There’s more to Enumclaw than just the road to Mount Rainier

Nicolo Ponnekanti tries out one of the pianos on the sidewalk outside Enumclaw Music.
Nicolo Ponnekanti tries out one of the pianos on the sidewalk outside Enumclaw Music. rponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

Enumclaw? Isn’t that the last place to get Starbucks before Mount Rainier?

If you only think of Enumclaw as a refueling stopover before you head up the mountain, it’s time to turn off the highway and do a bit more exploring. The gateway town not only has a handful of cute shops, murals and a 1917 theater, it has pubs, cafes and restaurants with local brews and tasty treats in historic buildings. And, of course, the location between a 400-foot gorge and a 14,411-foot volcano doesn’t hurt.

Peaks and gorges

If you’ve been to Enumclaw, it’s probably because you have a higher destination. Crystal Mountain Resort is only 40 miles up the road; Mount Rainier’s Sunrise area is just 13 more. But you don’t have to go that far for a peak. Just 1 mile south of town is Pinnacle Peak (also called Mount Peak, or Mount Pete, after the original Yugoslavian immigrant who donated the land). Past the King County Fairgrounds, the Cal Magnusson Trail takes you on a well-kept but steep route straight up (1,000 feet in 1 mile), through fern-filled forest and — near the top — striking prisms of columnar basalt jutting from the slope’s wall.

But don’t expect a view after all that climbing. The summit is just a flat square with benches and treetops.

For a deeper hike, travel north of town along state Route 169, turning right at the Enumclaw-Franklin Road, and you’ll reach the Green River Gorge. Plunging some 400 feet from the plateau, this ancient sandstone gorge is the last river-cut rock canyon in Western Washington. Sheer vertical rock cliffs swathed in ferns, thick forest and a river that offers tempting but dangerous adventures, the gorge is tricky to access, but worth it. Park on either side of the Gorge Bridge and you can scramble down to an area well-known (and sadly, well-trashed) by locals looking for a place to party. A projecting rock offers a 15-foot cliff jump, with caves a little farther along the trail, while rafters can enter and exit at the state parks on either end: Flaming Geyser and Kanaskat-Palmer.

Be safe and smart with water depth: The Green River varies seasonally, with strong undercurrents and cold temperatures. Many have drowned there.

For easier water access and a rocky beach, try the Hanging Gardens Trail, accessed through a rusty-red gate on the Enumclaw-Franklin Road just short of the bridge, on the west side of the road. Unmarked, it’s the most northerly of the gates that don’t sport “No Trespassing” signs. A mile of trail will get you down to the water, with the vertical ferny cliffs a stunning backdrop to a very cold swimming hole.

Eat in a mercantile, drink in a mint

For a town of 11,400, Enumclaw has a surprising number of places to eat and drink. Many folks know Charlie’s Diner as a prime spot for pre-mountain breakfasts, and the reputation is well-earned. Servings as eye-bogglingly big as the menu, fast and friendly service and the wall of skylight windows open to the light all add to the vibe, but it’s the food that counts. Fluffy pancakes are slathered with thick strawberry sauce and whipped cream, omelettes are stuffed with fresh veggies and cheese; and meat options abound from sausages to steak to ham and eggs. Only the (drip) coffee is a let down. Bring your own if you care about that.

For lunch or dinner, you can eat in a former mercantile store with big-city food and a upscale-barn vibe. Kelly’s Mercantile does tapas, lunch and dinner, with dessert, espresso and sustainable/local beer and wine thrown in. While the prices aren’t cheap ($14 mac-and-cheese), the food will make you never want to leave. That mac-and-cheese came in a wine-based sauce with sharp English cheese and scrumptious crispy crumbs on top, while a housemade gnocchi was plated up beautifully with just-out-of-the-garden pesto and tomatoes tasting of summer. Salads are fresh, and the menu (by chefs Ky Loop and Tyler Garcia) has a variety of meat, seafood and veggie options. There’s live music most weekends.

After a hard day’s hiking/skiing/rafting, you can dip into local craft beer at The Historic Mint, where stained-glass doors and exposed brick make a cool atmosphere for the 28 local, regional and national craft beers on tap (including Snoqualmie Draft root beer). The menu goes from sandwiches and sliders to wild mushroom-and-truffle gnocchi and jambalaya. Both locations are family-friendly.

Finally, top it off (or pack a go-box) with pie. Suzie Sidhu, also known as The Pie Goddess, has a tiny slice of heaven on Griffin Avenue and Railroad Street, where she bakes up blackberry, lemon, lime, chocolate, spicy walnut and apple, rhubarb and just about anything else you could want into flaky pastry goodness. You can find Stumptown coffee and a cozy atmosphere, plus nitro brew and six flavors of kombucha on tap, at The Local cafe.

Other choices include the Rainier Bar and Grill, Jackson’s Pizza and Pasta, Bangkok Thai and El Camino, with freshly-scooped Snoqualmie Ice Cream and housemade chocolates at Sweet Necessities. Fast food abounds along the highway.

Sidewalk pianos and murals

Exploring Enumclaw’s downtown doesn’t take long, but holds a few delightful surprises. Murals abound, from the horse and buggy on the side of The Sequel Books to the highly realistic Jensen & Co mercantile store on the side of Bangkok Thai. Cole Street offers a handful of vintage, antique and homewares stores (Foundry Home, Bush Co, Bridget’s Boutique), plus two pianos ready to play on the sidewalk outside Enumclaw Music.

Nature’s Inventory holds a tantalizing array of lotions, oils and handmade soaps in an airy historic building, and The Sequel is one of those precious few remaining independent bookstores with new and used tomes, fine espresso coffee and plenty of light-filled nooks for reading.

Don’t miss the bronze sculptures around town: a logging team on Griffin Avenue and a lonely horse on Cole Street, which locals have thoughtfully provided with an actual horse blanket.

And up the hill on Wells Street is the Chalet Theatre, a 1917 beauty that’s been in the same family for decades, sporting swirly interior tapestries and rust-red tile on the street front. It plays movies, local concerts and even (last summer) Macklemore.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Find it

Enumclaw sits on state Route 410, 28 miles east of Tacoma. Information: visitrainier.com/Enumclaw.

Eat and drink it

Charlie’s Diner: 5 a.m.-2 p.m. daily; 1335 Roosevelt Ave. E., Enumclaw; 360-825-5191, visitrainier.com/charlies-cafe.

Kelly’s Mercantile: 11 a.m.-late daily; 1444 Cole St., Enumclaw; 360-284-2333, kellysmercantile.com.

The Historic Mint: 11 a.m.-late daily; 1608 Cole St., Enumclaw; 360-284-2517, thehistoricmint.com.

The Pie Goddess: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily (9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays); 1100 Griffin Ave., Enumclaw; 360-625-8568, facebook.com/ThePieGoddess.

Enumclaw Wine Walk: 5-9 p.m. Nov. 12; $30 for 10 tasting tickets; downtown Enumclaw locations; enumclawchamber.com

Hike it

Pinnacle Peak: Trailhead at 276th Avenue Southeast and Southeast 472nd Street, Enumclaw. wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/mount-peak-pinnacle-peak.

Hanging Gardens: Trailhead off Enumclaw-Franklin Road, west side; wta.org.

Crystal Mountain Resort: 40 miles east of Enumclaw along Route 410; crystalmountainresort.com.

Mount Rainier National Park: Sunrise area 53 miles east of Enumclaw off Route 410; nps.gov/mora.

Shop it

Most shops are along Cole Street near Griffin Avenue. The Chalet Theatre is at 1721 Wells St., chalettheatre.com