Epic Experiences in Tacoma, Mount Rainier, and Pierce County
Let’s get this out of the way: The word epic is almost as overused as the phrase “bucket list” in tourism marketing, and I know because I’ve overused both. Guilty. But some experiences take you so far outside the warp and weft of your day-to-day life that, to me at least, they’ve earned the word.
They are so singular and memorable that they have the potential to stick in your memory, popping up in your mind at strange times for years, or even your entire life. Here are a few truly epic experiences you can only have in Pierce County. (Or if you can have them somewhere else, they’re at least a plane ride away.)
This is a pretty long post, so if something catches your eye, by all means, skip ahead:
- See Sunrise at a Place Called Sunrise
- Cook Yourself on an Open Fire
- Dive with Sharks
- Snowshoe at the Snowiest Place on Earth*
- Take a Ford Model-T Off Road
- Get Smelling-Distance from a Bison
- Blow Your Own Glass in Chihulytown, USA
- Play Honest-to-Goodness Championship Golf
See Sunrise at a Place Called Sunrise
Sunrise Visitor Center at Mount Rainier National Park
Whoever named the eggplant probably didn’t get to name things after that, but whoever named Sunrise had job security for life. It’s the first place the sun touches on Mount Rainier every day, and it’s one of those rare places whose name doesn’t disappoint. (Looking at you, Bear Dance, Montana.)
From the Sunrise Visitor Center in the pre-dawn hour, or from along the half-dozen winding trails that spiral out from it, the first light transitions the blackness into ‘blue hour,’ those monochrome minutes before true sunrise when there’s enough light to make distinctions, but not enough to see colors. Then, the hues slowly come into contrast with one another, and the sunlight effectively paints a landscape of the mountain in front of your eyes over the course of a few magical minutes. Cameras never do it justice, but that won’t stop you from trying. It never stops anyone from trying.
If you go: Highway 410 at Chinook Pass, where you access the road to Sunrise, is only open in the summer months, when sunrise is painfully (or pleasurably, if you’re a morning person) early, so it’s best to book a stay near the mountain to avoid missing it. Fortunately for you, Crystal Mountain Resort and Alta Crystal Resort are both just about an hour away from Sunrise Visitor Center, which will save you some serious beauty sleep.
Cook Yourself on an Open Fire
Cannibal Hot Tub at Paradise Village Lodge, Ashford
The Cannibal Hot Tub is simplicity itself: A massive, traditional-Ukrainian, custom-made metal cauldron that sits atop a wood fire, slowly taking heat from the flames. As the fire does its job, the water gets warm, then hot. You hop in, and luxuriate in its primitive perfection, sipping a glass of beer or champagne (BOYB), soaking sore muscles after a long hike at the mountain. The heat keeps coming, and if you start feeling a little bit like bar-b-you, just reach over and flip a lever (the woodland idea of digit-al temperature control?) that releases a jet of cold water into the cauldron, cooling things back down to tolerable tranquility.
Set inside a stone gazebo surrounded by giant red cedars, the cannibal hot tub feels elemental and straightforward, like a wilderness experience should feel. It’s an extension of a day spent in nature, not a respite after one.
If you go: The tub fits four shy strangers or six close friends. You can add it to an overnight stay at Paradise Village Lodge – a traditional Ukrainian village, with Ukrainian restaurant and bakery – or book it separately. Prices and scheduling are here.
Dive with Sharks
Eye-to-Eye Shark Dives at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Tacoma
If you’ve paid attention to sharks at aquariums, you can’t help but be awed by their fluid grace. They seem to whip instead of swim. Maybe you’ve also briefly felt thankful that you’re on the dry side of the glass. And for 99 percent of the population, that’s where your interaction with sharks begins and ends.
At Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, you don’t have to stay on the dry side. You can meet the sharks in their world. For their Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive (no SCUBA cert required!) you start with a candid conversation with the staff about facts and myths about sharks and their place in the ecosystem. I know this is supposed to be how they build good stewards, but it really just rachets up the anticipation for what’s next. Because then you get strapped snugly into a dry suit, pop a breathing apparatus into your mouth, climb down a ladder into a cage, and the cage gets lowered into the shark exhibit.
Cool? Absolutely. Epic? Probably. But then, if the stars align everyone on the human side of the cage gives the “I’m cool with it” hand signal, the cage door might open, and now you’re eye-to-eye with an apex predator. They check you out. You check them out. Meet them. Handshakes are not permitted. Yes, they’re some of the more docile breeds of shark (nurse sharks, sand tiger sharks, blacktip reef sharks, etc.), but they’re still however-many hundreds of pounds of muscle, cartilage and teeth. You begin to sense a mutual respect. When they swim overhead, you look up and recognize that sharky smile the Discovery Channel uses to get people amped up for Shark Week. But at this point, whether it’s through some miracle of desensitization or familiarity, it ceases to be scary and becomes exhilarating.
It’s hard to explain, but when the cage lifts back up out of the water, you feel a new kinship with and guardianship for sharks. Once you’ve seen them face to face, you have a stake in shark conservation, and that’s something you don’t leave behind when you take off the dry suit.
If you go: Book your Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive ahead of time, and wear warm, comfortable clothing. A shark dive comes with admission to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. You don’t need to bring a camera; they do all the filming on a GoPro, and a flash drive with pictures and video is included with the cost of the dive.
Snowshoe at the Snowiest Place on Earth*
Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park
There’s just something about a superlative that makes for a massive feeling of exceptionality and accomplishment. And yes, Paradise at Mount Rainier is the snowiest place on earth, although with a few asterisks (“* where snow is regularly recorded,” “* in 1971-1972,” etc).
But asterisks don’t matter when you’re breathing air that’s so crisp it feels like aerosolized sunshine on your lungs; when on a clear day, you can see so far toward the horizon that you can almost convince yourself you’re seeing the curvature of the earth, and mountains you know to be hundreds of miles away feel like they’re almost walking distance; when every crunch of those snowshoes that keep you on top of the glacier means you’re getting higher up and that the views will be just that much better.
If you go: You don’t have to be some wild adrenaline junkie covered in 60 feet of nylon climbing rope with four ice axes strapped to your pack to be a part of this. You can rent snowshoes at the Longmire General Store on your way to Paradise. To make the most of your trip, stay overnight in Ashford or at the National Park Inn at Longmire, so you’re only a short drive from the snowshoe adventure of a lifetime.
Take a Ford Model-T Off Road
Model-T Driver’s Ed at the LeMay Collections at Marymount, Spanaway
Picture this: You’ve just had a little bit of classroom instruction with a retired Ford engineer, and you learned the history of the Model-T, and how it changed the way Americans saw America. It made the country smaller, more egalitarian. Classroom learning is interesting, but now it’s time to choose a Model T, and start the “practical application” portion of the afternoon.
You think to yourself, aha! Three pedals. This is familiar: Clutch, brake, gas. If only it were that simple. It’s clutch/low gear, reverse, brake. But what about the gas, you think. You’ll find it where you’d expect to find the windshield wiper lever, if this were the 2012 Ford Focus you left in the parking lot. Once your brain has rewired itself (they say it’s actually easier if you’ve never learned to drive a manual transmission), you’re on the road with the instructor behind the wheel. After five minutes pointing out the pedals and levers, you switch places and now you’re in the driver’s seat. Five more minutes, and the instructor is asking you to turn off the paved road onto a forest path that winds around Marymount’s 80 acres. Before too long, he’s asking if you’d like to make a series of sharp turns (i.e. do donuts) in a field.
It’s a thrill and a skill. Think about it like this: The people who knew how to drive a Ford Model-T back when it was taking over America’s roads more than a hundred years ago? Let’s just say they’re no longer doing much driving. So once you’ve taken a half-day Model-T Driver’s Ed course, you’ve had the time of your life joining a fairly elite group of automobile enthusiasts and experience chasers.
If you go: Pricing and booking are here. The LeMay Collections at Marymount is the largest private collection of automobiles in the Pacific Northwest, and maybe the United States, and is located on the sprawling grounds of a historic convent-turned-military-academy. So the 1,000+ vehicles in the collection (along with the Rodin Sculpture Garden that’s also located on site) are well worth planning some extra time to see. And since you’re already in the area, you might as well drop by Tacoma and visit LeMay – America’s Car Museum, the largest automotive museum in North America.
Get Smelling-Distance from a Bison
Keeper Adventure Tour at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, Eatonville
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A family goes to a one-of-a-kind wildlife park, where they get into a specially outfitted Jeep driven by an animal expert for a tour of the park’s free-roaming area, where adventure and closer-than-expected animal encounters are around every turn. Now think less T-Rex and more American bison, and you’ve stepped off the silver screen and into Northwest Trek Wildlife Park.
If you’ve ever imagined getting so close to bison that you can smell their musk (and who hasn't?), or hear a moose gnawing on foliage, that’s what the Keeper Adventure Tour at Northwest Trek is all about. You’ll take a souped-up Jeep onto the back paths and out onto the grassland that the tram tours only see from a distance. Your keeper/guide knows the individual animals, and that familiarity lets you safely come just feet away from some of the most immense land animals in North America.
Seeing animals from a distance undoubtedly gives you an appreciation for their size, but being close enough to feel the warmth of their breath gives you a true understanding of their strength, and a thrilling experience for both kids and adults.
If you go: Pricing and scheduling are here. Northwest Trek is located not far from Mount Rainier, so it’s often a good idea to book an overnight stay and make a two-fer out of the trip.
Blow Your Own Glass in Chihulytown, USA
You’re looking around a hot shop studio with music blasting, and people manhandling molten glass on rods all around you. The ovens are glowing with such heat energy that they look white-hot, and the cavernous studio is comfortable and maybe a little balmy. There’s creative energy flowing through the space on distortion waves from the heat.
As the hometown of the most famous glass artist in the world and the leading pioneer of the studio glass art movement (Dale Chihuly), Tacoma has glass art in its DNA. Even beyond the two museums (Museum of Glass and Tacoma Art Museum) that each have collections that puts them among the most important in the world for glass art, the sheer volume of glass in public (the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, Union Station, UW-Tacoma campus library, etc.) makes a statement. So while Tacoma isn’t the only place in the world you can learn how to blow your own glass art in a private workshop, there’s something different (a polite way of saying “better”) about doing it in the place where glass art really found its foothold as its own medium.
Under the supervision of a professional glass artist, you pick out your own colors and patterns, learn how to gather the glass, turn it, keep it moving and blow it into shape. When you’re done, you’ll have a showpiece for your living room that’s the ultimate humble-brag. Just sit back, and wait for the inevitable compliment, to which the only possible response is a simple “Oh, that? I made it where Dale Chihuly is from.”
If you go: If you’re gearing up to make your own glass art, you couldn’t ask for a better visual introduction than the Museum of Glass (where you can watch glassblowers in their hot shop/amphitheater) and Tacoma Art Museum. Book a room in downtown Tacoma to make sure you have time for all of it. Maybe on the waterfront at the Silver Cloud Inn Tacoma Waterfront or the Silver Cloud Tacoma at Point Ruston Waterfront. Or the new Marriott Tacoma Downtown. Or the glass-art themed boutique Hotel Murano.
Play Honest-to-Goodness Championship Golf
Chambers Bay Golf Course, University Place
USGA championship golf courses that are open to the public are so rare that you can count them on one hand with a finger missing. Fortunately, the home of the 2015 U.S. Open is right here in at Chambers Bay Golf Club in University Place, and it’s a tossup as to whether it’s the links or the views that are carrying the weight of this experience. (For me and my slice, it’s the wide, forgiving fairways.)
If you’re a golfer, you’ll probably remember the iconic “lone pine” tree behind the 15th green overlooking the Salish Sea that became the image representing the sport that year. That, and the layered silhouettes of the islands and Olympic Mountains are the backdrop for your round, as you walk in the footsteps of champions on the course that Golf Digest named to their top 25 greatest public golf courses.