Truth be told, my kids aren’t crazy about trains. Sure, my girls (7 and 4) went through a brief Thomas the Tank Engine phase, but that was years ago, and my 14-month-old son isn’t old enough to be loco for locomotives. So I underestimated their excitement when I told them we’d be riding the historic Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad and taking in the newly updated exhibits at the Scenic Railroad Museum.
There’s something about a giant, black, steam-powered engine that captivates everyone; my soon-to-be second grader counted down the days, then hours, then minutes to our trip. She was beside herself when the long-awaited train pulled up to the quaint depot in Elbe (population 29) and welcomed us aboard, whistles blaring as steam billowed into the blue sky.
En route to its sole stop in Mineral, Washington, the not-too-long, not-too-short 40-minute rail ride threads past Mineral Creek on a rail line originally built in 1890 as part of the Tacoma Eastern Railroad. We saw wide-open mountain views, rocky river beds and an impressive beaver dam. The lush scenery captivated my kids, especially my active preschooler, who propped her chin on the window ledge and drank in the view like it was cherry-limeade.
She wasn’t the only one. Teens on the trip had to park their cell phones and take a break from texting — no cell reception on this remote railway. Without electronic distraction, families conversed, laughed and got excited about the spectacular views. It was like a great hike, except we were sitting down. And snacking. I call that a win.
In Mineral, a town named for its mining history, passengers piled out of the train to take in newly updated exhibits at the little museum. The “Rod House" is home to conventional steam locomotives (and a great family photo op). The “House of Gears,” which boasts a unique collection of geared locomotives, historic logging camp buildings and a reconstructed steam sawmill, is part of the newly unveiled “phase two” project.
Knowledgeable volunteers were on site to answer questions and give tours, and an especially nice one snapped a photo of my family.
After a tour and some photos, we reboarded for the 40-minute return trip, which was markedly quieter than the first leg. We relaxed and breathed in mountain air while we talked about our favorite trains from the museum. We couldn’t choose one, but we agreed on this: We’ll be back. My kids have officially caught the train bug.
Tips for the train ride
Seating is first-come, first-serve. Most families choose to sit in the breezy, open-window main car, where bench seats flank giant picture windows, instead of the more enclosed dining car.
But beware — adventurous kids may be tempted to hang out the completely open windows (mine were), so parents should keep watch. And while passengers are free to move around the train during the trip, it’s a moving locomotive, so children younger than 10 should be accompanied by an adult.
The train whistle is frequent and surprisingly loud, so parents of especially noise-sensitive kids may want to pack earplugs for the train’s departure and arrival.
Give yourself plenty of time for the lovely drive to Elbe, which winds past working farms, picturesque mountain views, and the Nisqually River. One scenic stopoff offers an excellent view of Alder Dam, a 24-story powerhouse that forms Alder Lake and was once among the tallest dams in the U.S.
Even if you don’t plan to stop, allow at least two hours to drive from Seattle, and plan to arrive at the depot at least 30 minutes prior to your scheduled departure. Tickets purchased online can be picked up at the depot, where snacks, gifts, and train concession vouchers are sold (Visa and MasterCard accepted here, so if you forgot to hit the cash machine, stock up on snacks or purchase a concession voucher here before boarding).
Pre-or-post trip, fill everyone’s bellies at the Elbe Bar and Grill (kids are welcome) or the Elbe Pizza Station. If your brood is up for more adventure, head across the highway to EZ Times Outfitters, where hand-led pony rides are available year-round.
Bring cash, snacks, and water; light concessions, tea, and coffee are available onboard (cash only). You’re welcome pack your own snacks, but avoid glass containers.
Bringing a baby or a squirmy young toddler? Leave the car seat in the car; there’s literally no stable, secure spot for it on the train. Strollers are welcome, but difficult to push through the gravel paths at the museum site in Mineral. Your best bet (and my personal recommendation) is to pack a baby or toddler on your front or back in a carrier. You’ll both enjoy the view, and the trip — and the gently swaying train ride will likely lull your little one to sleep.
If you go ...
Location: Depot, ticket office, and gift shop: Mount Rainier Scenic RR, 54124 Mountain Hwy E., Elbe, WA 98330
Cost and hours: General admission $29; senior/military/AAA $25; youth (ages 5 to 12) $22; child (3 and 4) $15; ages 2 years and under free
Best for ages: Tots through teens, and train buffs of all ages, grandparents included.
Please note: The tiniest riders (age 2 and under) are free, but every passenger must be ticketed to ensure an accurate head count.
Schedule: Two or three departures each day on weekends June through October, with the popular Santa Express train running in December.