Mount Rainier is also a priceless state jewel.
For most of the year, the massive peak is hidden behind thick gray skies. Come summertime, it's eye-candy for those Interstate-5 traffic crawlers, luring the adventurous and the homebodies alike.
Mount Rainier National Park is an affordable and drivable day trip from Snohomish County. A carload costs only $15, map included, and the pass is good for seven days.
Pack a lunch, and bring a few bucks for the fresh produce stands along the way.
Countless species of flora, fauna and wild creatures call the lush park home. Hikes for every skill level encircle the mountain. Trailheads, waterfalls and scenic points are easy to spot, even without the map or an app, which won't do much good anyway with so many areas without cell service. Use your smart phone to take pictures. Photo ops abound.
Mount Rainier is like a rustic theme park/water park/snow park in one, but without the neon, glitz and noise. There are thrills and spills at each stop, even if the highlight is a take-your-breath-away view of the mountain. It's hard to believe the drop-dead gorgeous Mount Rainier is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.
The popular Nisqually Entrance at the southwest corner of the park is about a two-hour drive from Seattle. On the way, stop at the produce stand across from the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad depot in Elbe and buy cherries. Five dollars buys a big bag. It's a nice treat to eat along the way, especially if you get thwarted by the current road construction seven miles from the entrance to Longmire historic district.
Longmire was the original headquarters of Rainier, the fifth national park in the United States in 1899. There's a museum and the National Park Inn, which has some very relaxing rocking chairs lining the front porch. These are so guests can unwind without the modern distractions of televisions, telephones and Internet.
Need something? There's a general store in a vintage 1911 log cabin.
Next stop, a couple of miles away: Cougar Rock, a good place to stretch your legs and lose yourself in riverbed full of rocks that will make you feel like you're in an episode of “The Flintstones.” It's not every day you get to dip your toes in a glacial river that's cold enough to make you want to yell “Yabba Dabba Do!”
A log bridge over the rushing rapids of the Nisqually River has a railing on only one side, but it's not as scary as it looks based on the number of families walking across it without the parents freaking out.
A safe place to get wet is the spray from Narada Falls, a few loops down the road. The viewpoint is an easy jaunt from the parking lot. At the end is a mist funneled straight at the trail. Get drizzled or get soaked. Your choice.
The park is deeply forested. Driving along the two-lane road you almost forget there's a mountain in the middle until those intervals when the snow-capped peak pops out.
Much of the time there are only small clusters of people and it makes you feel as if you have the park practically all to yourself.
That is, until you get to Paradise.
All of a sudden there's hundreds of cars from every state, and people from all over the world.
We parked about a half-mile away.
That's my idea of hiking.
Paradise is a mecca in the mountain, with hiking trails, guides, inn and visitor center. The modern Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center has exhibits, films, gifts, snacks and a bronze bust of “Scoop,” Snohomish County's namesake politician.
The guide house is where many climbers start their ascent of the mountain. For those with lower thresholds of adventure, it's a fine place to throw snowballs.
It was one of the hottest days of summer but there was plenty of snow to go around.
“I'm sweating in the snow,” I heard a visitor say as she dodged snowballs from her two kids.
The rustic Paradise Inn is tucked between panoramic views of Rainier and the Tatoosh Range. The hotel was built in 1916 and even with renovations retains that throwback charm of an old mountain lodge, with a wilderness solitude and long narrow carpeted hallways.
“Reminds me of ‘The Shining,'” my daughter jokingly remarked.
The lobby had big cozy chairs and a piano. It was filled with merry people drinking and singing. Next trip, I plan to be one of them.
Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @reporterbrown.
If you go
Mount Rainier National Park is open all year. Visitation peaks in July and August. Vehicle access in winter is only available from the Nisqually entrance, in the southwest corner of the park on the way to Paradise. Cost is $15 for car; or $5 for each visitor 16 and older entering on motorcycle, bicycle, horseback or on foot. The pass is good for seven days. An annual park pass is $30 for the pass holder and covers passengers.
Free entrance days remaining in 2014: Aug. 25, National Park Service Birthday; Sept. 27, Public Lands Day; and Nov. 11, Veterans Day. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/mora/index.htm.
Things to bring
1. Map of the area
3. Flashlight with extra batteries/bulb
4. Extra food
5. Extra clothing, including rain gear
6. Sunglasses and sunscreen
8. Matches in a waterproof container
9. Candle or other fire starter
10. First aid kit
Source: National Park Service
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