As summer turns to fall in the Pacific Northwest, it’s the perfect time for a road trip around Mt. Rainier National Park. Not only can you enjoy the scenic splendor of the area’s colorful seasonal foliage and the sight of grazing elk; you can also hunt the hills for wild mushrooms, blueberries and huckleberries with fewer folks on the trails. Don’t forget to look for fun forest gnomes at Federation Forest State Park and the ever-elusive Sasquatch, Washington State’s local legendary creature, along the way.
Day One: Enumclaw – “Gateway to Mt. Rainier”
From I-5 North or South, take the Auburn Highway 18 East exit, a 45-minute drive from Seattle. From here, follow Highway 164 East which leads directly into the town of Enumclaw. The town of over 11,000 residents celebrates its logging history – “tough, courageous and larger than life” – at Logging Legacy Memorial Park in front of the public library.
To discover unique gifts, visit downtown shops like Bridget’s Boutique, This-N-That, CC’s Collectibles on Cole and The Sequel Used Books and Espresso. Stop in for a bite at Jackson’s Pizza, then satisfy your sweet tooth with lavender and huckleberry-flavored chocolates from Sweet Necessities. Find out why The Pie Goddess won a first-place award on The Food Network when you ask for a slice of the Butterfingers Lush Pie. Before heading out of town, be sure to fortify your foraging provisions with a boxed lunch from Kelly’s Mercantile and take Chef Ky’s advice when picking mushrooms: “Remember: Some mushrooms are poisonous. If in doubt, don’t. Shiny is scary. No licking.”
Follow Highway 410 out of town to start your search for wild food resources. But first, wander into Wapiti (Native American for “elk”) Woolies near Greenwater for outdoor clothing, equipment and assortment of regional gifts. Pick up a jar of huckleberry honey or have a Huckleberry ice cream cone to inspire your own culinary creations from your foraging expedition.
In the hiking trails off Highway 410 in the lower elevations, look for chanterelles mushrooms and wild berries. For non-commercial mushroom picking, each person is permitted up to two quarts of mushrooms per day. Unpack your boxed lunch at nearby Lonesome Lake, home to summer boaters, swimmers and a robust canoe competition the third Saturday in August.
Need a place to spend the night after your day of hunting and gathering? Settle in at Alta Crystal Resort where accommodations include loft and one-bedroom chalet suites, plus a honeymoon cabin. Take a dip in the year-round heated pool and hot tub before retreating to your suite where you can whip up dinner from your wild food finds in the cabin’s fully-equipped kitchen. After dinner, check out the evening activities onsite like playing games in the recreation lodge or a family-friendly bonfire complete with s’mores.
Day Two: Crystal Mountain Resort
Your scenic drive continues along Highway 410 as you approach Crystal Mountain Resort where you will find plenty more photo ops and hiking trails.
Beyond its fame as a skier’s paradise, Crystal offers spectacular views of Mt. Rainier and the Cascades, easily accessible by the Mt. Rainier Gondola that climbs 2,500 feet over alpine wilderness. Ride to the top aboard the quiet, 8-passenger gondola, explore the nearby trails on foot or guided horseback, then head to The Summit House, Washington’s highest elevation restaurant, for lunch featuring tasty Northwest cuisine. Gondola and Summit House hours are subject to change. Please view current schedule.
After lunch, keep going south on Highway 410 to get to Tipsoo Lake for more fall foliage viewing. Continue over Cayuse Pass on Highway 123 to reach Grove of the Patriarchs. The short, easy trail leads through towering cedars, hemlocks and Douglas Firs, among the largest and oldest trees in the Cascade Range.
From here the loop follows Highway 706 to Reflection Lake and the Paradise entrance where you will find the beautifully restored, historic Paradise Inn and new Jackson Visitor Center. Wander the premises and explore the exhibits before moving on to more foraging and viewing adventures.
Back on the hunt, look for morel mushrooms and huckleberries on the trail between Narada Falls and Longmire, both popular visitor destinations. The falls can span up to 75 feet wide with a drop of 168 feet with viewpoints at the top or from below. For a glimpse of the early history of Mt. Rainier, stop by the museum at Longmire, the park’s second busiest visitor center.
The drive continues West on Highway 706 towards the community of Ashford where you can try your hand at catching dinner from the trout pond at Alexander’s Restaurant to cap off your day’s adventures. But not to worry if you come up short in your wild food gatherings. The restaurant serves fresh fish from the stocked pond, homemade breads and soups and berry pies in a friendly, casual dining venue.
Stay overnight in one of the Inn’s guest rooms, each with its own private bath, or spend the night off the beaten path at Wellspring Spa, tucked in the woods just outside Mt. Rainier National Park. Choose from a variety of lodging options, including Tatoosh Lodge, which sleeps up to fourteen guests.
Start your morning with a tour of the Wellspring Spa labyrinth and outdoor wedding chapel before heading off to breakfast at Copper Creek Inn Restaurant. Be sure to ask for a slice of the their famous blackberry pie with a scoop of ice cream, even if you don’t usually have pie and ice cream for breakfast. It’s that good.
Before winding your way back towards Enumclaw on Highway 706 and 162, visit the Mt. Rainier Railroad & Museum. Hop aboard the steam locomotive for a two-hour ride around Mt. Rainier, then enjoy the large collection of vintage trains at the museum. At nearby Recycled Spirits of Iron, the creative brainchild of local artist Dan Klennert, stroll through the sculpture park to discover how discarded scraps of metal have inspired the artist’s wondrous creations.
– Nancy Mueller