Snowshoeing in Mount Rainier National Park

At 14,410 feet tall, Mount Rainier towers over the landscape of Washington State.  Mount Rainier is the highest mountain in the Cascade Range and the 5th highest mountain in the lower 48 states.  The apparent height of Mount Rainier is dramatic, as the base of the mountain lies at a much lower elevation than the 14ers in Colorado.  This results in a mountain that towers over it's surroundings in a way that makes it seem massive.

In addition to the height, the weather and moisture that result from the nearby Pacific Ocean create dramatic snowfalls that have covered the mountain in 26 glaciers that cover a combined 36 square miles of glacier.  This results in snow conditions consistent with much larger mountains.  As a result,
Mount Rainier National Park is a popular destination for climbers, mountaineers and hikers using the mountain to prepare for bigger ascents in Alaska, the Alps or the Himalayas.

Mount Rainier Winter
Snowfall above Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park
Growing up in Colorado hiking, climbing and backpacking, I have imagined donning an ice axe and crampons to ascend to the top of Mount Rainier.  I used to read through the definitive resource on the topic, "Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills."  I would practice what I could, I have greatly benefited from the chapters on hiking and backpacking in general.  When I was in high school I rock climbed both indoor and at the local crags.  I have even spent a few winters playing around with crampons, glissading and even sleeping in a snow cave on Mount Quandaray.  But, I never quite got around to traveling to Washington and making an attempt to summit Mount Rainier.

This January, my wife and I decided to take a trip to Seattle.  I have never been and she had not been there since she was a child.  In addition to the typical tourist sites, and the Seattle Boat Show, I decided that I wanted to go to Mount Rainier National Park while we were there.

Now obviously January is not the peak tourist season to visit the park.  In fact, we had to do some research about just what would be open and accessible for a winter visit.  As it turns out, only a small portion of the park is actually open during the winter.  The Longmire area tends to stay open all winter and the road from Longmire to Paradise is maintained, but depending on the weather may or may not open on any given day.  In addition to the frequent road closures to Paradise, snow chains are required for any vehicle traveling in the park during winter.

After leaving Seattle, we drove about an hour and a half to get to our little bed and breakfast that we booked through AirBNB.  We had heard of a store called Whittaker Mountaineering nearby that would rent out chains and other equipment.  We stopped by that afternoon to confirm that they would have what we needed and make sure we knew when they opened.

The next morning we went back to rent the required chains, as well as some snowshoes.  We decided that even though we were not going to get to summit the mountain, we wanted to at least enjoy the park through snowshoes.  Now, I'm not an expert at snowshoeing and my wife had never done it before, so I was a little worried about how much "fun" it was actually going to be.

Nevertheless, we rented what we needed and the nice young lady at the store told us that we may even get lucky and be able to see the mountain that day.  We purchased an annual, all-parks pass to take advantage of Rocky Mountain National Park back at home in Colorado.  At the entrance gate we found out that the road was open all the way to Paradise.  We decided to head straight to the top, since we were expecting snow over the next couple days.  As we drove the winding road up to Paradise, I was pleasantly surprised that the road was completely dry to the top.

As we parked in the parking lot, we could see kids sledding on a hills side roped off just for that purpose.  There were several other couples getting ready to snowshoe and a pair just getting back.  As we put on a couple extra layers and got ready to go, we noticed snowflakes in the air.

We headed up the mountain, noticing numerous trails from snowshoes and cross-country skis criss-crossing the mountainside.  We generally headed up towards Panorama Point, but with no intention of making all the way there and back.  As we picked different paths to work our way up the mountain the clouds got lower and the snowfall increased.  We kept working our way higher hoping to get a better view of the valley around the Nisqually River, but the closer we got to a good viewpoint, the less we could see.  Ultimately, we only walked about a mile, before getting to a ridge line that I believe would have offered an amazing view, if only the snow wasn't quickly falling.

After a couple photos, after all, I needed at least one to prove I was snowshoeing in a winter snowstorm on the slopes of Mount Rainer, we headed back to the car.  By the time we got back, most of the families sledding had left, only one remained.  There was about two inches of fresh snow on the parking lot and our car.  Of course, being a rental car, it wasn't equipped with a brush for the snow.  After cleaning off the snow by hand we worked out way back down the road to Longmire.

The park service plows the roads, but elects to protect the environment by not using sand, salt or chemicals on the roads.  Fortunately for us, the temperature during the day had been high enough that the snow was wet, but the road was not icy.  We had an easy, uneventful trip back down to Longmire.  We noticed a waterfall along the road as we came down, but due to the fading light we decided we would have to attempt to photograph it the next day.  We stopped to check out the Longmire Museum before leaving the park for the night.  Some of the animals on display were original to the museum first opening up.

We then headed back to our bed and breakfast to dry out and relax for another day...


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