Mount Rainier National Park is a beloved summer destination, but make no mistake about it: Wintertime opportunities for outdoor adventure abound on the flanks of the state’s highest peak. (So long as your idea of a good winter’s day includes snow, that is.)
Snowshoeing, skiing and snowboarding, skiing (both downhill and cross-country), and even some good old-fashioned sledding are all prime for the picking this time of year in Rainier.
“We have snow coverage pretty much throughout the park [right now],” volunteer ranger Maggie Webster says. “You should be expecting to find snow wherever you go at Rainier this time of year.” Paradise, Rainier’s winter epicenter, gets an average of about 52 feet of snow annually, with about eight feet currently on the ground and more forecasted to come.
Not the whole park is accessible, as the Nisqually entrance is the only one open and only the road from Nisaqually to Paradise is plowed (and take note that all cars are required to carry chains in the park between November 1 and May 1). But that still leaves plenty of room for winter fun. Be sure to check for road closures and weather conditions before you—the Mount Rainier National Park Twitter feed will have the most up-to-date information.
Once in the park, check in with the visitor’s center at the Longmire Museum or the Jackson Center at Paradise (open weekends only in the winter) for current trail conditions. And before you head out, here's a primer on the adventures awaiting in Rainier National Park in winter.
If you’re new to snowshoeing, or simply want to have someone else to take the lead so you can fully enjoy the scenery, join for a guided snowshoe walk. A park ranger will escort you along the Nisqually Vista trail, which is about 1.8 miles round-trip, over the course of two hours while sharing snowshoeing tips and information about the winter wildlife. (This is a great option for families, but participants must be at least eight years old.) The walks leave out of the Jackson Visitor Center in Paradise at 11 am and 1:30 pm every Saturday, Sunday, and holiday until March 27 this year, and you can rent snowshoes for a $5 donation for the duration of the guided walk.
There are plenty of other options if you’re a snowshoe veteran more inclined to explore the park on your own. In addition to the Nisqually Vista Trail, there are two other routes marked with wands (though, if you go during the week after a snowstorm, you may still have to break trail): Narada Falls to Paradise, and Narada Falls or Paradise to Reflection Lakes. These offer an “intermediate level of winter recreation,” Webster explains.
Then, if you feel confident in your navigation skills and want to notch up the difficulty, there’s the whole rest of the park to explore, like the six-mile round-trip walk to Mazama Ridge, which will offer a stunning panorama of the surrounding peaks. Full-day snowshoe rentals are available at Longmire’s National Park Inn for $14.50 adults/$10.50 children under 12.
There are no groomed trails within the park, and sometimes the local snow conditions don’t make for the best cross-country ski experience; however, there are still several suitable routes. One of the best is to ski down Paradise Valley Road , which is closed to traffic in the winter and becomes covered in heaps of snow. It travels along the Paradise River, offering views of the Paradise River Valley, the Nisqually River Valley, and the Sawtooth Ridge. Full-day cross-country ski rentals are also available from the National Park Inn—a set including skis, boots, and poles is $18.75 adults/$13.25 children under 12.
Skiing and Snowboarding
Mount Rainier National Park in winter becomes a playground for backcountry skiers and boarders . Camp Muir , the 10,080-foot high camp on the way to Rainier’s summit, is one of the most popular ski touring destinations, and Van Trump Park is another good choice on the mountain’s south side. But if you’ve come to Rainier to ski, make sure you have the requisite skills: “We expect that people who engage in [backcountry skiing and snowboarding] have skills in route-finding and avalanche assessment,” Webster says.
Last but not least, no winter trip to Rainier would be complete without stopping by the snow play area at Paradise, where you can saucer and slide down a groomed slope to your heart’s content. The area is staffed with medically trained rangers on weekends, and is open to use at your own risk during the week. Wheeee!