A different view of Mount Rainier

by Bob Hoelscher 25. September 2012 19:44

Regular readers of my blogs are likely already aware that Mount Rainier National Park is one of my favorites among America’s great parks. However, being able to spend the entire summer in the Seattle/Tacoma area this year has provided me with the opportunity to visit a number of the area’s secondary attractions that are still of substantial interest. 

One of these is the Crystal Mountain Resort, among the Pacific Northwest’s premier ski resorts, which boasts the state-of-the-art Mount Rainier Gondola. Climbing almost 2,500 vertical feet from the base station at 4,400 feet up Crystal Mountain, the gondola passes over meadows of wildflowers and evergreen forests en route to breathtaking views of neighboring 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, as well as the Cascade Range as far away as 12,276-foot Mount Adams, over 50 miles distant.  

At the top, in addition to overlooks with panoramic views and the opportunity to choose from a number of scenic hikes, groups are sure to enjoy a lunch (or weekend dinner) at the Summit House, Washington’s highest elevation restaurant, at 6,872 feet.  Here both a large outdoor patio and indoor dining room combine fine Northwest cuisine with the backdrop of towering Mount Rainier to create an especially memorable meal. 

For a full-day trip from Seattle during the summer months, I’d recommend a late morning gondola ascent followed by lunch, then an afternoon excursion into the national park proper for an awe-inspiring scenic drive to the visitor center and related facilities at Sunrise (6,400 feet), about as close that a visitor can get to one of the nation’s most impressive peaks without an extended hike.

Magnificent Mount Rainier from atop Crystal Mountain

Dining with an incredible view 

Checking out the Crystal Mountain layout

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Around Mount Rainier National Park

A worst-case scenario

by Bob Hoelscher 25. September 2012 19:42

Last month I addressed this subject, before almost immediately became an unwitting participant in exactly what I had advised against. During a cruise to the Norwegian Fjords in early August, I decided to join the ship’s $94.95 “Hiking on the Hardanger Plain” shore excursion from the small town of Eidfjord. 

This supposed “hike” was little more than a forced march up an extremely muddy, steep hillside with much standing water and slippery terrain. The destination was a small plain without any significant importance, then a much easier descent, mostly over developed walkways and roads. No information on the flora and fauna was provided by the young, athletic-type “guide,” apparently a mountain climber, but obviously not a professional tour director. 

Although the scenic vistas along the way were okay, they were nothing special, so the hike’s real purpose (other than providing strenuous exercise) was open to question. We were given a quick ten minutes at the conclusion of the hike to view and photograph a truly breathtaking canyon with towering waterfalls.  

As an experienced hiker, I know that even this could have been a reasonably enjoyable experience had it simply been more relaxed. Nevertheless, we were led up the very primitive trail at a breakneck pace that was probably normal for the guide, but hardly appropriate for typical cruise guests sloshing through water and mud. We had no time to relax and “smell the roses,” since the only goal appeared to be getting to the top of the ridge as quickly as possible. 

The description of the trip in the shore excursion flier should have mentioned the very steep climb, as well as the substantial elevation gain along the way. One lady was injured in a fall while trying to keep up, others slipped and fell without injury, and instructions to “bring a dry pair of socks” were laughable after our shoes had been completely filled with muddy water.

On Labor Day, I made another visit to Mount Rainier, taking several relatively short hikes, none of which would be particularly taxing for the average tour participant. One this occasion, however, I did pause to closely inspect Mother Nature’s handiwork. The accompanying photographs provide some idea of the beauty I encountered along the way, sights, which I would have passed by and missed completely had I followed the example of my Norwegian hiking adventure.

Morning dew on plants beside the trail

Gray's Nutcracker

Fascinating wildflowers

Northwest Trek Wildlife Park

by Bob Hoelscher 25. September 2012 19:34

Near the Mount Rainier National Park, the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park is one of the most unusual city parks in the U.S. Yes, this Eatonville park is basically a zoo, but it is a zoo unlike any you are likely to find elsewhere.

The mission of this 725-acre wildlife park is to present only those animals that are native to the Pacific Northwest (more than 200 at present, but no elephants or giraffes) in settings which accurately recreate their natural habitats. The park also allows visitors to view them in close proximity. This is accomplished in two different areas. 

First, naturalist-guided, open-air tram tours wind through a 435-acre free-roaming area that is home to herds of moose, elk, bison, Rocky Mountain sheep and other species.  Second, an easy walking tour allows guests to stroll pathways through the forest to explore natural exhibits of black and grizzly bears, wolves, cougars, raptors and others.

Additional attractions include “Trailside Encounters” with small animals; a discovery center featuring snakes, honeybees and “hands-on” opportunities; as well as miles of both paved and primitive nature trails. Special events are scheduled throughout the summer, fall and holiday season. For example, I attended the highly entertaining, annual “Slug Fest” in June, which was billed as “sliminess, silliness and serious fun with human slug races, crafts and activities for kids, a slug hunt and more.”  

Other events include a Trek Trails Weekend, Keeper and Creature Feature Weeks, Elk Bugling and Photo Tours, Senior Month and Winter Wonderland. For a completely different addition to a tour of Western Washington, the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park earns a strong recommendation.

Our tram tour passes the elk herd

Grey wolves, as seen on the walking tour

Black bear in a natural habitat

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Around Mount Rainier National Park

Stopping to smell the roses

by Bob Hoelscher 8. August 2012 19:33

Wild mushrooms in Mount Rainier National Park, WA

Regular readers of my monthly, electronic ramblings are probably already aware that one of my passions is hiking in our national parks and other public lands.  Needless to say, along the trails I do encounter a lot of interesting and inquisitive people, yet I continue to be surprised by others who, even though totally surrounded by the majesty of Mother Nature’s handiwork, still seem unable to “see the forest for the trees.”

I don’t quite know what drives individuals to be in such a big hurry, or the attraction of simply getting to the end of a trail and return to the point of origin as quickly as possible, seemingly in order to embark upon yet another perfunctory adventure. In the tour industry, we’ve all heard stories about international visitors to the Grand Canyon, who, after a brief look over the rim at Arizona’s awesome gorge, have apparently seen as much as they want and are ready to press on to Las Vegas.         

My point is simply that there is beauty to be found almost everywhere.  Nevertheless, if one does not pause along the way to look for that beauty, or to bend over for a closer view, then he or she is missing out on a whole world of fascinating discoveries. I’d much rather make just half of a given trail and know that I experienced as many of the wonders encountered along the way as possible, than be able to boast that I made it all the way to the “bitter end.”      

Hopefully the accompanying, recent photographs provide an idea of the type of sights that many people seem to just rush on past. I sat on a rock in Mount Rainier National Park for at least half an hour to take in the splendor of the glacial lake and mountain ridge shown. Even though this rock couldn’t have been more than 100 feet off of the “beaten path,” not one of them paused along the way long enough to see what they were missing while I was there! So please, do yourself a big favor when you’re out in the wild and stop to smell, see, photograph or otherwise experience the things that are just beyond comprehension with a cursory glance.

Flowers after a rainstorm at the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, Eatonville, WA

Glacial lake and Goat Island Mountain in Mt. Rainier National Park, WA

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Travel Thoughts

On the way to Mt. Rainier: Elbe, Wash.

by Bob Hoelscher 29. June 2012 20:22

Those who remember my discussion of Mount Rainier National Park here last October already know that this is one of my favorite NPS sites. If one approaches the park from the west via WA 7 and 706, the small community of Elbe (population 30) can be found at the junction of the two highways. 

Originally settled by German-speaking Lutherans, their historic 1906 “Little White Church” (the operative word here is “little”) in the center of town is a National Historic Landmark that is open to sightseers. Immediately adjacent, however, is the depot for the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, the attraction that brings most of Elbe’s visitors. In fact, the entire town, situated on the east end of Alder Lake, has a railroad atmosphere, with a bar, restaurant and sleeping accommodations available in a series of retired train cars, although these are not really suitable for most tour groups. Even the bell in the church steeple was removed from an old locomotive!        
As the longest continuously-operated steam tourist railroad in the Pacific Northwest, the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad offers excursions on restored vintage coaches and open cars, pulled by one of several historic steam logging locomotives. Although holiday trips (Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween and the Christmas season) are offered, their regular schedule runs from Memorial Day through October, with multiple departures on Saturdays and Sundays, plus additional Thursday and Friday trips during the peak summer months. 

Regular excursions are attractively priced, run about two hours (just about the right length) and are quite scenic. The train travels through a succession of lush green forests and meadows, alongside mountain streams and across rivers on wooden trestles. A 20-minute stop is made at Mineral Lake, where special summertime barbecues are also served at an all-weather dining area on Fridays and Saturdays during July and August.  On clear days, Mt. Rainier can be viewed from the train en route.

The trip to Mineral Lake on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad

The Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad engineer explains the unusual vertical cylinders of the historic Willamette steam engine

Over the river and through the woods on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad

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On the way to the park

Volcanic beauty

by Bob Hoelscher 17. October 2011 20:45

Mount Rainier National Park is one of America’s oldest and best-known national parks, roughly a hundred miles north-northeast of the “City of Roses” as the crow flies. Established as the nation’s fifth national park in 1899, Mount Rainier is about a 155-mile drive from Portland, or approximately 90 miles by road from Seattle.  

The centerpiece of this glorious national treasure is, of course, perpetually snowcapped Mount Rainier itself, the towering, 14,410-foot dormant volcano that can easily be seen from throughout the Seattle and Tacoma areas on a clear day. Travelers who have visited Colorado are likely aware that there are 55 peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in that photogenic state, although none of them are as visually prominent as Mount Rainier for one very important reason.

Remembering that the base altitude in Colorado is Denver’s 5,280 feet, the “Fourteeners” there are actually only in the 9,000-foot range. Mount Rainier, however, is less than 50 miles from sea level, thus constituting a much more massive geologic landmark.  Eventually, it also holds the potential for creating a catastrophic natural disaster, since the Cascade Range has been active volcanically for eons. 

Needless to say, the eruption of nearby Mount St. Helens in 1980 provided a graphic reminder of this situation. But unlike the latter peak, Mount Rainier is much closer to the densely populated areas surrounding Puget Sound, so the danger posed is likely of a much higher order. Please don’t let this deter you from visiting this truly superb park, however, since geologists are confident that there will be ample warnings, should Mother Nature ever decide to initiate any significant volcanic activity here.

Carbon River Rainforest

Lake Louise

Box Canyon of the Cowlitz River

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Magnificent Mount Rainier

Repeated rewards

by Bob Hoelscher 17. October 2011 20:42

As one of our natural treasures that rewards repeated visits, I have visited Mount Rainier on many occasions. There are hard-to-obtain, somewhat basic group accommodations (although with incredible views) available in the park at the historic, 121-room Paradise Inn, built in 1917. 

Nevertheless, most groups will likely opt to stay in the Tacoma or Seattle areas, where there are a wide range of lodging choices available in all price ranges. A full-day excursion into the park will likely suffice as a thrilling “overview” experience for most groups, even though it is possible to take advantage of but a few of the scenic opportunities which this 368-square-mile facility has to offer in such a short time frame. 

Given that the park contains 26 glaciers covering some 35 square miles, more than 300 miles of trails, and over 140 miles of roads, the challenge to visitors attempting to “see it all” is readily apparent. 

Mount Rainier National Park is open year-round, although only the road from the west (WA 706) to the Nisqually Entrance, Longmire and Paradise is open during the winter months due to the heavy snowfall. In fact, the Paradise area, at an elevation of only 5,400 feet, annually gets an average of 126 inches of the white, fluffy stuff. 

On my most recent trip to the park in mid-July, at Paradise I had planned to take the relatively short Nisqually Vista Trail, which offers superb views of the great Nisqually Glacier. Unfortunately, I was prohibited from doing so because I wasn’t prepared to negotiate the deep snow still remaining on the trail from a much greater than average snowfall last winter. 

There is also one other caveat to remember before your group departs for a Mount Rainier day trip. If the sky is overcast and you can’t see the peak before leaving town, unless a change in the weather is anticipated during the day, you are likely to see mostly clouds and possibly no Mount Rainier at all once you reach the park proper.

Paradise Inn

Glaciers on Mount Rainier

Martha Falls

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Magnificent Mount Rainier

Snow in July

by Bob Hoelscher 17. October 2011 20:38

Although a lot of snow was still evident during my two-day July visit to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, nature provided more than enough compensation for the minor inconveniences it posed. First, the melting snows at higher elevations made the park’s countless waterfalls truly spectacular. The rushing waters of Chenuis, Ranger, Christine, Narada, and Martha Falls, as well as many others along my route, made this trip to Mount Rainier a most memorable one.

The multitudes of brightly colored “spring” wildflowers were obviously at their peak this year in mid-July, while numerous birds and small earthbound critters added to the awe-inspiring splendor. At the northeast corner of the park, I also took an incredible hike though the Carbon River Rain Forest, where ample precipitation had decorated the verdant forest floor with all shades of green.       

Of course, this park is also famous for its deep canyons, beautiful mountain lakes and dense forests of giant Douglas fir, western red cedar and western hemlock. Although I had planned for an extended picture-taking session at lovely Reflection Lake, it turned out to still be snow-covered, so I moved down the road and got some great panoramic shots overlooking Louise Lake, which is at a significantly lower elevation. 

Other sights that are also sure to be appreciated by group travelers include Stevens Canyon, plus the easy trails at the Box Canyon of the Cowlitz River and the Grove of the Patriarchs. On this trip I did not have time to make it to the Sunrise Visitor Center, which, at an elevation of 6,400 feet, is the highest point in the park accessible by vehicle, and an ideal spot from which to view Mount Rainier. Due to the snow, the road to Sunrise had just opened for the season during the previous weekend. I was reminded of another visit on a July 13th many years ago, when I was required to take a pathway cleared through the remaining ten feet (!) of snow to reach the visitor center building.  

Mount Rainier National Park is a truly magical place, so don’t miss it when you plan a trip to the Pacific Northwest!

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”. 

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at bobho52@aol.com or by calling (435) 590-1553.

Stevens Peak

Narada Falls

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Magnificent Mount Rainier

Hallowed Ground

by Brian Jewell 21. May 2010 20:28


On a Friday morning, the air around Manassas is soft and quiet. Dew drops shimmer on the green rolling hills outside of town, and all is peaceful. But it was not always so.

In July of 1861, young and inexperienced troops from the Union and Confederate armies met for the first time on the fields outside of Manassas, and engaged in a fierce battle that would shatter their illusions about the glory of war. In this, one of the early battles of the Civil War, and the first one so close to Washington and Richmond (the confederate capitol), army recruits from both sides found themselves in the middle of a baptism by fire.

Today I visited Manassas National Battlefield Park, which preserves the ground where the first and second battles of Bull Run were fought. Also known as the Battles of Bull Run, both of these encounters were victories for the South, as they beat back Union forces and sent them retreating toward Washington. For modern travelers, a visit to the park gives a remarkable perspective of what the fight meant for our country's young men, most of whom were taking their first steps into warfare.

The ground of the battlefield is scenic and peaceful, but throughout the park, a number of monuments, markers and other objects tell the story of the fighting that took place there. Visitors can see a number of cannons from the battle that have been set up on top of the hill overlooking the park. There is a large monument set up to honor the Union troops who died here, as well as a statue honoring Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, who earned his nickname during the first battle here.

For me, the most moving part of the visit was the film shown at the visitor's center, which brings the conflict into human terms by telling the stories of individual soldiers, officers and civilians from both sides. Many of the young men in both armies expected the fighting to be quick, painless and relatively easy. Most thought that the conflict would end after just one battle. After a few hours of fighting, all of the surviving soldiers walked away with their lives forever changed.


Artillery cannon in the distance at Manassas Battlefield.

A monument to Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.


A monument erected by Union veterans to honor their dead at Manassas Battlefield.

Great ideas in the District of Columbia

by Brian Jewell 20. May 2010 07:41

I've always thought that the National Parks Service was one of the greatest ideas to come out of America (you know, besides "All men are created equal," "I have a dream," "Tear down this wall," and all of the other inspirational stuff). But during my daylong visit to the National Mall in Washington, I decided that the Smithsonian Institution ranks right up there with the best cultural achievements of our country.

I'll be spending the next few days exporing Manassas and the Prince William County area of Northern Virginia. Today, though, I rode the train into Washington for a quick look at the Smithsonian and other attractions around the National Mall. Though I visited some of these places as a middle-school student years ago, returning as an adult gave me a new appreciation for just how great these museums are, and what a point of pride they should be for all Americans.

I began with a visit to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. This museum holds millions of items from our past, ranging from antique arms and armor to steam locomotives, famous musical instruments, and a host of things in between. One of the most famous is the large American flag that inspired Frances Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner" during the war of 1812. I was captivated by a wing with various exhibitions on America's presidents, which included artifacts from the White House, video interviews wiith former presidents, a gallery of first ladies' ball gowns and a special section on Abraham Lincoln, complete with one of his famous top hats.

Next, I took a stroll down the mall to the National Museum of the American Indian, the newest of the Smithsonian museums in Washington. This institution does an amazing job of telling the stories of America's diverse native peoles, from the northeastern woodlands to the desert Southwest and the icey fjords of Alaska. The artifacts and informational panels were chosen by the individual tribes and groups they represent, and the exhibits give a fascinating job of describing the past and present triumphs and struggles of indigenous people in America.

In addition to the museums, I also took time to enjoy the National Mall, spread out between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.  On the grounds of the capitol complex, I happened upon the National Botanic Garden, an attraction that I wasn't aware of. A quick trip inside revealed hundreds of plants from all parts of the world, inside a conservatory that proved a welcome relief from the bustling Mall and capitol just outside.

You could spend a week in D.C. without running out of things to do. But even a daylong trip was enough to remind me of just a few of the things I love about this country.


Julia Child's kitchen on display in at the National museum of American History.


An original Kermit the Frog puppet, on display in the pop culture gallery at the National Museum of American History.


Abraham Lincoln's top hat.


This colorful mask on display at the National Museum of the American Indian was used in tribal ceremonies in the Southwest.


One of many exotic plants cultivated at the National Botanic Garden.


Another rare flower fromthe National Botanic Garden.

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