Chinook Pass Scenic Byway


Overview

Published: 02/21/2012

by Anne Erickson

Photos

The Chinook Pass Scenic Byway runs from the rolling fields of Enumclaw west of the Cascades to the Naches Valley east of the range. Along the way, this two-lane pass wraps around the northeastern flank of iconic Mount Rainier.

Driving this byway will give you a first-hand answer to that ubiquitous Washington State question, “Is the Mountain out?” But picture-perfect glimpses of the tallest peak in the continental United States aren’t all this route has to offer. This is a “boots-on” byway that presents every opportunity to step out of the car into dense forests, alongside rollicking rivers and onto high desert plains. It seems there is a new microclimate every other mile, so bring along extra layers of clothes, a solid pair of shoes, and don’t forget your camera.

At the start of the byway, 14,410-foot-tall Mount Rainier steals the scene and challenges the sky.  Pause in Rainier’s foothills to explore an old-growth forest or snowshoe a placid path. As you travel east, rushing water seems your constant companion, as this road follows routes carved by the White, Greenwater, American and Naches rivers long ago. Finally, the dense Douglas fir forests of the western Cascades will give way to the sparser tamaracks and ponderosa pines of eastern Washington’s foothills. At the byway’s end there are many rewards; miles of horizon, abundant wildlife, farm stands filled with local produce and, usually, warm weather and blue eastern Washington skies.

Before you jump in your car and head out, remember a portion of this route is a seasonally restricted road—plan your trip between late May and late November.

 

Enumclaw

The city of Enumclaw, set between plateau farmlands and the Cascade Mountains, is sometimes referred to as the “gateway to Mount Rainier National Park,” although the folks over in Elbe and Ashford may disagree.

Spend a little time in town, relax and get ready to explore this nature-rich byway. The downtown area has corner cafes where you can fill up on scratch cooking for your journey. Try timing your visit with one of Enumclaw’s many seasonal events; the town hosts professional and amateur bike races, street festivals, an annual Fourth of July parade, the wild and wonderful Scottish Highland Games and much more. Also, if you noticed a lot of farms with gorgeous horses on the way into town, it’s because Enumclaw is one of the biggest thoroughbred breeding and boarding areas in the United States.

 

Mud Mountain Dam

A little farther up SR-410, Mud Mountain Dam Recreational Area is a popular day-use facility for the whole family. Centered on a dam built on the White River in the 1940s, the park has plenty of grassy areas, playgrounds, a wading pool with a fountain and a forested nature trail. Eagles, owls and herons are common here, and you may even spot elk or beavers.

 

Federation Forest State Park

About 18 miles east of Enumclaw is the stunning Federation Forest State Park. This day-use park has more than 600 acres of old-growth evergreens and offers 12 miles of hiking trails, including three short interpretive loops that are great for kids.  
The park’s Catherine Montgomery Interpretive Center (named for a pioneer educator) is open May through September and features a geological history of the nearby White River, plus plants on display from the park’s nine different ecosystems.


Greenwater

Farther along is the little town of Greenwater and the historic Naches Trail, on which the earliest settlers arrived here in wagons. Many years later, the first visitors to newly opened Mount Rainier National Park drove that same route.
Don’t make the mistake of speeding past this forested town; posted speed limits are strictly enforced. Besides, Greenwater is the perfect spot to stop, stretch your legs and grab coffee. It’s the last town before the pass, and the “hasn’t changed for decades” ambience of this place is undeniable. Tranquil Greenwater caters to locals, road warriors and ski bums with sporting-equipment rentals, coffee stands, a welcoming tavern and a general store with a wide front porch.  There’s even a business housed in a log cabin (of course) that’s been selling custom-made knit caps since the 1970s.
If you visit in fall, be sure to watch from the bridge in the heart of town for spawning salmon swimming upstream. There are other excellent migration viewing spots nearby; just ask at the local “tavern”—a friendly place that’s actually a bar and grill, where kids are welcome.


Incomparable Rainier views

Twenty-three miles east of Enumclaw is your first dazzling glimpse of Mount Rainier. Fortunately, there’s a highway pullout here, since this stunning sight can be distracting. Stay alert for passing motorists whose attention may be more on the view than on the road. Also, keep careful watch for elk crossings along this popular stretch of byway.

Another great view can be found at nearby Suntop Lookout, about 7 miles off SR-410 over two forest service roads best traveled by all-wheel-drive vehicles. A 1934 fire lookout, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, perched 3,000 feet above White River, Suntop has a 360-degree perspective on the Cascades, the distant Olympic Mountains and even Mount Baker, 150 miles away to the north.

 

Skookum Falls and the Pallisades trailhead

Back on SR-410, note Skookum Falls along the west side of the White River, cascading in a pair of narrow tiers and dropping 250 feet. Spring runoff season is the best time to catch the falls, and there is a parking area for viewing. Skookum Falls is near the trailhead to the Palisades rock formation, an array of dramatic columnar basalt cliffs and plateaus located in the northwest corner of White River Park. It can be seen from the Suntop Lookout road, which is accessed from the Huckleberry Creek Road (FS-73).

If you have time for an approximately 4-mile hike, there is foot access to closer views of the falls and the Palisades on the Skookum Flats Trail. Find Huckleberry Creek Road (FS-73), 25 miles past Enumclaw. Drive a half mile to the trailhead, on the east side of FS-73. A word of caution to hikers; this is also a very popular mountain biking destination.
Before getting much closer to Crystal Mountain and Sunrise, stop in at the historic Silver Creek Guard Station, a visitor center open daily from May to October.

 

Crystal Mountain: Not just a winter playground

During winter, Washington’s largest ski resort, Crystal Mountain, has 2,600 acres of world-class terrain for skiers and snowboarders, along with many slope-side lodging and dining options. A new high-speed gondola allows skiers to make even more runs on those perfect powder days.

The addition of the Mount Rainier Gondola seals Crystal’s reputation as a world-class ski resort, but it also means that Crystal Mountain is no longer just for snow enthusiasts. The gondola climbs almost 2,500 feet from the mountain’s base to the top in under 10 minutes. Now visitors can access mountaintop dining and a stunning view of Mount Rainier year round, making Crystal Mountain a true four-season resort destination.

Just beyond the turnoff to Crystal Mountain Boulevard is the point where the Chinook Scenic Byway closes for the winter. So, road conditions permitting, everything up to this point is accessible year round.

 

Mount Rainier National Park

The byway traverses the northeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park, a true Washington wonderland. Just 15 miles off the byway, via the White River entrance (a $15 fee per car is required), is the scenic drive to the park’s Sunrise Visitor Center, the mountain’s highest elevation (6,400 feet) accessible by car.

The view of Mount Rainier from Sunrise is powerful. The mountain is no longer a distant icon; it’s a hulking presence (and a technically active volcano). At Sunrise, you stand on the mountain’s flanks. Learn more, and prepare to explore the subalpine terrain, at the Sunrise Visitor Center (open daily from early July to early October), which also offers guided walks.

 

Take a hike

One of the great pleasures of Sunrise is the availability of hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty, all showcasing natural glories and leading to scenic overlooks.

The Silver Forest Trail is a short, family-friendly, 1-mile hike featuring interpretive exhibits. The Emmons Vista Trail is also terrific for kids; a 1-mile round-trip leads to great views of Mount Rainier and the Emmons Glacier, the largest glacier in the lower 48 states.

Fremont Lookout is a longer trail, a 5.5-mile round trip hike, through meadowland and over crags, that leads to a spot where hikers can actually see Seattle’s Space Needle with binoculars. Grand Park, a 13-mile round trip, reveals a canyon that was filled in with lava many millennia ago. Look for a small herd of resident elk on this hike.
Tipsoo at the top

About 8 miles past the entrance to Sunrise, the byway winds upward along a series of switchbacks to another popular stop and photo-op—Tipsoo Lake. Chances are you have seen this lake, with Mount Rainier reflected in its still waters, even if you’ve never visited. It’s one of the most photographed nature scenes in the United States.

Located just before the Chinook Pass summit, this tiny shimmering lake is surrounded by a dazzling field of wildflowers in spring and summer while Mount Rainier poses majestically in the background. There are hiking trails, including a short, paved, nature walk and the Naches Loop Trail, excellent for young kids. Try to spot the small herd of elk that grazes here.

This is also a popular birding area. SR-410 is the jumping-off point for a handful of Audubon Washington’s Great Washington State Birding Trails, this birding region, on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, is the Great Washington State Birding Trail—Sun and Sage Loop. Cross the pedestrian footbridge that spans the highway at the Chinook Summit, and find high-country birds like the sooty grouse and mountain chickadees along the 3.5-mile Naches Park Loop.

This is also a great stroll for experiencing the riot of wildflowers that peak here in late July.

 

Down the eastern slopes

Back on SR-410, you’ll get a breathtaking view looking east over the American River Valley, from a viewpoint just past the 5,432-foot Chinook Pass summit. Sheep Lake Trailhead, accessing the epic north-south Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, is just across the street.

Hikers looking for a nice day crossing through a cool forest should be pleased with the 5-mile trail off Mesatchee Creek Road (itself off SR-410). From the trailhead, a steep 4-mile ascent to the Mesatchee waterfall is worth the effort.
Find even more fun at Bumping Lake Recreation Area, where the centerpiece is a midsize mountain lake that’s a great place to fish for kokanee, salmon and rainbow trout. A marina with fishing-boat rentals, multiple campgrounds and an abundance of hiking trails makes this a popular family getaway.

 

Boulder Cave

Spelunkers should turn onto a road marked “Boulder Cave National Recreation Trail” (a popular birding trail). A bridge over the Naches River leads to a mile-long walk to Boulder Cave, a 400-foot-deep cave where a dwindling population of Townsend’s big-eared bats hibernates during the winter (the cave is closed to the public at that time).
Take one of the offered tours or be your own guide, but bring flashlights (with plenty of extra batteries) and something warm to wear. It’s about 50 degrees in the cave, even on a hot summer day.

 

Dining, lodging and supplies in Cliffdell

Cliffdell, a quiet area in the woods of Wenatchee National Forest, is a good place for travelers to pick up supplies, grab a great meal or even book a room after the scenic drive over the pass.
Heading down the east side of this byway, visitors pass through a transition zone as the dense forests thin out, revealing the dramatic underpinnings of the land. The changing landscape reveals mesmerizing, almost dreamlike evidence of ancient volcanic activity. Watch for unique, drooping geologic landforms on the north side of the byway just east of Cliffdell. Wide shoulders on both sides of the road enable visitors to stop and look (bring binoculars) across the river at prehistoric lava outcroppings where eagles nest.

 

Naches River

The Naches River is your constant companion along this part of the byway. It dodges between high basalt cliffs and eddies into deep-green pools. White-water enthusiasts enjoy this river’s Class II and III rapids during the high-water months of May and June. Campers enjoy the many campgrounds along this river year round.

 

Elk and bighorn sheep feeding stations

Wildlife lovers shouldn’t miss this 2-mile detour. Just before the town of Naches (pronounced nat-CHEEZE), turn onto US-12 and stop at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area feeding station for an encounter with one of the biggest herds of Rocky Mountain elk in the country. The feeding station operates in the winter when the Yakima herd of more than 1,000 elk comes down from snowy higher elevations.

Bring warm clothes, arrive at the visitor center prior to the 1:30 p.m. feeding time and take a truck tour out to the feeding grounds for a close-up view of these massive animals. Continue along SR-410 to see the Cleman Mountain year-round bighorn sheep feeding station.
Don’t overlook the birds. Lewis’s woodpeckers, golden eagles, turkey vultures and myriad other birds abound in these garry-oak woodlands, basalt cliffs and sage-covered hills. This area is also part of the Great Washington State Birding Trail—Sun and Sage Loop.

 

Pull into Naches

The byway’s end point, Naches, is a tiny community 13 miles northwest of Yakima near the banks of the Naches River. The town is a gateway between the wild forests of the Cascades and the fruit orchards of the Yakima Valley. The portion you see from the highway does not tell the full story of this community. The area was settled in the 1850s, when some of the members of the Longmire wagon train decided to opt for the region’s warmer, drier climes instead of pushing on to the rainy Pacific coast. Pull into Naches’ quaint little downtown for some antique shopping and local dining.

The Naches Valley is an agricultural area with a bounty of fruit orchards (primarily apple and pear) and vineyards. Be sure to load up on fresh-picked seasonal fruits and vegetables at the many roadside stands.

Planning tips

Driving Distance: 87 miles from Enumclaw to Naches.

Driving Time: Two hours.

Actual Time: Plan a full day with stops for dining, hiking, fishing and sightseeing.

Best Time to Travel: Much of the route is open year-round, but Chinook Pass is closed during winter (See “Getting There” for details). Check www.dot.wa.gov for road conditions and seasonal closures. Since a portion of this byway crosses a mountain pass, be prepared for icy conditions or snow if you explore it in the fall or spring.



Getting There: The western starting point, Enumclaw, is approximately 40 miles (50 minutes) southeast of Seattle. The byway is 87 miles long, heading east from Enumclaw to Naches, following the Mather Memorial Highway (SR-410). Chinook Pass is closed from just beyond the Crystal Mountain Ski Area at milepost 57 to Morse Creek at milepost 74 on the east side between approximately the end of November and the end of May. Check www.dot.wa.gov for road conditions and seasonal closures.
Gas, Food and Lodging: Accommodations ranging from cabins to hotels to condos to hostel-style bunks can be found in the larger towns along the byway, as well as at Crystal Mountain. Campgrounds are plentiful, as are RV parks. Fuel and other services are available, though there are long stretches of highway without them. Greenwater is your last fuel stop until you reach Cliffdell, 53 miles up and over the Chinook Pass summit.


Connected or Nearby Scenic Byways:

White Pass National Scenic Byway

Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway

 

Local Resources:

Chinook Scenic Byway

Yakima Valley Visitors & Convention Bureau

Visit Rainier

Tacoma Regional Convention & Visitor Bureau