NACHES, Wash. — Drive to Mount Rainier on U.S. Highway 12 and you’ll see signs explaining you’re on the White Pass Scenic Byway. Stop at a restaurant or shop and you can probably pick up maps and brochures promoting the route’s attractions.
But drive to Mount Rainier on nearby State Route 410 and you’d probably never know the road is one of an even more select group of routes considered so scenic it’s a nationally designated tourist destination.
For decades, SR 410’s designation as Chinook Scenic Byway has gotten limited attention. But now local organizers hope that’s all about to change.
“People come from all over the world to see Mount Rainier. To get there, you have to take one of these byways,” said Danielle Surkatty, a member of the Chinook Scenic Byway’s board of directors.
Designated scenic byways lure visitors who support local businesses. But until now, few from the communities along SR 410 have really stepped up to take advantage opportunities offered under the byway program.
A national scenic byway is a road recognized by the U.S. Department of Transportation for holding one of six qualities: archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and/or scenic. The program was established by Congress in 1991 to preserve and protect the nation’s scenic, but often less-traveled, roads and promote tourism and economic development.
It’s ironic that Chinook Pass is quiet about its status. Of Washington’s 28 scenic byways, only Chinook and the International Selkirk Loop, northeast of Spokane, have been given the special scenic byway designation of All-American Roads because they are so unique.
The 87-mile Chinook Scenic Byway is a winding two-lane highway providing access to some of the region’s best recreation spots. From the west, it climbs from Enumclaw to the Crystal Mountain ski resort community and the northwest edge of Mount Rainier National Park. It then traverses 5,430-foot Chinook Pass and continues east past hiking trails and campgrounds in the Wenatchee National Forest before dropping down to follow the Naches River into the Yakima Valley.
“People take this route because they want to, not because they need to get somewhere,” Surkatty said. “We want to improve the experience of people driving the byway.”
Thanks to a $60,000 grant from the federal highway administration and a $20,000 matching grant from Mount Rainier National Park, the communities along the Chinook Pass corridor are about to start work on a new plan for what they want the bypass to be. The western side of the Chinook Scenic Byway had previously made such a plan, but this will be the first time for the east side will be included in the planning process, Surkatty said.
When the White Pass Scenic Byway did its corridor management plan years ago, it enabled backers to apply for grant money for things such as signs, marketing materials, and turnouts for scenic viewpoints, Surkatty said.
The federal highway administration gave $1.9 million in grants to scenic byway programs in Washington in 2012 and $5.5 million in 2011, funding projects like a $360,000 rest area on the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway and a $796,000 interpretive center for the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway.
“That’s why we want to do it, because it will open the door to grant money,” she said. “The government has money for this and that, but they want to see what your community’s plans are first, what the community really wants.”
To find out what the communities along the Chinook route — including Naches, Nile, Cliffdell, Goose Prairie, Crystal Mountain, Greenwater and Enumclaw — want from the byway, the board is holding a series of public meetings. The first will be Tuesday in Naches and Wednesday in Nile.
Randy Juette, president of the Naches Valley Chamber of Commerce, sees the increased marketing of the byway as a way to increase the money spent along the route. Tourists are already coming from the west side to see Mount Rainier or head further east to wine country, he said, but promoting the byway — with maps and online — will help those travelers find restaurants and shops along the route.
“We need to capitalize on the byways to bring people right to our front doorstep,” he said.
Juette said that some of the rural business owners he works with have been skeptical of Internet marketing in the past, but he’s trying to convince them to see the value of the byway website for bringing in smartphone-carrying visitors and their dollars.
Juette and Surkatty say the point of the upcoming meeting is to get locals involved and get their ideas on what the byway should do to do to benefit communities along the way.
Ron Myers, who owns the Gold Creek Station along SR 410 said that he’s “completely in the dark now” about what the Chinook Scenic Byway plans could mean for his business, but he’s planning to get involved and find out.
“This is all about getting the funding to do all the cool things we want,” Surkatty said. “The people who come to the meetings will be the people who determine the outcome.”