First tip for the Mount Rainier Polar Express: bring a kid.
Second tip: Dress for the North Pole. And bring your best holiday smile — you’ll need it.
The Mount Rainier Railroad has been operating since 1983, taking visitors from Elbe to Mineral in a 1920s steam train. But this December the train goes from Santa to full-steam Polar Express, complete with actors singing, dancing and handing out hot chocolate and golden tickets, just like in the animated movie. Yes, it’s cheesy. And cold. But it’s also a little magical — if you believe.
The first thing you have to believe in is that you’ll actually eventually board the train. After buying tickets (they fill up fast), driving more than an hour on the winding state Route 7 and trudging from the end of the parking lot through endless puddles (wear rain boots), you should arrive in plenty of time for the pre-boarding show. This means around 45 minutes of jostling for a spot out of the freezing wind and rain under the white tent (wear a ski jacket). Luckily, Elbe Junction café is warm and open until 6 p.m., offering excellent coffee and a whimsical reindeer sculpture out front made of rusty metal bits by Ashford artist Dan Klennert. It’s also warm — though crowded — in the station’s tiny gift shop, where you can buy a conductor cap and other essential items.
Otherwise, you’ll be standing outside feeling like you’re already at the North Pole (wear a hat and gloves), keeping impatient kids off the railway track and listening to irritatingly cheerful piped carols. But when you hear that hollow hoot whistle through the darkness, it’s impossible not to feel a thrill.
Then the Express pulls in, a magnificent beast with a black engine, its single glowing lamp in front, and green carriages. You spot that Dickensian hobo — you know, the ghost who lives on the top of the train — posing for selfies. Then the crowd clears a little, and you see a little boy in a blue robe looking solemnly up at a capped conductor who asks, in curmudgeonly tone, “Well? Are you getting on? Who wants to ride the Polar Express?”
And the entire crowd erupts like a rock concert, and you know there’s serious magic happening.
There’s something about a steam train that’s exciting and comforting. Add in holiday lights, garlands and a wintry forest just outside, and you don’t even need the bells and whistles from the “Polar Express” movie. But they’re there, in spades. Irrepressibly enthusiastic actors play the waiters and chefs dancing along the aisles and dishing out Swiss Miss and sugar cookies.
The Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad has steam engines from the 1920s and carriages from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
“Melted candy?” they cheerfully ask any adult who isn’t smiling yet.
“Some movies should stay movies,” mutters the teenager next to me, sotto voce.
Unstoppable, the performers read the book aloud, they take photos and sing THAT song. (“Di-dum di-dum di-dum di-dum the Po-lar Ex-press!!”)
The conductor comes along and punches out everyone’s golden ticket in the shape of a B (for “believe”), Santa hands out real ringing bells, and every single adult is taking a million photos.
The best moment by far is at the end of the line — usually the Mineral Logging Museum and repair shop — where you glide by a North Pole village decked out in holiday lights, including glowing reindeer and a waving Santa. The looks on the faces of anyone 8 and younger is worth the ticket price alone.
“You owe me $10!” teases the mom in front of us, while her daughter — who bet that the train wouldn’t actually reach the North Pole — looks baffled and delighted to be proved wrong.
On the way back, as sugared-up kids are jumping on seats, not even the piped carol singalong can dampen the magical mood.
After the 90-minute ride, you have your choice of awesome burgers eaten outside in the cold (the Scaleburgers hut), greasy spoon burgers eaten with the locals (Elbe Bar and Grill, around the corner near the bridge) and burgers eaten inside yet another vintage train at the Mount Rainier Railroad Dining Co. (aka the Hobo train) right across the parking lot. It’s pretty cute dining in a rail car with lace-curtained windows, and the menu gets inventive with hobo stew, blackberry salmon, popcorn shrimp and portobello mushroom burgers literally dripping with onions and juice.
(Be warned: the sweet potato fries come topped with powdered sugar. And avoid the mushy blackberry cobbler.)
Of course, you’ll be singing those carols all the way along the dark, winding road back home. And you’ll soon wish you didn’t believe in that jingly bell. But it’s worth it to show your little ‘uns that magical train rides aren’t just for movies, they’re right here in our own steam train town of Elbe.
Turns out some movies don’t have to stay movies after all.
Catching the Polar Express
What: The Mount Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum, set up this month as the Polar Express.
When: 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. daily through Dec. 24 (closed Monday, Tuesday and Dec. 25); 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 26; 3:30 p.m. Dec. 27-30.
Where: 54124 Mountain Highway E., Elbe (on the right as you go through town on state Route 7 from Tacoma).
Tickets: Off-peak: $49 adult; $45 senior, military and AAA; $29 children ages 2-12 (first class car), $34 adult and $14 children (standard car). Peak: $59 adult; $39 children ages 2-12 (first class), $44 adult and $24 children (standard). Parking $4.
Information: 360-569-7959, mtrainierrailroad.com.
Five essentials for surviving the ‘Polar Express’
▪ Check for off-peak fares and book ahead. Popular dates sell out fast.
▪ The best departure time for visibility and eating dinner at a kid-friendly time is 3:30 p.m.
▪ Wear very warm, waterproof clothes and shoes. Elbe is in the mountains, and the train isn’t heated much. You’ll be out in the rain or snow a lot, walking through deep puddles.
▪ Buy a hot drink and use the restroom at the cafe before you board. You’ll be glad you did.
▪ Wait close to the track side of the white tent for a good view of the pre-show … and have plenty of memory and charge on your phone or camera.
If you go
Mount Rainier Railroad Dining Co. (aka the hobo train): 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; 54106 Mountain Highway E., Elbe; 888-RR-DINER, 360-569-2505, rrdiner.com.
Scaleburgers: 54109 Mountain Highway E., Elbe; 360-569-2247.
Elbe Bar and Grill: Noon-midnight daily (until 2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays); 54312 182 Ave. Ct. E., Elbe; 360-569-2545, bit.ly/2gJGt7c.
Elbe Junction Coffee: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; 54209 Mountain Highway E., Elbe; 360-524-7707, facebook.com/elbejunction.
In Elbe: The Hobo Inn offers converted cabooses from $115 a night; 54106 Mountain Highway E., Elbe; 888-RR-DINER, rrdiner.com.
Around Elbe: Find links to hotels, lodges and cabins in Eatonville, Ashford and Mount Rainier at visitrainier.com.
While you’re there
Elbe Evangelican Lutheran Church: Right next to the train station is the second-oldest and second-smallest church in the United States. Service 6 p.m. Dec. 24; otherwise closed in winter. elbehistoricchurch.com.
Mineral: The tiny town at the end of the steam train line has historic buildings, a 1906 lodge and one of the best views of the volcano over Mineral Lake.