A budget day trip to The Mountain includes fun shops, scenic walks and pie.

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Editor’s note: Got college loans to pay? Are Seattle rents pinching your pocketbook? This is the final installment of a recurring feature, $99 Road Trip, designed for anyone on a budget. We’ve taken a day trip from Seattle to see just how much fun two people can have for less than a hundred bucks.

There were no wildflowers in bloom the first time I ever visited Mount Rainier National Park. Walls of snow flanked the road to Paradise. We brought along tire chains, boots and parkas.

It was January, our first full month of living in Seattle. My husband, Tom, and I were anxious to get as close as we could to the mountain we admired from the corner of our bedroom window.

We’ve returned in winter almost every year since to cross-country ski, snowshoe or just admire the park in its snowy splendor. Sometimes we spend the night. Other times, we take a spontaneous day trip with friends or houseguests. Getting there, we have found, really is half the fun.

With sun breaks in the forecast after days of rain recently, we gassed up our all-wheel-drive Subaru and set out to see what was new. Very little, we were happy to see. Most of the mom-and-pop businesses lining the road leading into the Nisqually entrance to the park (the only entrance open in winter) have been there for years, and the small towns of Eatonville, Elbe and Ashford never seem to lose their charm.

Our day’s budget: $99, including gas, food, souvenirs, parking and entry fees for two.

Panini breakfast

We headed south on Interstate 5 at 8 a.m. for the 120-mile drive to Paradise, elevation 5,400 feet, on the south slope of Mount Rainier. Picking up Highway 167 and Highway 161 South, we saw the mountain in full view when we arrived in Eatonville around 9:30 a.m. Our first stop was the Cottage Bakery & Cafe, 212 Washington Ave. N. (cottage-bakerycafe.com).

The little yellow house feels like a cozy mountain cabin, with seating on the porch on nice days. The mother-daughter team of Alicia Nelson and Laurie Tartaglia plus assorted family members keep a glass case filled with cinnamon twists, Italian cannoli and homemade muffins and scones.

We ordered two Americanos ($2.85 each) and a plump strawberry scone ($2.55). “Better than at the (Puyallup) Fair,” Laurie promised. When we asked to share the sun-dried tomato turkey panini ($8.95), she cut a huge portion in half, served it on two plates and threw in an extra bag of chips. ($17.20 + $1.36 tax = $18.56)

We finished breakfast in time to browse through the Holly Hut, 129 Washington Ave., where the owner, Nancy Iams, describes her inventory as an eclectic mix of “garden décor and funky stuff,” including tea cards, made with real tea bags, and bags of sea-salt chocolates in the shape of alligators. A cache of brightly colored planter rocks caught my eye. (14 rocks for $2 + 16 cents tax = $2.16).

Next door is the Rusty Snowflake Fabric Library, 135 Washington, where handmade coasters sell for $2.50 (+ 20 cents tax = $2.70). Across the street at Blackstar Feed, 128 Washington (blackstarfeed.com), we found bars of Stringtown Farms’ hempseed oil soap, scented with rosemary and lavender, for $4.50 (+ 35 cents tax = $.4.85).

Running total for the day so far: $28.27.

The Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park is a playground for snowshoers and backcountry skiers when snow piles up and the sun comes out.  (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times archive)
The Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park is a playground for snowshoers and backcountry skiers when snow piles up and the sun comes out. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times archive)

The road to Mount Rainier

Heading away from Eatonville toward Mount Rainier, the two-lane Alder Cutoff Road East joins Highway 7 at Alder Lake. From where Highway 7 meets Highway 706 in Elbe, it’s 14 miles to the park entrance.

 

Closed for the winter but worth a stop in warmer weather is quirky Scaleburgers, a roadside burger stand inside a former state weigh station. Just east of Elbe in Ashford, Dan Klennert’sRecycled Spirits of Iron (22410 SR 706; danielklennert.com) is officially open May-October, but other times visitors are welcome to park outside the gate and walk around. This is a massive outdoor sculpture park filled with life-size figures of animals and other objects Klennert fashions from pieces of old machinery and scrap metals. There’s no charge, but Klennert accepts donations.

Whittaker Mountaineering (30027 SR 706, whittakermountaineering.com) rents snowshoes and other winter gear. We like to make a stop at the cafe next door where a mini-museum celebrates the history of climbing on Mount Rainier and local mountaineering twins Jim and Lou Whittaker. There’s an electric fireplace inside, but it was warm enough to sip our coffee on the deck ($2.50 for two cups + 20 cents tax = $2.70). If you’re a gardener who composts, bring a container and dip into a box on the porch labeled “free coffee grounds.”

Peter Riewald runs the rental shop at Whittaker Mountaineering, which rents tire chains, cross-country gear and of course, snowshoes.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Peter Riewald runs the rental shop at Whittaker Mountaineering, which rents tire chains, cross-country gear and of course, snowshoes. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Just outside the park entrance is Alpine Gallery & Gifts, 37918 SR 706, a business Jim and Sandra Brand have run out of their log cabin home for 30 years. Watch for smoke pouring out of the chimney and a display of carved wooden bears and chain-saw art outside. Sandra paints landscape scenes on everything from frying pans to saw blades. Jim, a logger for more than 40 years, carves in a shop out back, recently modified so he can work from a wheelchair.

A cancer survivor with a sense of humor, he loves entertaining customers with inexpensive little “inventions,” such as the Quarter Pounder, a contraption that brings a little wooden hammer down on a real quarter. One of these, plus a “Herd Starter Kit,’’ a package of “cow’’ seeds — four lima beans painted white with black spots — came to $2.50 (+ 20 cents tax = $2.70).

This way to Paradise

The biggest expense of a one-day excursion to Mount Rainier is the national park entry fee of $25 per car.

Running total: $58.67.

All cars — even all-wheel-drive vehicles — are required to carry tire chains. Make sure you have those, and check on road conditions before leaving home. The road to Paradise, closed at night in winter, sometimes opens late if snow removal takes longer than expected.

A reliable first stop is Longmire (elevation 2,700 feet), about 8.5 miles from the park entrance, where the National Park Inn, ranger station, a small museum and general store are open year-round.

Bring or rent snowshoes (available in the general store) to walk along the Trail of the Shadows, a flat, three-quarter-mile loop that wends past the former location of the Longmire Springs Hotel opened in 1890 by explorer James Longmire.

The road to Paradise was open and clear for our visit, and the upper parking lot near the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center was full by midday. A designated snowplay area is open to sledders and tubers typically from late December to mid-March, depending on snowpack, and there are trails for snowshoers and skiers. Ranger-guided snowshoe walks are scheduled Dec. 23-March 26. A donation of $5 is suggested, but not required, and includes snowshoes.

Still full from our panini breakfast in Eatonville, we refilled water bottles in the visitor center and snacked on our chips as we took in full-on views of the mountain along the 1.2-mile Nisqually Vista trail.

With the goal of descending from Paradise before dark, we arrived back in Ashford around 4:30 p.m. and headed for an early dinner at the Copper Creek Inn, a cozy roadhouse two miles west of the park entrance on Highway 706 (coppercreekinn.com).

It’s a rare customer who doesn’t order a wedge of the inn’s signature homemade wild blackberry pie. We split a slice ($5.99) along with a veggie burger and fries ($9.99) and two iced teas ($4).(Total: $19.98 + $1.58 tax = $21.56).

Calculating our mileage at 220 miles round-trip from our house in Seattle, divided by 32 mpg (based on a Subaru Forester, one of Seattle’s best-selling cars), and gas at $2.75 per gallon, the metro area’s average price on the day we traveled, our fuel cost was $18.90.

Grand total for the day’s outing for two = $99.13, plus tips where appropriate.

IF YOU GO

Winter at Mount Rainier

Most of Mount Rainier National Park’s roads are closed for winter. The road from the Nisqually entrance to Longmire is open year-round, but may close during extreme weather. During the winter season the road between Longmire and Paradise closes nightly, though it may also remain closed during the day due to extreme weather or high avalanche danger. Call the park for current road conditions at 360-569-2211 or check MountRainierNPS on Twitter for road updates and opening/closing status of the Longmire gate.
All vehicles entering the park are required to carry tire chains. For more information, see nps.gov/mora, and click on “Winter at Mount Rainier.”

Guided snowshoe walks

Rangers offer two-hour walks at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, Dec. 23-March 26, with daily walks scheduled Dec. 23-Jan 2. Register one hour in advance (no phone registration) at the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. A $5 donation is suggested but not required. Information at st.news/2hlrj8Y or 360-569-6575.

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Discretionary tips and donations aren’t included in our tally. Carry extra cash for the tip or donation jar.

Spending the night

Want to make it more than a day trip? Lodging options include:
The National Park Inn at Longmire has rooms with and without private bath, starting at $121/night. mtrainierguestservices.com.
• See visitrainier.com or mt-rainier.com for where to stay outside the park. For ideas about cozy cabins: st.news/2hb7n8w.
Whittaker’s Bunkhouse offers simple rooms with private bath starting at $65. whittakersbunkhouse.com.

More information

nps.gov/mora and visitrainier.com