Mountain highs on Crystal gondola and Sunrise road
Visitors of all ages can fit a lot into a day trip in and around Mount Rainier National Park and nearby Crystal Mountain Resort: a gondola ride up to Crystal's summit, lunch at a mountaintop restaurant, a stroll in an ancient forest and views of Mount Rainier and other Cascade mountains.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Crystal and SunriseCrystal Mountain
For summer-season sightseeing, Crystal's Mt. Rainier Gondola runs until Sept. 11 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. until sunset Friday and Saturday. From Sept. 16 to Oct. 2, the gondola runs only Saturdays and Sundays. Saturday hours are 10 a.m. to sunset; Sundays 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
A round-trip ticket is $20 for adults, $8 for children ages 4 to 10, and $15 youth and seniors 69 and older. Kids 3 and younger ride free. More information: www.crystalmountainresort.com or 888-754-6199.
Mount Rainier National Park
Sunrise Visitor Center is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. until Sept. 10. Visitor center phone: 360-663-2425.
For general information on the park: www.nps.gov/mora or 360-569-2211.
If you want to turn a Crystal/Sunrise visit into an overnight getaway, places to stay include:
• Hotel rooms and condos at the Crystal Mountain base: www.crystalmountainresort.com (click on "plan your trip").
• Alta Crystal Resort is about a 15-minute drive from Crystal on Highway 410 with comfortable, condolike units and a pool and hot tub. A one-night stay in September costs $199 for a room that sleeps four; $258 for the honeymoon cabin or a room that sleeps six.
• Camping: In Mount Rainier National Park, White River campground (at the base of the Sunrise road) has 112 sites on a first-come-first-serve basis for $12 a night. Sites for Ohanapecosh campground can be reserved at the National Park Service website: www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/camping.htm
Northwest Travel Guides
It's not every day you get to witness the birth of a river.
So when our National Park Service guide explained that the black, dome-shape ice cave on Mount Rainier was the genesis of the White River, my son and I turned to each other silently with wide eyes and open mouths.
A day of wandering in and around Mount Rainier National Park and nearby Crystal Mountain Resort had rendered us more or less speechless. And with good reason. There are only so many superlatives in the English language, and we had used up most of them hours earlier during the gondola ride up to Crystal's 6,872-foot summit, where we ate lunch at a mountaintop restaurant and drank in the views of 14,410-foot Rainier and other Cascade mountains. Late in the afternoon we drove south into the park and strolled in an ancient forest where 1,000-year-old red cedars made us feel appropriately small and insignificant.
That such a journey could be completed in a day trip from Seattle comes with living in a place where nature's beauty is rivaled only by people's determination to access it.
All of our destinations were reachable by car or via the scenic gondola ride at Crystal, the ski resort that in summer offers easy high-altitude hiking, mountaintop dining and spectacular views of Mount Rainier.
Lift access at Crystal and high-elevation roads in nearby Mount Rainier National Park make it possible for the young, very old and everyone in between to enjoy a high-country Cascades outing together.
Lingering snow kept the usual crush of visitors away from Mount Rainier's attractions well into this summer season. It also extended Crystal's ski and boarding season into July, at a time the resort was promoting itself and its nifty new gondola to summer visitors. But summer finally arrived in August, letting visitors enjoy spectacular vistas and the sublime pleasures of wildflowers sprawled out by the millions in meadows or tucked in tiny bouquets between rocks.
It's time-travel at its best. And there's still time to enjoy the easy access to the mountains this month and into October before the snow starts falling again.
Crystal Mountain Resort
The Mt. Rainier Gondola is the star of the show here. A lollipop-red jewel that was just completed in January, it can carry eight people in each of the gondola's cabins. The ride takes 10 minutes from the parking lot to the summit.
The only gondola in the state, it serves skiers and boarders in the winter, and sightseers and hikers in summer. I've never been a fan of high places, so I entered with some trepidation for the 2,472-foot ride straight up from the gondola's base to a 6,856-foot ridge. There were some stomach-dropping moments, but the scenery was eye-popping enough to be distracting, and when it wasn't, I closed my eyes. (If you're up for a workout, you also can hike to the summit for free.)
Stepping off the gondola is like stepping onto the top of the world. Mount Rainier — a mere 12 miles away — looms front and center, an imposing vision shrouded in snow. If you can pull your eyes away from its wintry face, turn around for a 360-degree panorama of the Cascades that includes two other volcanoes: Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens.
There are easy walking trails along the summit, and on weekends, hourlong tours by a U.S. Forest Service Ranger (Crystal lies within the Mount. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest).
The view at the summit never gets old, so plan to stay a while. You can pack a lunch to eat at one of picnic tables facing Mount Rainier or grab a $7 burger or hot dog at the outdoor barbecue. Or settle down for lunch at Summit House Restaurant, adjacent to the gondola landing. Nestled into the mountainside, the restaurant boasts soaring timber ceilings and window-lined walls so you can maximize the viewing over a meal.
Given the remote location, we didn't expect the lunch to be as great as it was. We spent $42 for near-perfect lobster bisque, a halibut sandwich that was generously portioned and delicately flavored and a bowl of mac 'n' cheese. We wanted to book a sunset dinner at the restaurant ($59 per person, which includes a gondola ride), but those dinners sold out early in the season.
To the park
Leaving Crystal, we headed to the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier National Park. Close as the crow flies, it was an hourlong down-and-up from Crystal into the valley that separates the two areas and then up a steeply climbing road to 6,400-foot Sunrise.
This magnificent jewel of high ridges in Mount Rainier National Park offers in-your-face views of "the mountain." If Crystal gives you a feel for the topography of the Cascades, Sunrise gives you the details. It's the highest place in the park to which you can drive, and with only a little walking visitors get a close-enough view of Mount Rainier to gaze down to the White River's birthplace and up to the crevasses that make the glacier-draped volcano such a dangerous place to climb. Or simply enjoy the views from the parking lot or the Sunrise Visitor Center, which has displays on the park's natural and human history.
A free 45-minute guided tour at Sunrise offered by the National Park Service is well worth the time, offering a surprisingly in-depth explanation of the geology and biology of the park and the volcanos. A multitude of trails branches out from the Sunrise Visitor Center, or simply take pictures of vast meadows of wildflowers visible from the parking lot.
From Sunrise, we headed down and south in a half-hour drive to to the park's Ohanapecosh area and its deeply forested Grove of the Patriarchs.
This is a place for reverence, with 1,000-year-old red cedars, some more than 25 feet around. A flat 1.5-mile loop trail makes it easy to explore the grove, which sits on an islet in the Ohanapecosh River.
It was nearing dusk when we headed back to Seattle, stopping at the Naches Tavern for burgers. The sign said families were welcome, but on a Friday night the adults were well into party mode, and the beer and adult language were flowing freely.
The ticket salesman from our gondola ride earlier that day recognized us. As we talked, we realized how much ground we had covered. Gondolas, vistas, ancient trees and majestic mountains. We had it all in a single day.
Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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