$99 Road Trip: Visiting Mount Rainier National Park in Winter

Mount Rainier's National Park Inn is open in winter

There were no wildflowers in bloom the first time I visited Mount Rainier National Park. Walls of snow flanked the road to Paradise. We brought along tire chains, boots and parkas.  It was January, our first full month of living in Seattle. My husband, Tom, and I were anxious to get as close as we could to the mountain we admired from the corner of our bedroom window.

We've returned in winter almost every year since to cross-country ski, snowshoe or just admire the park in its snowy splendor. Sometimes we spend the night. Other times, we take a spontaneous day trip with friends or house guests. Getting there, we have found, really is half the fun.

With sun breaks in the forecast after days of rain, we gassed up our four-wheel drive Subaru, and set out see what was new. Very little, we were happy to see. Most of the mom-and-pop businesses lining the road leading into the Nisqually entrance to the park (the only entrance in winter) have been there for years, and the small towns of Eatonville, Elbe and Ashford never seem to lose their charm. 

Our mission: A $99 road trip for a recent Seattle Times story. The total included gas, food, souvenirs, parking and entry fees for two.

Panini breakfast

We headed south on Interstate-5 at 8 a.m. for the 120-mile drive to Paradise, elevation 5,400 feet, on the south slope of Mount Rainier. Picking up SR 167 and SR 161 South, we saw the mountain in full view when we arrived in Eatonville around 9:30 a.m. Our first stop was the Cottage Bakery and Cafe, 212 Washington Ave. N. The little yellow house feels like a cozy mountain cabin, with seating on the porch on nice days. The mother daughter team of Alicia Nelson and Laurie Tartaglia plus assorted family members keep a glass case filled with cinnamon twists, Italian cannoli and homemade muffins and scones. We ordered two Americanos ($2.85 each) and a plump strawberry scone ($2.55).  When we asked to share the sun-dried  tomato turkey panini ($8.95), she cut a huge portion in half, served it on two plates and threw in an extra bag of chips. ($17.20 + $1.36 tax = $18.56)

Eatonville's Cottage Bakery & Cafe

 We finished breakfast in time to browse through the Holly Hut, 129 Washington Ave., where the owner, Nancy Iams,CQ describes her inventory as an eclectic mix of "garden decor and funky stuff," including tea cards, made with real tea bags and bags of sea salt chocolates in the shape of alligators. A cache of brightly colored planter rocks caught my eye. (14 rocks for $2+16 cents tax = $2.16).

Next door is the Rusty Snowflake Fabric Library, 135 Washington, where handmade coasters sell for ($2.50 + 20 cents tax = $2.70). Across the street at Blackstar Feed, 128 Washington, we found bars of Stringtown Farms' hemp seed oil soap, scented with rosemary and lavender, for ($4.50 + 35 cents tax = $.4.85).
Running total for the day so far: $28.27

The road to Mt. Rainier

Heading away from Eatonville towards Mount Rainier, the two-lane Alder Cutoff Road East joins Highway 7 at Alder Lake. From where SR 7 meets SR 706 in Elbe, it's 14 miles to the park entrance. 

Closed for the winter, is quirky Scaleburgers,  a roadside burger stand inside a former state weigh station. Just east of Elbe in Ashford, Dan Klennert's Recycled Spirits of Iron, 22410 SR 706, is officially open May-October, but other times visitors are welcome to park outside the gate, and walk around. This is a massive outdoor sculpture park filled with life-sized the life-sized figures of animals and other objects Klennert fashions from pieces of old machinery and scrap metals. There’s no charge, but Klennert accepts donations. 

Whittaker Mountaineering, 30027 SR 706, rents snowshoes and other winter gear. We like to make a stop at the cafe next door where a mini-museum celebrates the history of climbing on Mount Rainier and local mountaineering twins Jim and Lou Whittaker. There's an electric fireplace inside, but it was warm enough to sip our coffee on the deck. ($2.50 for two cups + 20 cents tax = $2.70)  If you're a gardner who composts, bring a container, and dip into a box on the porch labeled "free coffee grounds."

Just outside the park entrance is Alpine Gallery and Gifts, 37918 SR 706, a business Jim and Sandra Brand have run out of their log cabin home for 30 years. Watch for smoke pouring out of the chimney and a display of carved wooden bears and chainsaw art outside. Sandra paints landscape scenes on everything from frying pans to saw blades. Jim, a logger for more than 40 years, carves in a shop out back, recently modified so he can work from a wheelchair.  

A cancer survivor with a sense of humor, he loves entertaining customers with  inexpensive little "inventions," such as the Quarter Pounder, a contraption that brings a little wooden hammer down on a real quarter. One of these, plus a "Herd Starter Kit,'' a package of "cow'' seeds - four lima beans painted white with black spots - came to ($2.50 + 20 cents tax = $2.70).

This way to Pardise

The biggest expense of a one-day excursion to Mount Rainier is the the national park entry fee of $25 per car.   Running total: $58.67.

All cars - even four-wheel or all-wheel drives - are required to carry chains. Make sure you've got those, and have checked on road conditions before starting out. The road to Paradise, closed at night in winter, sometimes opens late if snow removal takes longer than expected.  

A more reliable first is stop Longmire (elevation 2, 700 feet), about 8.5 miles from the park entrance, where the National Park Inn, ranger station, a small museum and general store are open year-round. Bring or rent snowshoes (available in the general store) to walk along the Trail of the Shadows, a flat, three-quarter-mile loop that wends past the former location of the Longmire Springs Hotel opened in 1890 by explorer James Longmire. 

Snowshoeing at Mount Rainier
The road to Paradise was open and clear for our visit, and the upper parking lot near the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center was full by midday. Designated snowplay areas are open to  sledders and tubers, and there are trails for snowshoers and skiers. Recommended are ranger-guided snowshoe walks starting December 23. A donation of $5 is suggested, but not required, and includes snowshoes.  

Still full from our panini breakfast in Eatonville, we refilled water bottles in the visitor center, and snacked on our chips as we took in full-on views of the mountain along the 1.2-mile Nisqually Vista trail.

With the goal of descending from Paradise before dark, we  arrived back in Ashford around 4:30 p.m. and headed for an early dinner at the Copper Creek Inn, a cozy roadhouse two miles west of the park entrance on SR 706.  

It's a rare customer who doesn't order a wedge of the inn's signature homemade wild blackberry pie. We split a slice ($5.99) along with a veggie burger and fries ($9.99) and two iced teas ($4) (Total: $19.98 + $1.58 tax = $2.1.56.).  

Calculating our mileage at 220 miles round-trip from our house in Seattle, divided by 32 mpg (based on a Subaru Forester, one of Seattle’s best-selling cars), and gas at $2.75 per gallon, the metro area's average price on the day we traveled, our fuel cost was $18.90.
Grand total for the day’s outing for two = $99.13, plus tips where appropriate. 

If you go:

Winter at Mount Rainier

Most of Mount Rainier's roads are closed for winter. The road from Nisqually entrance to Longmire is open year-round, but may close during extreme weather. During the winter season the road between Longmire and Paradise closes nightly, though it may also remain closed during the day due to extreme weather or high avalanche danger.  

Call the park for current road conditions at 360-569-2211,or check MountRainierNPS on Twitter for road updates and opening/closing status of the Longmire gate
All vehicles are required to carry tire chains. 

Guided snowshoe walks: Rangers offer two-hour walks at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, December 23-March 26, with daily walks scheduled between Dec. 23-Jan 2. Register one hour before (no phone registration) at the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. A five dollar donation is suggested but not required. 

Spending the night: The National Park Inn at Longmire has rooms with and without private bath, starting at $121 per night. Click here for ideas on where to stay outside the park. Whittaker's Bunkhouse offers simple rooms with private bath starting at $65. 

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