Seeing majestic Mt Rainier is a sight to behold for anyone, whether visiting the park for the first time or just a local paying a return visit. The drive alone to the park is enjoyable, once you get past suburban traffic, and offers up plenty of scenic views and roadside highlights.
For example, marvel at the scenic overlook pull-outs in the Nisqually Gorge area along Hwy 7. As you snake your way up through this area, you can get some eye-popping views. One of them is of the Nisqually River itself down in the deep, lush gorge filled with evergreens. This view is particularly breath-taking in the early morning when low clouds swirl through the valley.
Once past the gorge area, up pops a lake—Alder Lake. The color of the lake changes depending on the lighting and cloud conditions. It can be a beautiful teal blue color, and if you look closely, it is quite milky due to the high glacial mineral content. There is a public boat launch here if you want to pull off the road to snap a few photos.
One small town along Hwy 7 that takes advantage of the passing-thru traffic is Elbe, regionally known for its popular Mt Rainier Scenic Railroad excursions. Take a ride on a vintage steam train or view the large collection of steam locomotives. Check the site’s schedule for train excursion days and times. There’s also a restaurant set up in restored dining cars and even a motel on wheels, as well as a general store, all located within walking distance of each other. Kids will love this place as well as the adults.
Once past the town of Elbe and onto the straightaway to Mt Rainier National Park, which would be Rte 706 now, keep an eye out for some unusual looking sculptures. Look for the rusty, long-necked giraffe near the right side of the road. It may be your only clue as to what is lurking within. Most travelers whiz right past this unique site and don’t even realize what they are missing. There are no obvious signs to the Ex-Nihilo Sculpture Park, as it is properly titled. Slow down and pull into the gravel driveway to park and take some time to look at the fascinating metal and wood sculpture creations that the master artist, Dan Klennert, has put together out of his love for “creating something out of nothing.” Many of his creations are whimsical: some animal, and some human. If you don’t have time to visit before continuing to the mountain, I highly recommend a stop on your return.
The last community one passes through before entering Mt Rainier National Park is the town of Ashford. This is essentially base camp for mountaineers. There’s some interesting little shops here for the outdoors person as well as quaint, little artisan shops where one can purchase hand-made pottery and local art work. There are a handful of motels, restaurants, bed and breakfast inns, and mountain lodges sprinkled along the way to the park entrance.
So if you’re headed up to the mountain, Mt Rainier that is, take the scenic Hwy 7 route, otherwise known as “mountain highway,” and enjoy some of the highlights along the way. It may be a long day, but one certainly worth the time!