Crystal Mountain with Kids in Summer

Recently, my family went for a long weekend to Mt. Rainier and Crystal Mountain. Here’s what we found ~

Gondola rides at Crystal Mountain

A cherry-red gondola takes you to the top of Crystal Mountain and a viewpoint. The gondolas seat six comfortably, but your family probably won’t have to share, even if there are only three of you. The gondolas arrive quickly and frequently. It’s not cheap ($20/adult r/t), but kids under age 10 are only $5 r/t.

Gondola ride up Crystal Mountain

Gondola ride up Crystal Mountain

On the 10-12 minute ride straight up the mountain, look sidelong for eagles, blue jays and red-tailed hawks as they fly from fir to cedar or chase prey, and look down on pockets of lupine and magenta paintbrush that grow in tidy bunches. The diversity and abundance of wildlife is a kid’s dream — other mountain denizens include black bears, Roosevelt elk, marmots, bobcats and blacktail deer.

Even on a windy day, the gondola doesn’t rock…much. Just a little, enough to get a tiny thrill.

Once the gondola delivers you to Crystal’s peak, sit back in one of the forest-green lawn chairs and enjoy views of Mt. Rainier’s glaciers  and clusters of smaller mountains, including Mt. Shuksan and the adorable Sourdough Mountain. Or watch brides and grooms gettin’ hitched on the outdoor patio.

Wedding viewpoint at Crystal Mountain

Wedding Viewpoint at Crystal Mountain Resort

Eating at Crystal Mountain with Kids

Located on the top of Crystal Mountain, Summit House  is Washington’s highest-elevation restaurant (it’s at 6,872 feet, to be exact) with almost 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. With a claim like that, I expected them to rest on their lofty laurels and serve fairly standard Food Service of America food (bleh). Instead, my waiter brought free-range chicken, fresh, sweet heirloom tomatoes. The potatoes were so well cooked that my 7-year-old stole them from me. Even the sausage (Uli’s Famous Sausage, from the Seattle Pike Place Market) and my daughter’s hamburger were good here.

Eating with kids at Summit House at Crystal Mountain Resort

Summit House at Crystal Mountain

Overhead, there are antler ceiling lights; outdoors, amazing views on the flower-box-rimmed outdoor patio (bring coat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and maybe all three). To keep the kids entertained, watch for the random chipmunk who might attempt to snatch a crumb (but don’t feed the critters — it’s not good for them). Children’s meals are available, but it will still run you about $8 for a burger or noodles. I suggest splitting one of the generously sized adult meals.

I looked at the Yelp reviews and it seems not everyone has had such a positive experience. I went at a quieter time of day (no wait for a table) and food was delivered promptly, at the right temperature. So I don’t know. Your altitude (and attitude) may vary, but Summit’s lunch was the best meal of my weekend.

For more casual grub, peer into cave-like The Snorting Elk Cellar. Located at the mountain’s base, Snorting Elk doesn’t boast the same alpine views but it’s a bit cheaper, and serves sandwiches, pizza and hot dogs for kids.

Activities at Crystal Mountain with Kids

Relaxing after hiking paths at Crystal Mountain

Post-Hike Relaxation at Crystal Mountain Resort

In summer, downhill ski runs become hiking trails suited to various abilities. Here is Crystal Mountain Resort’s hiking paths in PDF form; many of the hikes take at least 90 minutes though, so prepare for variable weather and wear sturdy shoes (the usual). Also, keep a tight rein on antsy or impulsive toddlers — sharp drop-offs  abound.

Forest Service Ranger-guided walks take place Thursday through Sunday.

Complimentary hiking poles for Crystal Mountain

Complimentary hiking poles for Crystal Mountain

Play disc golf with bigger kids — the path is free, so you can either bring your own discs or purchase them at Snorting Elk Cellar or one of the local shops. Read more about the sport of disc golf at the Disc Golf Association.

From here, it’s a short drive to Mt. Rainier. A quick word of note — cell phone service is available at the resort, but once you drive or hike outside the resort, cell phone coverage is spotty or nonexistent. Plan accordingly, make sure your car is well-fueled and you have everything you need.

If you’d like to read more staying and hiking at Crystal Mountain, check out Northwest Tripfinder’s post on Mt. Rainier North and Three Day Hikes.

7 Don’t-Miss Oregon & Washington National Parks

Painted Hills, Oregon

Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds

Desert sands, old-growth forests, mountain glaciers, spooky caves, dino bones and pig wars. There, I’ve summed up the National Parks for you — but your kids need to see these sights for themselves. Here are seven don’t-miss National Parks in Washington and Oregon, in honor of National Park Week. Can you visit all the parks by the time your offspring turn 18?
  1. John Day Fossil Beds (Oregon). Can you imagine dry Eastern Oregon covered with rainforest? It was in prehistoric times. Three separate land areas – or “units” as the NPS calls them – make up the John Day Fossil Beds, a window into the past. Dino bones are still being uncovered in this area, so keep an eye on the red, gold and black  soils of the Painted Hills. The Sheep Rock Unit offers the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, where you can touch (not taste!) dinosaur fossils or ask someone on staff to I.D. one of your fossils.
  2. Mount Rainier National Park (Washington). Located only 50 miles southeast of Seattle, Mt. Rainier sits like a goddess above 235,625 acres of National Park. Look for black bears while hiking. Even if you don’t spot a bear, you’ll probably see one of over 56 mammal species while out and about. Catch gorgeous views of windswept mountains and wildflower meadows at the Paradise location and spend the night at the 1916 Paradise Inn. Or camp — we loved the family-friendly campground at Cougar Rock, which featured sing-a-long and storytelling during our stay.
  3. North Cascades National Park (Washington). You want drama? This is where you’ll find it. Knife-sharp peaks surround the winding Highway 20, which takes you past emerald-green and sapphire-blue lakes. Animals howl, screech and huff at night in the park’s wilderness area. This park’s six visitor info centers also offers Junior Ranger activity booklets for four different age groups — even preschoolers can get a ranger badge.
  4. Oregon Caves National Monument (Oregon). These hardcore, 90-minute cave tours are for big kids only – children must be over 42 inches tall (and not afraid of dark caves, of course) to climb stairs, sidle through passageways and avoid steep drops. Learn about bats and geology as you wind past otherworldly stalactites and stalagmites – and enjoy some creepy fun, as well.
  5. San Juan Island National Historic Park (Washington). Don’t let your preteen think that history’s a bore. Come here to learn how Washington State’s history is also a little weird. The Brits and the Yanks almost went to war over a dead pig. Visit the American Camp and the British Camp – only 13 miles apart – to consider the hair-trigger tempers of 1859. If odd history doesn’t interest you, spotting orcas from the American Camp probably will.
  6. Olympic National Park (Washington).  The whole park’s diversity is fascinating, featuring rocky tidepools, a jumble of mountains and plenty of deer sightings.  But it’s the Hoh Rain Forest that your kids will remember forever. Trees dripping with moss and water, giant mushrooms blooming on the (pine) needle-covered ground, and the scent and heaviness of a true Pacific rainforest. Head to the Hoh!
  7. Crater Lake (Oregon). I first came here at age 8, and I’ve never forgotten the visuals of the United States’ deepest lake, surrounded by cliffs and firs. And look — a small island pops out of Kodachrome-blue water, looking like a giant’s knee in the bathtub. Cool facts for your 8-year-old kid: that island is called Phantom Ship, and look for “Old Man,” a hemlock log that’s been floating upright in the lake for over 100 years.

Photo at right: North Cascades National Park

Do you have a favorite NW National Park?