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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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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