A Cold Weather Quest at Mt. Rainier, Washington

Photo © Visit Ranier

Winter reveals the mountain in all her snowy grandeur—her most stylish look.

That’s when I most want to breathe her fresh air, smell her rain-soaked forests and listen to the winter wrens calling. Aye, there’s the rub. The white frosting blanketing Rainier during the chilly months triggers road closures throughout the park.

However, one road, on the southern edge of Mt. Rainier National Park, remains open year round. Barring extreme weather conditions, Highway 706 escorts you to Paradise during daylight hours, but closes at night during winter. Following this route, I accessed the park through the Nisqually Entrance, the only entrance open during the cold season. After buying my park pass, I continued to Longmire.

The Longmire Historic District offers the only overnight lodging inside the park at this time of year. Guest rooms in the National Park Inn come with everything you need, and mine even had a private bath. Inside the park you leave all Wi-Fi and cell service behind. Guests are free to spend time noticing gigantic trees more than a thousand years old, breathing in the crisp air and leaning toward the roar of nearby waterfalls while rocking in the chairs on the covered porch.

After my dinner settled, I tucked into a piece of mouthwatering blackberry pie I’d collected on the way at the Copper Creek Inn in Ashford. I’ve been a fan of that pie since my first bite as a child and can’t pass the Inn without stopping for a slice.

Through my open window, the mountain freshness lulled me to sleep. By morning I was reenergized and anxious to feel the briskness of snow on my skin. The subalpine setting at Paradise creates the perfect backdrop for high mountain recreation. Families and singles were sledding in the designated snow play area north of the upper parking lot. A brochure I picked up said to use only “soft devices” like sleds without runners, inner tubes and saucers.

If you prefer snowshoeing, like I do, I recommend the ranger-guided hike along the 1.8-mile Nisqually Vista trail. Ask at the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center about when the next one is scheduled because who doesn’t want to tell their friends they “snowshoed in Paradise.” Hardcore athletes with overwhelming stamina like to ski or snow board down from Camp Muir, the basecamp for climbers.

Leaving is hard, but when you’re ready to slow your pace, follow Highway 706 West to 7 South and stop in the enchanted mountain village of Morton. Traveling mid-February? Reserve seats for the local dinner theatre production at the Roxy Theatre. Browse the Barbara Clevenger Johnson Gallery next door for fine arts and crafts from local artisans including paintings, photography, fiber arts and jewelry.

Back in the car, I followed Highway 12 east, the White Pass Scenic Byway. I was on alert for wildlife-viewing opportunities as cleared roadways offer efficient passage for deer, elk and the elusive fox.

At the White Pass Ski Area, I stopped at the Nordic Center and discovered groomed double-tracked trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Downhill skiers have ample room for schussing, too. There’s even night skiing.

Making this journey in January, February or early March offers the rare chance to watch the supplemental feeding of elk at the Oak Creek Elk Feeding Station on the eastern side of White Pass. I made a reservation and rode one of the flatbed trucks that drops the hay. I won’t soon forget the thrill of hearing the elk’s mewing a few feet away and seeing their faces up close, flaring nostrils blowing steam in the cold air.

When it came time to refuel, I opted for the BBQ pulled pork pizza at Bron Yr Aur Brewing (means “hill of gold”) in Naches. Since I know little about beer, I threw a proverbial dart at the beer list and settled on Black Mountainside Cascadian Dark Ale, a crisply refreshing pitch-black brew with a hops-forward finish, a perfect end to my wintertime Mt. Rainier quest.

For information about Mt. Rainier and the surrounding area, go to visitrainier.com. To plan a visit to Mt. Rainier National Park, check nps.gov/mora.