Crystal Mountain – Summer
In winter, Crystal Mountain is our home ski area; you can read about that in another post. A few years ago they built a top-to-bottom gondola, which didn’t open any new skiing terrain but made it a lot easier to transport non-skiers to the top of the mountain. Skiing was available until July this year, but now (early September) the snow is almost entirely gone. Sightseeing and hiking help keep the mountain busy during the off-season.
In less than 10 minutes, the gondola rises from the parking lot, elevation 4,500 ft., to the top at ~6,900 ft. To my knowledge, you can’t go anywhere higher than this in Washington state without some physical exertion. Anyone can ride the gondola, have lunch, and enjoy the sweeping views; the crowd at the top spanned all age groups and fitness levels. The majority of them didn’t seem interested in wandering far from the gondola and restaurant, which didn’t bother us as we departed for a hike.
This was the first time I’d been to Crystal without snow on the ground, but I was prepared for what we found: a dusty, rocky place criss-crossed with various trails and dirt access roads. The maze of options allows you to tailor your hiking experience to your mood that day. It’s not exactly a pristine wilderness, but the hiking was quite pleasant. It’s rare to be able to begin your hike in a sub-alpine zone of stunted trees, open meadows, and talus slopes; usually you’ve got to work to get to places like this. The convenience makes Crystal a nice hiking option for days when you’re not feeling overly ambitious.
Another bonus is the Summit House restaurant, right at the top of the gondola, which has a gorgeous patio and very good food (the focus is on local, seasonal ingredients). The vibe is reminiscent of the chalets and inns you find sprinkled around the alpine in Switzerland or Austria. Dogs are welcome, too, which is great for us.
Despite the food and the hiking options, my impression is that most people go there solely to ogle the scenery. On a clear day, it’s certainly worth it: Mount Rainier and it’s glacier-carved valleys dominate the view, but Mt. Adams, Mount St. Helens, the Olympics, and even Mt. Baker are visible. You’re perched right along the spine of the central Cascades, so hundreds of less prominent peaks stretch in every direction.
We had a little time left at the end of the day, so we drove into Mount Rainier National Park to the White River campground. I love the gorgeous, 100-mile-plus views at the top of Crystal Mountain, and I strongly recommend going there yourself. But, personally, I think I actually prefer this view of Rainier: standing on foot logs, the river rushing by underneath, watching new clouds forming as the wind whips over a knife-edge ridge. “The Mountain” looms 10,000 feet above, taking up what seems like half the sky. It’s a place of tremendous contrasts: earth and sky, ice and trees, peace and power, that produces feelings of both humility and inspiration.
Our day’s entire picture album is here.
Info: Crystal Mountain is ~2 hours from Seattle. Rides on the gondola are $20 for adults, dogs are allowed. Reservations are encouraged for lunch at the Summit House on sunny weekends. The White River campground is 20 minutes past Crystal; there’s an entrance fee to get into the National Park.