Feb 13, 2022

Five stops worth a detour on a drive to Washington's Mount Rainier in winter


The taproom at Mill Haus Cider in Eatonville

Enjoy a soak in a Ukrainian-style, wood-fired hot tub, then feast on a steaming bowl of borscht or a platter of sour cherry dumplings.

Wander through a gallery where the work of Northwest artists fills a cheerful space where the state used to park snow plows.

Explore an outdoor sculpture park strewn with whimsical pieces fashioned from scrap iron. Then stop to learn a bit about Western native tribal traditions before ending the day with a glass of chilled cider and a platter of smoked chicken sliders. 

All this and more can be sampled along the road to Mount Rainier National Park in winter, a time when campgrounds and roads clogged with tourists give way to a hardy few who come to enjoy the snow.

No matter what time of year, the drive from Seattle (about two hours) is part of the reason for making the trip. The little rural towns of Eatonville, Elbe and Ashford are filled with quirky mom-and-pop businesses. Some close or have reduced hours in winter, so it's always best to double-check hours.

Here are five worth a detour:

Dan and Jay's Field of Dreams

No matter what your route from Seattle, you'll end up approaching the Nisqually park entrance (the only one open in winter) from the town of Elbe at the junction of Washington State Routes 7 and 706 - the Mountain Highway.

Three miles east of the Hobo Inn, with lodging in recycled caboose cars, is the Recycled Spirts of Iron & Driftwood sculpture park open year-round to the public.

Jay Bechtold and his motorcycle made from scrap metal

For many years, artist and former Seattle mechanic Dan Klennert, 71, invited visitors to wander through his property filled with life-size horses, locomotives, dinosaurs and other figures fashioned from scrap iron, car parts and found objects.

With his move to Arizona in the colder months, son-in-law Jay Bechtold, 50, took over, and began work on new projects, as well as continuing to collaborate with Klennert when he's in town.

"I see anything with rust on it, and get excited," Bechtold said, leading a visitor through their "Field of Dreams," bins and bins overflowing with metal parts including 10,000 horseshoes. Donations often appear in his driveway unannounced.

"We start with picking out one piece of metal, and build the whole project around that one piece," he said. The centerpiece of a 14-foot-long motorcycle was a Chevy hub cap to which he added logger chains, a wheel from a steam tractor and some upside down metal buckets.

his spring's project will be a 40-foot-tall Sasquatch. 

Recycled Spirits of Iron & Driftwood,  22410 Washington 706. Open daily. 

Mountain art and history

Six miles east of Recycled Spirits is the Ashford Creek Gallery where owners Jana Gardiner   and Rick Johnson turned a former state storage shed for snowplows into a shop, museum and bookstore dedicated to the work of Northwest artists, photographers and authors.

"Everything here is about Mount Rainier," said Johnson, a photographer and former park ranger. Using glazes made of silt from the Nisqually River, he finishes the pots and dinnerware that Gardiner hand-throws and decorates with designs of flowers that grow wild on the mountain.

Rick Johnson glazes a pot at Ashford Creek Gallery

Contemporary works for for sale include postcards made from his color photographs of Mount Rainier scenes, and the work of  other local artists who craft pottery, glass ware, woodcarvings and weavings. 

Scattered throughout the gallery is a trove of historical information about the park. Near the entrance is a glass case displaying Johnson's collection of post cards, some depicting scenes from 100 years ago (The park was established in 1899). Next to it is a display dedicated to Dee Molenaar, CQ an artist, park ranger, mountain guide and author of "The Challenge of Rainier" considered the definitive work on the mountain's climbing history.

Upstairs is a small museum displaying the work of well-known Washington State artists including a section dedicated to the art and stories of local Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.

Ashford Creek Gallery  Winter hours: Saturday and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Other days by chance or by appointment. 

Detour to Ukraine

Anyone who visited Mount Rainier in the 1970s and 80s might remember Moore Family Mountain Crafts, a sprawling compound, five miles from the park entrance where you could see people making pottery, painting and sculpting. 

Fast-forward a few decades to find a Ukrainian restaurant and bakery on the site, along with a traditional Ukrainian wood-fired hot tub.

Anatoliy Zaika and his Ukrainian hot tub

Anatoliy Zaika, who moved to the United States 18 years ago, first saw the idea on a YouTube video. "I started dreaming. I wanted to take this idea to America," he recalled.

Later, when he began looking for land with a view, "the Realtor said to me, 'I found you a good piece of land but it comes with a hotel and restaurant.' "

Zaika and his wife, Maria,  owners of the Ukrainian Kusher grocery and bakery in nearby Fife, renamed the complex Paradise Village. They renovated 12 rooms, and began introducing guests and locals to the cuisine of Eastern Europe. The bakery sells homemade bread and honey cakes made from honey produced by their own bees. On the restaurant menu are traditional dishes such as Ukrainian borscht and Polish dumpling soup.

A Ukrainian restaurant and bakery near Mount Rainier 

Open to the public by reservation ($95 for the first hour) is the "Cannibal" CQ hot tub, a 5,000-pound cast iron kettle Zaika had shipped from Ukraine. It sits on a rock pavilion above an open fire. 

He describes the experience as "kind of like being boiled in a hot soup, but it is an invigorating hot soup that is good for the skin." 

Paradise Village  Winter restaurant hours: Sun-Thu: 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. Fri-Sat: 9 a.m.- 8 p.m.  

Tribal trading post  

A return trip to Seattle via Highway 161 north, or the scenic Alder Cutoff Road E. takes visitors through Eatonville. 

Time your trip to arrive in the late afternoon. Make an appointment to browse through Four Winds gallery's collection of Western tribal arts and crafts, then have dinner at the new Mill Haus Cider Co. taproom.

Both stops provide an antidote to what some felt was a skewed vision of their town in a recent Washington Post article on the far-right movement's inroad in rural areas.

David Craig with a Hopi feast bowl 

Four Winds owner David Craig, a Chippewa, offers insights into Navajo, Pueblo, Alaskan and Pacific Northwest native peoples' culture with his collection of baskets, handmade drums, jewelry and artifacts supplied by artists or gathered by Craig and his family on tribal gatherings. 

 "It's kind of like a trading post," he said. People bring or send things for him to sell in the one-room shop he opened in 2005. 

On display is much of his own work including watercolors,  sculptures made from elk hides and elk and buffalo hide healing drums featured in the 2022 Northern Plains Reservation Aid calendar.

Four Winds gallery Winter hours: Open by appointment during Covid.   

Cider stop

With its waterwheel, running steams, picnic tables and outdoor fire pit, Mill Haus Cider's new Eatonville indoor-outdoor tap room looks as if it was transported from a European mountain village.

Mill Haus Cider in Eatonville

Customers sip cider and snack on house-smoked sliders in heated outdoor nooks, or inside a cozy pub next to a glowing gas fire place.  

A community gathering spot is what Eatonville owners Steve Schmidt,his son, Caleb,  and their business partners Nick and Justin Baublits envisioned when they decided to expand their five-year-old cider company.

"I just kind of felt the town deserved something like this," said Schmidt. They opened the complex in November on land that sat vacant for 40 years.

 Mill Haus had been selling its alcoholic European-style ciders in grocery stores and bottle shops. Now six are on tap, including a ginger-lemongrass, blood orange and apricot-peach, along with a menu of gourmet bar snacks created by local chef George Moore.

There's a brie and apple flatbread and street tacos filled with pork and chicken smoked on a back patio surrounded by 75,000 pounds of rocks trucked in to create pathways and streams.

Outdoor ambience at Mill Haus Cider

"The whole place was designed around an 80-year-old apple tree," say Schmidt, a glass blower with a degree in zoology who settled on a career in construction. 

The apple tree still stands. Mill Haus uses juices to make its ciders, but plans are to eventually put the tree to use once it installs a cider press.

Mill Haus Cider Winter hours: Wednesday, 4- 8 p.m., Thursday-Friday, 4-9 p.m., Saturday, noon-9 p.m., Sunday noon-7 p.m.  

If you go:

Check here for information on winter activities at Mount Rainier National Park. 

The road between the Nisqually entrance and the National Park Inn and ranger station at Longmire is usually open. The road to Paradise is closed each day until it can be safely plowed. Check road conditions on Twitter at @MountRainierNPS.

The National Park Inn at Longmire

The National Park Inn is open as is a general store. The Paradise Inn is closed for the season. 

All vehicles, including 4WD and AWD vehicles, must carry tire chains from Nov. 1- May 1. 

Check here for visitor and lodging information. 

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