We’ve written about Mount Rainier in Winter before, and it will come as no surprise that one tried-and-true method for beating the summer crowds is to visit during the off-season. Winter summits of the mountain itself are rare, so the guide services aren’t operating, and the jam-packed parking lots of the peak season are a thing of the past.
Much of Mount Rainier National Park shuts down completely in the winter, including the Carbon River, White River, and Ohanapecosh entrances, and the portions of highway 410 and highway 123 within the park are closed. The Sunrise visitors center is inaccessible. These parts of the park are still open, though only accessible from outside the park boundary, so only a few hardy souls venture into them.
The Nisqually entrance remains in service year-round, though, along with the visitors centers at Longmire and Paradise. Road crews work long hours to open the road from Longmire to Paradise on all but the worst storm days. This makes the park a great place to visit when snow blankets the Pacific Northwest, especially for those visitors who would rather strap on snowshoes than skis.
This means many of the classic hikes are available to hikers equipped with appropriate clothing and snowshoes: the southern sections of the Wonderland Trail near Longmire, Kautz Creek, Rampart Ridge, Narada Falls, Van Trump Park, Panorama Point and more.
Snowshoes, tire chains, avalanche gear and more may be rented at Whittaker Mountaineering in Ashford, five miles outside the park entrance.
While weather can be a major factor, especially above treeline, snowshoeing the winter trails within the park can be a particularly rewarding experience. A majority of the park’s winter visitors are there either to ski in the backcountry near Paradise, or to sled at the park’s “snowplay” area, meaning the area immediately surrounding the visitors centers can be (and usually is) a zoo. This is especially true on weekends.
Hike far enough away from the chaos, though, and you’ll enjoy those famous views from Panorama Point or the Muir Snowfield, without the crowds. Start somewhere other than Paradise, and you won’t likely have to travel far from the parking lot before you have the trail to yourself.
All vehicles within the park are required to carry snow chains, and chains are often required to access Paradise on all but AWD/4WD vehicles with approved traction tires. While you may not find chains to be necessary in your daily driving, the Park Service does not salt the roads for environmental reasons, so the roads and parking lots are often a sheet of ice. More than a few hikers have slipped and injured themselves just getting out of the car!
The road beyond Longmire is scheduled to open at 9AM every day, but it can open late when plow crews are short-staffed or a storm has hammered the park overnight. During storm cycles, rangers may also swing the uphill gate shut earlier than usual to make sure visitors have enough time to get back down before dark.
Follow Mount Rainier on Twitter for frequent updates on road conditions and openings, and consider altering your plans if conditions force the road to remain closed for the day.
Winter hiking and snowshoeing require a bit more preparation than a quick summer stroll, so pack extra layers and pay attention to weather forecasts. Be sure to also check the daily Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) forecast before venturing into avy-prone terrain! After all, it’s not just skiers and snowboarders who expose themselves to avalanche risk on steep slopes in the winter backcountry.
Don’t let the winter blues get you down! While the days are short, temperatures are cold, and many of Washington’s classic trails are inaccessible due to road closures, Mount Rainier National Park is a great place to escape the city for a day and get your mountain fix.
Snowshoeing requires few new skills for those already familiar with hiking, and traveling in them is far more enjoyable than post-holing through the snow. Wait for a bluebird day (or don’t, as you can tell from these photos) and get out there!