The Road to Mount Rainier: Getting There is Half the Fun

Dan Klennert at his Recycled Spirits of Iron

Climb aboard a vintage steam train as it chugs through the foothills of Mount Rainer.

Sleep in a treehouse, a "beach" cabin with a floor covered in sand or a bright yellow caboose.

Lunch on a "Scale Burger" prepared inside a former roadside weigh station.

Getting there really is half the fun for those who take the time to stop along the Road to Paradise, a 14-mile stretch of two-lane highway leading to the entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Here's my report for NBC and the Portland Oregonian.

Glacier-fed lakes, hiking trails and fields of wildflowers reward summer visitors who continue another 17 miles to the Paradise visitor center, elevation 5,400 feet.

Down below, the wonders are man-made, the work of artists and entrepreneurs who depend on the mountain for their livelihood.

The journey begins in the blink-or-you'll-miss-it the town of Elbe at the junction of Washington State Routes 7 and 706.

First stop: Scale Burgers, 54106 Mountain Highway East (Route 706).

Scale Burgers

Cora Adams, hair pulled back in a waistlong braid and American-flag bandanna, can be found most days working the grill inside a 9-by-11-foot former Washington State weigh station.

She and her husband, Gayle, first used the little green and white building to weigh logging trucks that stopped at their gas station. Later, they turned the building into a takeout burger bar, specializing in thick shakes and huge burgers with names such as "Overload' and "Legal Limit."

Outdoor seating is simple -- green picnic tables and old truck tires. Adams credits their success with "being on the right side of the road," meaning many of her customers are hungry hikers or skiers traveling home on their way back from Mount Rainier.

Railroads played an important role during Washington State's logging heydays.
Sightseeing trains pulled by restored steam locomotives take visitors back in time on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, the longest continuously operating steam train railroad in the Pacific Northwest.

Tim Daubert, an engineer for the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad

The engines pull passenger cars along seven miles of reclaimed track, rocking and rolling through forests and over wooden trestles to the town of Mineral, where volunteers have opened a new museum filled with historic logging and railroad equipment.

Next door to the railroad depot is a collection of vintage railcars and cabooses, home to the Mount Rainier Railroad Dining Company; Pizza Express, a takeout pizza restaurant; and the Hobo Inn at 54106 Mountain Highway East ( Prices start at $115 per night for refurbished cabooses furnished with jetted tubs, kitchens, bathrooms and double beds.

Three miles east of Elbe, artist and former Seattle mechanic Dan Klennert, 62, invites visitors to wander through his Recycled Spirits of Iron,  an outdoor sculpture park filled with life-size horses, locomotives, dinosaurs and other figures fashioned from scrap iron, car parts and found objects.

The park is free, but Klennert accepts donations in canisters marked "Democrat," "Republican" and "Independent."

Among the 50 pieces on display is a 17-foot-tall giraffe with hoofs made from the teeth of a backhoe and horns fashioned from the drive line of a Model A. An appaloosa stud has a backside fashioned from horseshoes, feet made from the tops of oxygen tanks and hair from the brushes of a street sweeper.

Klennert can usually be found working in his studio or his "Field of Dreams," a junkyard filled with rusty mattress springs, engine valves and salvaged parts. His pieces sell for thousands of dollars to individuals and commercial clients including a local McDonald's.

Unique among the many cabins, B&Bs and other types of lodging surrounding Mount Rainier is Wellspring, four miles from the park's Nisqually entrance at 54922 Kernahan Road East.

Owner Sunny Thompson started Wellspring 30 years ago as a spa with a single hot tub for rent by the hour. Over the years, she added cabins, a yurt and walking trails on 10 acres of pristine forestland.

Wellspring's "Beach'' Cabin

Stop by for a quick soak or massage, or spend the night inside a log cabin decked out with river-rock fireplace, a treehouse built for two, or a tropical-themed canvas-walled tent furnished with a water bed, faux palm trees and floor made of sand. 

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