Mount Rainier: A Cascade Paradise Year-Round

Fall is here. I struggle letting go of summer—I loathe the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice Latte simply for symbolic reasons. Autumn colors, while gorgeous, are a bittersweet reminder to me that summer is over. I know it’s silly—there’s plenty to do and see and enjoy throughout the fall and winter. And it’s a great time to avoid crowds and get some good deals.2015 125Last spring I visited Mount Rainier, lured by a great shoulder season two-nights-for-one offer. The National Park Inn, in the historic Longmire District at the southwest corner of the park, is open year-round. Completely renovated in recent decades, the lodge doesn’t have a rustic, rough-hewn log interior like the seasonal Paradise Inn higher up the mountain, but its long, inviting porch demands lingering as views of Rainier filter through the shifting clouds, and its massive stone fireplace makes the lounge a cozy spot to enjoy complimentary afternoon tea and scones.

2015 113Several hikes start right there. On the Trail of the Shadows, an easy 0.7 mile loop across from the Lodge, I admired the astonishing handiwork of the resident beavers—they do this with their TEETH??—along with a replica of an early homesteaders’ cabin and stately stands of tall, straight trees banked in ferns and shrouded with mist. 20150331_122327The Rampart Ridge trail ascends through steep forest, switch-backing over glittering creeks which tumble over gleaming rocks and amber logs.

20150329_162916My lodging package included a free snowshoe rental, so I drove a scenic 11 miles up to the end of the road, where the Paradise Inn stands on the snowy slopes of Mount Rainier just shy of the tree line. After a vigorous trudge up beyond the evergreens, I turned to a vast and glorious view of the nearby Tatoosh Range, south of Rainier, beyond which peeked Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens on this extraordinarily clear day.

20150330_114834Back at the Lodge, where no cell service, Wi-Fi, or TV distracts (there is a payphone! It takes quarters, how retro!) I returned to the irresistible draw of the porch. With wine and cheese brought down from my room, I read, wrote and played with my camera in delectable solitude as the afternoon sun illuminated plumes of snow blowing off Rainier’s domed 14,000-foot peak.

2015 187I can’t wait to visit Rainier again—for the summer blaze of wild flowers, the fall colors, the winter snowscapes, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. And especially to linger on that porch…

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A Prix Fixe Feast in the Oregon Outback

Never in my life have I faced such a slab of beef all by myself! Between 28-32 boneless ounces, this is a steak to feed a family, maybe even a scout troop—but here it rests before me, a picture of fragrant, juicy glory. It dwarfs the foil-robed baked potato. I slice through the gleaming bark: pink perfection. sign and sky 1South of Bend by 90 minutes of pine forest, sage brush, and huge wide-open western skies, the Cowboy Dinner Tree is a carnivore’s dream journey into the Old West. A collection of weathered low-ceilinged shacks and log cabins encloses rustic wooden tables and benches. The walls are haphazardly appointed with cowboy gear—horse-tack, hats, tools of barn and chuck wagon—and dollar bills are everywhere, tucked into cracks or skillfully origami’d and placed on windowsills, to be gathered annually and donated to a veteran’s organization.

dining room no peopleThe wise diner brings a cooler, even a container or two, to get every ounce of goodness out of the family-style meals. After drink orders are placed—water, pink lemonade or coffee—salad arrives, in a humble plastic bowl with a squeeze bottle each of house-made honey mustard and ranch dressings. Nope, it’s not iceberg—it’s a blend of greens sparked with red cabbage, carrots and herbs. Then a choice of two soups—we got the rich, thick and creamy chicken chowder, studded with corn and potatoes. With this arrives a pie pan of steaming, tender, irresistible pull-apart rolls and a scoop of butter—bigger than an ice cream serving at some of those fancy-pants Portland scoop shops. Plenty of food already, and the main course is yet to come.rolls and butterWhen you place your reservation, you decide: steak or chicken. The close-to-two-pound monstrosity/delight of top sirloin, grilled to medium rare in an enormous lidded cooker out back, or a whole rotisserie chicken. Our steaks fed us each for three days! Along with the meat comes a baked potato of ordinary size, accompanied by a surprisingly modest—but adequate—spoonful of sour cream. Plastic bags are provided for leftovers. By happy accident we had an empty pint tub in the car, and enjoyed cold chicken chowder for breakfast. steak close upDessert was tasty, simple and comfortingly manageable in size: a small square of white cake scattered with berries and soaked in cream.dessert - CopyWhile the food is worth the trip, the real magic is in the ambience, the incredible remote setting, and the people. It’s friendly, down-home, and authentically rustic like I’ve never seen a restaurant in the United States. As a cook, I couldn’t resist a peek into the kitchen. Yup, rustic there, too! Another old-fashioned attribute—the Cowboy Dinner Tree is cash only, and in the middle of nowhere, so bring it!table close up

The lore is that the large juniper tree on the property used to shelter chuck wagons which fed cowboys on cattle drives from nearby Silver Lake to the Sycan Marsh. The buildings are a relic of a 19th century homestead, and became a restaurant in 1992. Current owners Angel and Jamie Roscoe took over the property from Angel’s mother in 2012.welcome log cabin

There’s a funky gift shop and benches to linger on outside while either salivating over the grilling meat or digesting, plenty of parking for RVs, and even a couple of guest cabins to spend the night. Or drive another hour and stay at the wonderful Summer Lake Hot Springs, where a long soak in hot mineral water will whet the appetite for a cowboy breakfast of hearty leftovers.