I like it when the real world stuns my children. Their universe is so full of things that buzz and blink that it’s fantastic to see them astonished by something that hasn’t been “enhanced.” When we visited Crystal Mountain last September, my kids couldn’t stop ooh-ing and aah-ing.
I grew up in Seattle, so of course I know that when someone says “Crystal,” they mean skiing at Mount Rainier. I know they mean “farther away than Snoqualmie, but the snow’s a little better, so it’s worth the drive.” I know that the resort was named because of its crystal-clear view of Mount Rainier, just one mountain over.
But last year, I learned something new: Crystal is now open in the summer. And it’s gotten festive, sponsoring family events and adventures all season. When my family and I spent a weekend there, we found the off-season at Crystal to be such a delight, it might have spoiled us for winter.
Crystal makes a good day trip, but staying there overnight feels like a real getaway. We stayed at Alta Crystal, in a one-bedroom chalet that was basic and cozy, with a kitchen, which allowed us to keep food expenses down. From there, it’s about a 10-minute drive to the ski area. Alta Crystal sponsors family events, such as bonfires and marshmallow roasts. Visit its website ahead of time and see what’s on the calendar. It even rents mountain bikes and provides maps for the extensive series of trails in the area.
Here’s what we loved about our off-season Crystal experience, in addition to its affordable (compared to ski season) lodging:
1. Getting there
The trip from Seattle takes just over an hour and a half, and it’s a fun drive. We got out of the I-5 corridor and wended our way on State Route 410, past farms and through small towns, such as Enumclaw. In Enumclaw, of course, we stopped at Sweet Necessities for some of the best ice cream our tongues will ever taste. We also picked up some toffee, which we crunched on all weekend.
2. The gondola
In winter the Mt. Rainier Gondola at Crystal has the task of getting skiers up the mountain as quickly as possible. In summer, it runs more slowly, and there are no crowds or lift line. The slower pace gave us just the right amount of time to be amazed at the quiet, and to take in the mountains and meadows. The kids were excited and engaged the entire time. “Look, is that Mount Hood?” (Nah, it was Mount Adams, but I tried.) And then, at the top, good heavens. Right there in front of us: Mount Rainier. It was so close it looked like I could jump to it, or at least throw a Frisbee there.
3. The full force and power of the Cascade Range
As the gondola climbs to the peak of nearly 7,000 feet, the magnitude of the Cascades reveals itself. I always feel so grateful for our Seattle views, where I can look in one direction to see the craggy majesty of the Olympics, and in the other for the smoother bumps of the Cascades. But my regular vantage points render the ranges in just two dimensions. The gondola reminded us that our mountains are wide, too. Peaks stretched in every direction, as far as our eyes could carry us.
4. Yummy food
At most mountaintop ski-lodge restaurants, quality does not appear to be a serious goal. But the Summit House at Crystal — Washington state's highest-elevation restaurant — surprised us. I recommend you call ahead for reservations, and ask for a seat by the window. You can’t go wrong with the view. On one side of the restaurant, you’ll get to look at Mount Rainier; on the other, you’ll gaze down the slopes and meadows of the ski area, and out and over those dozens and dozens of three-dimensional peaks.
5. Lots of space for the little ones
There are plenty of child-sized hikes in the area to fill those little lungs with fresh mountain air. Our family particularly loved the Goat Falls Trail, an easy three-mile hike that we did in two leisurely hours. It has everything you want in a kid hike: enough scrambling to tire them out but still be fun, the gurgle of running water and patches of snow, even in late summer. There’s something especially fun about crunching through the white stuff when you’re wearing shorts and a tank top. One of these days we’ll hike the entirety of the Wonderland Trail ― the 93-mile behemoth that stretches all the way around the mountain. For now, Goat Falls is perfect.
6. Lots of ‘lovely’ for the big people
I couldn’t stop boring the kids with the wildflowers, and they were, for the most part, very patient with me. “Look, kids! Lupine! Indian paintbrush!” “That’s really neat, Mom.”
Getting as high up as the tippy-top of Crystal Mountain in the summertime felt expansive, so different from the shady Northwest hikes that we usually do. I felt the bands of city life loosen around my chest. The slopes of alpine flowers reminded me of the opening scene in The Sound of Music. I wanted to twirl down the mountain, Maria style.
I had the sense not to embarrass the children so thoroughly, but the urge was there.
If you go . . .
The Crystal Mountain Resort website provides a wealth of information to help you tailor exactly the trip you want.
Where to stay
Accommodations range from very basic motel rooms to fully equipped chalets. At Alta Crystal, a one-bedroom suite sleeps two adults and two children younger than 12, and will ordinarily set you back $200 and up a night but check out the website for last-minute deals. In addition, staying longer can yield savings. staycrystal.com
You can find the perfect hike for your needs at Visit Rainier. In addition to Goat Falls, our family particularly enjoys Greenwater Lakes, a gentle four-miler complete with picturesque bridges that are excellent for plunking rocks. Greenwater is hikable from May through November, a long season for the area.
More of a mountain-biking family?
There are wonderful mountain bike trails in the area as well.
This article was originally published in 2012.