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On the roads to Mount Rainier

Crispness with a hint of snow in the air, fall color, small-town attractions, wildlife and artistic creations are scattered along the roads to Mount Rainier National Park.

A road trip around the park this year has meant a 100-mile detour because of the closing of storm-damaged state Route 123 from Cayuse Pass to Stevens Canyon Road. Although it might be open Sept. 28, it's not a date to count on, so most of us will be sticking to the west side of the mountain.

Plan on a night or two to browse the towns and take a few park hikes. To start, take your preferred route to the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park near Eatonville, then follow that with stops at Elbe and Ashford before going in the Nisqually (southwest) entrance to the park.

On the way

Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. If you have children, this is a required stop for a narrated 50-minute tram tour to see bighorn sheep, deer, Roosevelt elk, woodland caribou and mountain goats.

Park employees have scattered food close to the road so many of the animals will be practically within reach.

The park also offers special family programs for an additional fee, such as the elk-bugling tours Sept. 29 and 30 and a behind-the-scenes tour Sept. 30.

Sculptures. About two miles before Elbe, stop at Dan Klennert's Ex-Nihilo (Latin: out of nothing) sculpture park, a figment of Klennert's imagination made real, including a giraffe of recycled metal pieces.

Elbe. The November 2006 storms damaged the tracks at the Nisqually River bridge so the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad now leaves from Mineral, a hamlet about 15 minutes away.

Try the 2 p.m. autumn leaves special on the next four weekends, where you'll be pulled by one of seven steam locomotives honored by Trains Magazines.

But stop at Elbe's Artist Depot/train station anyway. It has a classy gift shop with art, including scrimshaw work. The small but historic 1906 Elbe Church is across the tracks from the depot.

Mineral Lake. If you have time, take a short side trip here, perhaps to take the train or check out the original Mineral post office, once the smallest in the country. Enjoy a view of the lake with Mount Rainier in the distance.

Ashford. If you arrive Oct. 5-7, enjoy "Art Inspired by the Mountain" during the first Rainier Arts Festival showcasing the region's artists and offering hands-on workshops and music.

Ashford is Rainier's climbing hub, home to Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI), which has guided thousands of climbers to the mountain's 14,411-foot peak since 1969. It's owned by Lou and Peter Whittaker with Joseph Horiskey.

You'll notice a familial trend: Whittaker Mountaineering (run by Peter and Erika Whittaker) sells and rents climbing gear and clothing. International Mountain Guides is based in Ashford, too.

Whittaker's Bunkhouse (run by Win and Sarah Whittaker) usually caters to climbers who are biding their time before the next ascent. The couple runs the Espresso Shop & Wireless Internet Cafe and provide much of the energy behind the spring Rainier Independent Film Festival.

In the park

The yellows, reds and purples of low-bush huckleberries, mountain ash and vine maples can be eye-catching in late September but usually peak the first two weeks of October.

The Nisqually entrance to Longmire and Paradise is open all year although it can be challenging when the snow falls. Make sure you pick up a park map at the entrance. Past Paradise, a 4 1/2 -mile segment of the 19-mile Stevens Canyon Road is closed east of the Backbone Ridge viewpoint and west of the Grove of the Patriarch parking area.

The majority of the 2 million park visitors each year comes through this entrance, some taking short walks around Longmire, soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying meals at the historic National Park Inn (think Tahoma frittatas, Rainier beef chili and bourbon buffalo meatloaf) and enjoying their first good look at Mount Rainier and the largest glacial system on the mainland.

The inn is offering a stay-one-night, get-one-night-free deal Sundays through Thursdays (holidays excluded) from Nov. 4 to April 30. Call 360-569-2275 for more information.

Then it's on to Paradise, following the switchbacks up the mountainside, pulling off often to photograph many peak views and read interpretive signs.

At Paradise, workers continue to remodel the Paradise Inn, hoping to open it in May 2008. The new Paradise Visitor Center is under construction as well. Weather and contractors willing, the center could open in fall 2008. The existing Jackson Visitor Center will be demolished then.

Head to the visitor center first to see the model of the mountain and talk to the rangers about weather and trail options.

What's terrific about trails out of Paradise is that there is one for every ability, and many of the trails are paved. If hiking to the peak isn't in your plan, at least take the 1 1/4 -mile Nisqually Vista Trail with excellent views of the peak and the Nisqually Glacier.

Going home

When you head out of the park, take a little detour. Drive north from Eatonville on state Route 162 and turn right at the junction with state Route 165. In about 10 miles, the road splits. The left fork goes to the park's Carbon River entrance (closed at the park boundary because of storm damage but open to hikers and bikers) and the right fork to Mowich Lake, open until Oct. 8 or the first snowfall.

Wilkeson. Home to the National Handcar Races in July, the town reflects its mining heritage. Wilkeson was once called the roughest mining town west of Butte, Mont.

Although it's still tied to the past, there are lattes and Italian soda at Skeek's Pizza. If owner Bert Gonzales has a minute, he'll talk about the sandstone that has been quarried here since 1886, including sandstone for capital buildings in Olympia, cobblestones for Seattle's Pioneer Square, and sandstone for Seattle's Bon Marche.

Past the elementary school is Coke Oven Park, where you can check out the coke ovens used by a nearby coal mine. A quarter-mile farther is the active Wilkeson Sandstone Co.

Carbonado. In this town you can find an 1889 saloon with a sign that says "Model T parking only"; a cemetery with graves dating back to 1880, many of miners killed in a mine explosion and other accidents; and a collection of old cars waiting for tender loving care.

The Funky Gardener rules here. Pat Eitner combines plants, Hypertufa pots, and iron art to create Stone Cousins for creative gifts and yard art.

Travel writers Maggie Savage and Sharon Wootton are co-authors of "You Know You're in Washington When ..." More information

For more information on the Mount Rainier area, start with www.visitrainier.com or call 877-270-7155.

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