Map Quest

A Road Trip That Leads to Rainier

Cider, squash, and bighorn sheep: Take a drive through the rural highways that lead to Mount Rainier National Park.

By Allison Williams March 14, 2022 Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Levi Hastings

While Mount Rainier National Park is subject to variable weather and snow far into the summer, the highways just outside the park boundaries hold a bevy of easy-to-access attractions.

Start: State Route 161, 18 miles south of Puyallup
End: State Route 706, Ashford
25 miles 

Start with a Wild Moose Chase

Like Noah’s Ark for the western Cascades, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park is an animal collective tucked into 725 rural acres, a kind of country cousin to Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. The roster here ranges from cougar and bobcat to otters and bears—both black and grizzly varieties.

In the free-roaming area, moose, bison, elk, and bighorn sheep wander a forested enclosure so large visitors must drive through their territory (and heads up, May is baby animal season). Brand-new electric trams debut there this year, the environmentally friendly system all the more welcome for how quietly they can putter by wildlife.

Pause to Peruse Produce

As with the best roadside stands, the directions to the Produce Palace include folksy instructions like “look behind Barney’s Corner,” a gas station at the intersection of two rural thoroughfares north of Eatonville. But inside the tent that opens seven days a week in the beginning of April, this shop conveys serious business: stacks of squash, bagged berries, heads of lettuce—all from the Northwest. Plus, pantry fillers like spices, seasonings, locally made barbecue sauce and honey. Spring highlights include Yakima asparagus, which usually appears soon after the stand opens for the season.

Break for Brews and Bites

Something new churns in downtown Eatonville: a water wheel some 20 feet high, built of re-claimed wood the owner found around his own property. The Mill Haus Cider Company brings its locally made cider and a surprisingly broad food menu to the area’s biggest downtown, a much-welcomed hangout made up of a cabin-like restaurant and several heated outdoor patios.

Apples come from Central and Eastern Washington, and the signature dry Haus Cider has already seen success in regional competitions. From the kitchen come burnt-end sliders, the pork ends soaked in spicy-sweet gochujang sauce and a thick slaw, and other divinely messy finger food. As befits the kind of place that lets you linger by the firepit, the cidery hosts live music most nights of the week.

Finish at Mountain Central

The first family of Washington mountain climbing—Lou and Jim Whittaker are certified legends—claims a whole compound near the Nisqually gate into Mount Rainier National Park. Over here a hotel and bunkhouse, over there a coffee shop. One building rents snowshoes and tire chains to visitors exploring a landscape that stays largely snow-covered through mid-summer. Together, they’re Rainier Basecamp. 

The mostly outdoors bar and grill reopens for the season in April to sling beer and pizza. Cheery gear shop Whittaker Mountaineering stocks clothing designed by the very guides who lead alpine climbs, like a hooded sun shirt ideal for blocking the blinding rays that bounce off Rainier’s icy glaciers. 

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