsoo Lake.

Rockfish at Alexander's Country Inn is tasty.

Rockfish at Alexander’s Country Inn is tasty.

Pre-dinner, we relax at the trout pond behind Alexander’s Country Inn and Restaurant in Ashford. The inn, a 1912 Victorian, has 12 rooms, and dinner at the restaurant is terrific. Our table is awash with fresh wonderful dishes: caprice salad with heirloom tomatoes, Caesar salad, an enviable French Onion soup, and a hand-cut tagliatelle with Gorgonzola cream and tomatoes. My rockfish is served blackened over savory Potato Corn hash, with fresh broccoli and Beet Caper sauce. The pan-fried trout arrives straight from the ice-cold trout pond. Enjoyed with delicious Washington wines, it’s Northwest cuisine at its best.

We spend the night at Wellspring, located in Ashford, just 3.5 miles west of the Nisqually entrance of Mt. Rainier National Park. Wellspring is a retreat that has established itself organically into the landscape. Since 1985, they’ve grown; adding cabins and trails, to create the place it is today. There’s a spa, private hot tubs, wood-fired saunas, a retreat lodge, trails, and uniquely decorated and appointed log cabins and lodges—even a tent and a treehouse where guests can spend the night.

Sharing Tatoosh Lodge, my friends and I gather at the end of a busy day with wine and chocolate. We sit around the big stone fireplace and then wander outside onto the front porch’s rope swing to admire the stars.

Day Three: Ashford to Enumclaw to Seattle: Natural Beauty and Small town Charm

Next morning, before we leave Wellspring, we explore trails which meander through forest, down to a labyrinth, and spa and retreat center, the outdoor wedding chapel, the yurt, Gazebo, waterfalls and creek. Wellspring is indeed a special sanctuary.

You certainly won't go hungry at the Cooper Creek Inn.

You certainly won’t go hungry at the Cooper Creek Inn.

Breakfast at Ashford’s Copper Creek Inn is a feast that provides all the energy we need for the rest of the day. We indulge in country breakfast meats, eggs, breads and pastries, hash browns, pancakes, biscuits and gravy and fresh preserves.

We follow it with a must-have slice of baker Troy Reich’s blackberry pie. We steal a look inside the kitchen as Reich bakes. His batch of specialty pies won’t last the day, with many people taking home a whole pie home for later. (Copper Creek also offers rustic cabins and suites on twelve forested acres.)

In Elbe, visit sculptor Dan Klennert four acre studio, where he creates “recycled spirits” out of iron and driftwood. His motto is Ex-Nihilo, Latin for “something made out of nothing”. He showcases his work inside and out.

Baker Troy Reich prepares his famous blackberry pie.

Baker Troy Reich prepares his famous blackberry pie.

“Working construction gave me access to a lot of the materials,” he tells us. He gathers materials from junkyards, farm piles and donations. Metal is organized by size and shape, driftwood is sorted here, bones there. Pieces-in-progress stand here and there.

Klennert wanted to be an artist from the time he was six years old, but serious artistic pursuit didn’t begin until after he learned welding while working as a mechanic in the early 1970’s. He began creating pieces from parts around the shop and when his foreman saw his work, he told Klennert, “You may be doing the wrong thing for a living.”

Artist Dan Klennert makes four-legged creatures out of recycled and found materials.

Artist Dan Klennert makes four-legged creatures out of recycled and found materials.

Driftwood four-legged animals, mythical animals, and other whimsical sculptures fill the space. His inspiration comes from many sources and visiting Klennert’s sculpture park/gallery/gift shop is well worth the stop.

From Elbe, we continue to Elbe, Eatonville, Kapowsin, and Buckley, making brief stops along the way at whatever catches our fancy. In Enumclaw, park and spend the afternoon exloring the charming downtown core. Popular spots to eat include The Rainier, The Mint, Jackson’s Artisan Pizza, Europa and Rendezvous Wine and Brew. We end up at Kelly’s Mercantile enjoying Chefs Ky Loop’s and Tyler Garcia’s outrageous Reuben sandwiches. Kelly’s Mercantile is a great spot for lunch, happy hour, dinner, or a light snack. They host wine tastings and live music events and there’s always something happening at “the Merc.”

Kelly's Mercantile is famous for Chefs Ky Loop's and Tyler Garcia's giant Ruben sandwiches.

Kelly’s Mercantile is famous for Chefs Ky Loop’s and Tyler Garcia’s giant Ruben sandwiches.

After lunch, we satisfy our sweet tooth at Sweet Necessities and the Pie Goddess. Then we visit Nature’s Inventory, Bridget’s Boutique, before heading back to the Sequel Used Bookstore one more time. On our way out of town, we’d like to pause at Mason Jar Farms, Rockridge Orchards or Tracey’s Roadside Produce to bring back even more small-town goodness, but the light is fading and we need to get back. That means we’ve got more to do when we return.

The short return drive to Seattle leaves me amazed at having so much, so close by. Mt. Rainier makes a wonderful getaway! — Story and photos by Nancy Zaffaro, RFT NW Wine, Brews, & Spirits Editor

If You Go:

Views all along the Mt. Rainier Scenic Loop are phenomenal.

Views all along the Mt. Rainier Scenic Loop are phenomenal.

For maps, routes and more,
The Sequel Used Bookstore and Espresso, Enumclaw, WA,
Wapiti Woolies, Greenwater, WA,
Crystal Mountain Resort, Crystal Mountain, WA,
Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, Elbe, WA,
Copper Creek Inn, Ashford, WA,
Alexander’s Country Inn and Restaurant, Ashford, WA,
Dan Klennert’s Spirits of Iron Sculpture Park, Elbe, WA,
Kelly’s Mercantile, Enumclaw, WA,
The Pie Goddess, Enumclaw, WA,
Bridget’s Boutique, Enumclaw, WA,
Mason Jar Farms, Enumclaw, WA,
Rockridge Orchards, Enumclaw, WA,
Tracy’s Roadside Produce, Enumclaw, WA,

Where to Stay
There’s a wide range of lodges, inns, hotels, motels, vacation home rentals, and cabins and campsites along the route, available at every budget.
We stayed at two beautiful properties: Alta Crystal Resort in Greenwater, WA,, and Wellspring Spa in Ashford, WA,

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Nancy Zaffaro

Nancy Zaffaro is a travel and food writer based in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys travel, writing, good food and drink (of course!), cooking, yoga, kayaking, and photography. She’s a long-time writer and editor who has had interesting and varied careers in the arts and in business, and is thrilled to be able to travel the world and write about her adventures. Nancy is also the Editor of

2 thoughts on “Driving Mt. Rainier’s Scenic Loop

  1. Gerry Ring-Erickson

    Your route description is confusing. First you describe the Enumclaw to Alta Crystal section with side trip to Crystal Mtn resort and the gondola to the ski area high point. Then, instead of continuing over Cayuse Pass and up the Stevens Canyon road to Paradise, you have the Ashford to Paradise portion and no mention of Longmire at all. No description of how you connected the two portions.

    1. Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT EditorBobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

      Hey Gerry,
      Here’s the response from our writer, Nancy Zaffaro:

      Hello Gerry,

      We did, in fact, drive the route exactly as you described it. After Crystal Mountain Resort, we continued over Cayuse Pass and took Stevens Canyon Road to Paradise. I didn’t mention Longmire because we didn’t stop there, although, yes indeed, it would have made a great stop. The route we took is “Loop #1” of four possible portions of the larger Mt. Rainier area drives you can take. There’s just so much more to do and see in that area, as you know!

      With more time, I highly recommend taking the second part of the loop, which heads east to Chinook Pass. There, you can visit Bumping Lake and Oak Creek Elk Feeding Station on the Chinook Pass Scenic Byway portion, before going on to Naches and the White Pass Scenic Byway and White Pass Ski Area. From here, you can reconnect to our route in Paradise. or take the third and fourth options of the loop which can take you through Packwood, Skate Creek Road, Randle, Morton and Mineral before again reconnecting to our portion of the drive in Elbe. (Some portions of these roads are seasonal, so check first.)

      It should be said too, that I began my trip in Seattle; but if you’re coming from Yakima, you’ll approach the Mt. Rainer area from Naches, and if you’re coming from the South on the I-5, you can connect from Randle or Morton. Visit has some excellent information on these routes. Thanks so much! Best, Nancy

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