Crystal Mountain Resort offers families great kid-friendly summer activities, from camping to hiking to riding the new Mt. Rainier Gondola. Completed in January 2011 and open year-round, the gondola will whisk you and your family 2,456 vertical feet, up to the 6,872 ft. summit of Crystal Mountain. There you can lunch, hike, and explore while enjoying panoramic views of Mt. Rainier and the surrounding Cascade Range.
Located on the eastern flank of Mt. Rainier, Crystal Mountain Resort is just off SR 410, six miles from the White River entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park. From SR 410, turn onto Crystal Mountain Boulevard and wind up six miles to Crystal Mountain Resort's 4,440 foot base. If possible, park in the large upper parking lot, just steps away from the resort's main lodge and the Mt. Rainier Gondola.
The gondola operates year-round, with summer hours usually 10am to 5pm daily, weather permitting. The gondola is also open for limited evening hours on Fridays and Saturdays, depending on dining times at the Summit House. The scenic ride up to the summit is just under ten minutes and offers expansive views in all directions.
After purchasing our tickets from the kiosk, my husband Erik, our two-year-old son Finn and I hop on board the gondola's next available cabin. Each one is bright red, round and spacious, with wide windows. The gondola usually runs 23 individual cabins, with the next one arriving every 53 seconds. As we ascend we marvel at the rolling grassy hills and carpets of colorful wildflowers.
At the top, disembark from the gondola and pause for a moment to enjoy the wide-angle view of Mt. Rainier's 14,410 ft. summit and the Cascade Range's surrounding peaks and glaciers. After taking in the awesome views, you can join one of the Forest Ranger-guided interpretive hikes around the nearby alpine landscape. Weather permitting, the hikes are offered in the summer, Wednesday through Sunday, and begin promptly at 11am and 1pm. All ages are welcome.
With Finn secure in his bright blue backpack carrier, Erik and I follow the ranger and five other hikers down the trail during our late morning interpretive hike. The hike is short and easy, the ranger stopping often to tell us about the wildlife, geology, and human history of Crystal Mountain, Mt. Rainier National Park, and the surrounding areas. We are fascinated to learn about the six volcanoes visible from here on clear days.
After the hike, we walk the gravel path to the Summit House for a hearty lunch of juicy burgers, French fries, and cold beverages. The Summit House's summer hours are 11am to 4pm, with limited evening hours on dinner nights. For more information or to book reservations, see the Summit House's webpage.
Originally built in 1964 as a cafeteria for skiers, the structure was renovated in 2004 into a fine-dining establishment showcasing heavy wood beams and wide windows. Reservations are recommended but walk-ins are welcome, with space subject to availability. In the summer, lounge chairs are set out in front of the windows so that patrons can enjoy front row views of the mountains.
Looking for something more casual with Mt. Rainier for company? Try the new outdoor patio, which also offers full-service dining. Tables are available on a first-come, first served basis. Or pack your own picnic lunch to enjoy at one of several large picnic tables scattered nearby.
After lunch, Erik, Finn, and I hit the trails once more. It's late afternoon by the time we take the gondola back down the mountain, tired but happy as we watch Mt. Rainier recede into the distance.
When you go:
Accommodations: Crystal Mountain Resort (www.crystalmountainresort.com) offers several lodging options, including the Alpine Inn. Another great option not far away is the charming and family-friendly Alta Crystal Resort, located at the bottom of Crystal Mountain Blvd and off SR 410.
From mid-June to mid-September, Summit House Restaurant s open daily for lunch, with limited dinner hours. Reservations are highly recommended. Or take the gondola back down to the Bavarian-themed Alpine Inn, located right next to the upper parking lot. The restaurant is open daily year-round for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Check the website for specific days and times.
- Carrie Uffindell