The train’s whistle blows, Whoo! Whoo! and my son raises his hands to cover his ears. His eyes twinkle, and a smile lights up his face as he buries his head into his dad’s chest. Each time the whistle blows I look again. “Are you OK, buddy?” And it’s the same: twinkle, smile, dad. At some point I get it, and I leave him alone. This is a happy boy.
The rocking of the train keeps tempo with our conversation — more than status updates, we have the kind of undistracted moments that happen when families get away for a while. There are lots of families on board, grandparents carrying babies, couples feeding snacks to kids, and empty nesters sitting close together.
Riding the Hammond Lumber Co. No. 17, we pass by roads, fields, and real life in the small town of Elbe, just 13 miles from the Nisqually Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park. A sculptor/salvage artist emerges from the porch of his house. My twins are creative 5-year-olds, and they like his sprawling collection, so we wave and he waves back with a smile.
Rail fans unite
The Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad is a collection of vintage steam and diesel-electric locomotives. Committed volunteers restore and maintain the trains, and share their enthusiasm on the 40-minute ride from the train depot in Elbe to the Railroad Museum in Mineral, and back again.
“People are spellbound by steam engines,” conductor Carl Magnuson tells me. During the week, Magnuson is a project manager for an online company. The conductors welcome train riders and pose for lots of photos, with a special welcome for kids. Conductor David Heia is a stockbroker in Seattle. “This is our escape,” he says.
While we wait for the train, I wander over to see the historic Elbe Church, and my husband and twins explore the depot area, playing with the other kids. We’re all peering down the line, ready for the train to make its grand entrance. When the train does arrive it’s to a symphony of steam and whistles, bell ringing, all polished and ready for the ride.
The ride and museum
After the 7-mile trip, the train stops at the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad Museum in Mineral. This is a group of buildings that house the museum’s collection, including a re-created railroad logging camp and the museum’s locomotive restoration area.
My husband and twins rush to the Satsop locomotive after our train lets out to climb inside and ring the bell. This is a hit with my husband, who lights up like a kid when we hear the Clang! Clang! as he yanks on the rope. “I want to volunteer here. Man, I’d love that.” I remind him to give our daughter a turn.
We spend about 40 minutes touring the museum. On a sunny summer day with lots of other visitors, there is plenty of room to touch and linger over the trains and explore the railroad camp. The timing is just right on the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, and when we hear the whistle blow, we leave slowly as it calls us back to the train. Whoo! Whoo!
Good to Know
Pack drinks and snacks for the ride. There are concessions on the train (bring cash), or buy vouchers at the depot. There is one small restroom on the train, more at the depot and museum. Dress for cooler, changing mountain weather and check current road conditions. You won’t want to miss your train.
Where to Eat
The Mount Rainier Railroad Dining Company, located in converted railroad cars just 300 feet from the train depot, has a great family-friendly menu. Bring your appetite for freshly-prepared, hearty entrees and desserts. rrdiner.com
Make it a Day
Make a visit to the railroad a part of your day trip to Mount Rainier. The nearby Nisqually Entrance leads you to Longmire, Christine Falls, and Paradise Jackson Visitor Center.
Photo courtesy Hillary Mercer; Linda Jenkins; Anthony Koopman.