Mt Rainier’s famous wildflowers and high mountain meadows are covered in deep snow, fog, clouds, rain and snow frequently limit the views and yet this is an AWESOME time for a day at Mt Rainier! If you’re looking to #getoutallwinter, a winter day trip to Mt Rainier is an adventureous and memorable way to spend the day. In my opinion a glorious winter day on the mountain is even better than in the summer.
Driving to Mt Rainier in Winter
The most important thing to note is that most of the roads are closed except for the road through the Nisqually entrance (southwest side of the park) to Longmire and Paradise. Sometimes the road to Paradise is closed during bad storms and every day the gate is locked at Longmire just after sunset. Driving as far as Longmire is not that different than summer, but after that point the driving becomes more challenging. The park service REQUIRES that all vehicles carry tire chains (even if they are 4 wheel drive) and they may require you to put them on. The road from Longmire up to Paradise is only 11 miles but it is extremely curvy and steep in places and it takes a long time, depending on conditions. Be aware of and keep your eyes out for snowplows and ice on the road. This road is generally plowed and open all winter, but does close at times if a storm dumps too much snow for the park service to get it open right away. You can check the road conditions on the park’s webpage and following them on Twitter is a good idea for the latest the day of (no Twitter account required to follow them, just google it). There is a large parking lot at the Paradise Visitor Center (the Paradise Inn is closed in winter and the Paradise Visitor Center is only open weekends and holidays).
Snowshoeing and Hiking at Mt Rainier in Winter
Generally speaking, you’ll be on snow in the park in the winter, although the trails around Longmire are at times snow free and melt out much sooner (Paradise is often not snow free until July and the other roads open at various times in May and June). You can also cross country ski, though you need to know what you’re doing as there are no groomed trails in the park. I would recommend strapping on the snowshoes and walking around the Paradise meadows, which is unbelievably beautiful and will make you feel like a true mountaineer even a short distance from the parking lot! It is important to be aware of the current weather forecast and avalanche forecast. The rangers in the visitor center will be able to advise you on good places to go based on the current weather. They also provide a map of winter routes and areas to avoid. This may sound insane since we are talking about winter in the Pacific Northwest, but make sure to bring sunscreen! I have gotten sunburned in the middle of winter on a cloudy day snowshoeing at Paradise (I have very light and burnable skin, but still!). If it’s later in the winter or spring this is even more important.
A great snowshoe route out from Paradise is Alta Vista (shorter) or Panorama Point (longer) at Paradise. Both have increasingly beautiful views of the surrounding mountains as well as THE mountain. Panorama point is not far (2.5 miles), but at nearly 2000 feet of elevation gain it’s a pretty epic snowshoe for normal people (not mountain climbers). The good news is that you can turn around at any time when you’ve had enough. Alta Vista is less than a mile and has a much more modest 500 feet of elevation gain (which won’t feel like nothing especially if there’s lots of new snow.
Another great option is Reflection Lakes which starts from the Narada Falls trailhead 5 miles below Paradise. It is also possible to do this snowshoe from Paradise through to Narada Falls but I find there’s never enough time for that (I’m slow). I like starting and returning from Narada Falls and then driving up to Paradise to play around there. This snowshoe route is marked (start behind the restrooms) and climbs steeply for a short distance up to the road (which is closed in winter). You can either snowshoe around the road to reflection lakes or you can go over a small rise and through the forest to get there. The later is the way to go if there is any chance of an avalanche (and I prefer going that way anyway). Either way you get to the same open area next to reflection lake with a fantastic view of the mountain (in fact in summer it’s a very crowded parking area!). Reflection lake is an awesome place for that winter picnic or to eat the hot food and drinks you brought with you! You won’t see the reflection with winter snow, but it’s still an amazing view. As always, use caution around “frozen” lakes in the northwest as they are not necessarily frozen enough to walk on (I always avoid them for this reason!).
Me playing on snowshoes at Reflection Lake with an awesome view of Mt Rainier (and no, I was not out on the lake!)
Snow play at Paradise
Once there’s enough snow, the snow play area at Paradise opens, which is an official sledding hill and a super fun place to play with your tube or saucer! To protect the meadows quite a bit of snow is required to open it and you can check to see if it’s open yet on Mt Rainier’s website. This is a fun outing for the whole family and an alternative way to get out of the car and play without snowshoeing or sinking chest deep in snow!
Hiking around Longmire
As mentioned above, Longmire is snow free earlier in the spring, later in the fall and sometimes snow free in between. Longmire hiking may also be snowshoeing, but not necessarily. You can hike or snowshoe along the wonderland trail, or you can do the short (less than a mile) flat loop around the Trail of the Shadows, which is passes through historic buildings that were part of the former hot springs resort as well as through the forest.
Getting away from it all
If you want to get away from all the other visitors (there are far, far less people in winter but you’ll still see a lot of people at Paradise on sunny winter days), a couple of other areas of the park that I’ve talked about before are Mowich Lake and the east side of the park beyond where the road is closed at the Crystal Mountain road. These areas have no services of any kind.
Services and Food
Make sure to have a full tank of gas as there is no gas available in the park (this is also true in summer) and it may take longer than you planned to get from place to place depending on weather conditions. Food is available in the Paradise Visitor Center (weekends and holidays only) cafeteria style and there is a sit down restaurant at Longmire that it open daily. Bringing your own snacks, food and water is a good money saving strategy as well as a way to avoid lines and spend the time you have exploring.
Have an amazing time being one of the lucky ones to experience the magic of a winter day in Mt Rainier National Park!