One of the most enthralling aspects of Washington state – besides its snow-capped mountain vistas, panoramic ocean views, arid desert plains, and ancient lakes, rivers and forests – is the fact that there is a unique and wonderful history attached to each one. Nowhere is that arguably more evident than in the southwestern foothills of Mount Rainier.
On the surface, an affordable train ride through the woods (with or without children) sounds like a very pleasant afternoon…and it is, rain or shine. But throw in the experience of a historic logging and railroad museum visit, a barbecue dinner, a two-man country band, and some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet and you’ve got yourself a memory that will last a lifetime.
The nonprofit Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad & Museum heritage experience is a two-hour plunge into the state’s locomotive and logging past. The excursion begins in Elbe, WA, where the silt of the Nisqually River empties into the southern tip of Alder Lake (sidenote: I still think they meant to spell Elbe, “Ebel,” but I may be biased). Plenty of parking is available for only $2 near the train depot and gift shop.
The time waiting for the train’s arrival can be spent observing nearby historic rail cars (that have been repurposed as a restaurant, tavern and even a motel), enjoying the views of Alder Lake or appreciating Elbe’s historic church. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Little White Church of Elbe was built in 1906 and reflects the Evangelical Lutheran heritage of Elbe’s earliest German settlers. In fact, lettered prominently on the landmark are the words “Ev. Luth. KIRCHE,” which is German for “church.”
The four-foot iron cross adorning the steeple – which still contains the original church bell – was forged by the town’s first blacksmith. Worship services are given periodically and include the original altar, elevated pulpit and hand-carved pews. Even the original Farrand & Votey bellows organ is still used as offerings are taken with the traditional klingelbeutel (a red velvet bag with a small bell).
Once aboard your choice of historic open-air or windowed rail cars, passengers are treated to a scenic, leisurely ride through the forested foothills between Elbe and Mineral, WA, where the museum awaits. Crossing the Nisqually River and a handful of creeks atop both wooden and steel railroad trestles, riders are greeted by spectacular vistas.
Before and during the ride, volunteer employees in engineer bibs or stationmaster attire roam the coaches to punch holes in souvenir tickets or educate guests about the history of the train, the industry or the mountain itself. They’re a delight to listen to and seem to truly enjoy themselves.
After a 40-minute ride full of intoxicating forest sights and smells, the locomotive arrives at the station in Mineral, where the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad and Museum stands waiting. As with most museums, it’s a fascinating visual and tactile journey through a bygone era and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in history, trains, logging, or the state of Washington (or all four, like yours truly)!
Some of the more interesting points to see are the Satsop Railroad engine, in which kids and adults alike can climb inside and ring the bell to announce the train’s imaginary arrival, the mammoth antique logging equipment including a choker hoisting a tree about six feet in diameter, and the old Camp 6 logging display, recently relocated from Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park.
A tip for visitors: you only get about 30-40 minutes in Mineral and if you purchased the barbecue dinner package, the ride home will be leaving on time whether you’re finished eating or not. Walk all the way through the museum buildings to the picnic area on the opposite side to get your meal first. Listen to the simple two-piece folk band (which appear to be a couple of local high school kids, but they’re very talented and entertaining) and enjoy the chicken, rolls, unbeatable beans, and some of the best coleslaw I’ve had in a long time. Then spend the remaining time cruising the museum.
All in all, it’s a wonderful, memorable and affordable way to spend time with the family while learning about the history and heritage of our great state. And don’t think if you’ve done it once, you’ve seen it all. The folks at Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad have a half-dozen variations of the excursion to help customize your adventure.
Take the Santa Express in the winter or the Santa Express Silver Edition (for those 21 and older) for a journey with the big man himself. Try a Civil War train trip, complete with simulated blue and gray battle, or ride the Pumpkin Express for a harvest carnival experience. And for the adults, the Rails to Ales and Washington Wine Express are sure to meet with your satisfaction. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, folk music, and autumn leaves are still more versions of the trip available to you throughout the year.