MT. RAINIER - As the holidays approach, Mt. Rainier park staff members are busy preparing for the official start of the winter season and one of the most popular times to visit the popular Washington state tourist destination.
At present, there is insufficient snow depth to open the Paradise snow play runs this coming weekend. Snow depth is currently 59 percent of normal, with 38 inches of snow now on the ground. This is well below the minimum snow depth of five feet required to protect the historic Paradise meadows and cover hazards such as tree tops and rock outcroppings. Adequate snow depth is also critical for creating snow berms, which keep sledders from going off course into parking lots and other hazardous areas.
Unlike commercial ski and sledding areas, Mt. Rainier depends on the kindness of Mother Nature to make snow. Many local ski, sledding and snow play areas make their own snow and thus may provide early season opportunities.
Beginning this Saturday, Dec. 21, the road between Longmire and Paradise will be open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, provided road, weather and staffing conditions are favorable for safe road access. Visitors must leave Paradise by 4:30 p.m. to clear the Longmire gate by its 5 p.m. closure. The uphill gate at Longmire closes at 4 p.m. The nightly gate closure is in place to keep visitors and snow plow operators safe.
The established day use hours are an attempt to maximize daily access to Paradise while managing operations costs within the limits of available funding. The park has absorbed more than $1.1 million in cuts to operating funds since 2010 and this is impacting staffing and services.
All vehicles at the national park are required to carry tire chains when driving in the park in winter and spring as road and weather conditions can and do change rapidly. Traction tires or chains may be required on any type of vehicle, at any time, so motorists are advised to come prepared for winter driving conditions.
Mount Rainier National Park is open to public use year-round. Longmire and the National Park Inn are almost always accessible by vehicle, except during severe weather events.
Hikers might consider the Carbon River Trail, located in the park’s northwest corner. This lower elevation area is often snow-free during winter and is open to pedestrians and bicycles year-round.
Even without the snow play area being open, staff members say the park is a wonderful place to visit to participate in a variety of winter activities, including snowshoeing, snowboarding, skiing, building snowmen and exploring snow caves, hiking and sightseeing.
Camping permits are available for overnight trips. Recreationists venturing into backcountry areas should be prepared for winter conditions by carrying 10 winter essentials: shovel, full length insulated sleeping pad, stove and fuel, heat packs, goggles and wool/pile hat, gloves, avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe, reliable weather and avalanche forecasts, and map, compass and GPS (with extra batteries).