Winter without the crowds at Washington's Mount Rainier

The National Park Inn

Tea and scones appeared on a side table as logs crackled in the stone fireplace at Mount Rainier's National Park InnUnlike the first travelers to visit here in the early 1900s, we didn't come to soak in the hot springs, ride a dog sled or hike the glaciers in tin pants.  

Trying out new snowshoes was our mission, but with rain at Longmire, the historic district where the inn first opened in 1906, and a storm keeping the road to Paradise -elevation 5,400 feet and one of the snowiest places on earth - closed for the day, sitting by the fire, reading seemed like a fine Plan B.

Perhaps because it was January when my husband and I first visited Mount Rainier years ago, winter has always been our favorite time. Campgrounds and roads crowded with tourists and cars in summer are transformed into quiet cross-country ski, snowshoe and winter hiking trails. 

A fire plus tea and scones warm winter visitors
With the larger Paradise Inn closed for the season, those who reserve one of the 25 rooms at the more intimate National Park Inn have the park practically to themselves.
 "In the winter, mid-week, I might see 30 people," says ranger Darby Robinson who staffs the Longmire Museum. "In summer, it's well over 300." 

And after many visits in winter, I know by now that weather conditions can change literally overnight, as they did for us on this trip in mid-December. 

Snow blanketed the trees when we awoke the next morning. Waiting for the clouds to lift, we breakfasted on kale and squash omelettes in the dining room, then took our coffee to the wicker chairs on the front porch as the mountain popped into view. More than a foot of fresh powder awaited 10 miles away at Paradise when rangers opened the road at 11 a.m.

The road to Mount Rainier

No matter what time of year, I consider the journey to Mount Rainier half the reason for making the two-hour drive from Seattle.  Best advice: Take the back roads, and visit some of the mom-and-pop businesses in the mountain towns of Eatonville, Elbe and Ashford.

The Cottage Bakery and Cafe 

Picking up Highway 167 and Highway 161 South, the mountain comes into view in Eatonville where hot coffee and fresh pastries await at the Cottage Bakery and Cafe CQ. Laurie Tartaglia,  and her mother, Alicia Nelson, keep a glass case filled with homemade scones, bear claws and giant cookies, popular with the local school kids.

"Ninety five percent of the tourists coming through grab a coffee and a pastry or a lunch and head to the mountain," says Alicia. Locals tend to linger inside the cozy yellow house, decorated like a mountain cabin decorated with wooden tables and soft lighting.

Fourteen miles from the park's Nisqually entrance on Highway 706 E. in Ashford is Dan Klennert’s Recycled Spirits of Iron. Klennert keeps his parking lot gate closed in winter, but welcomes visitors to enter through an archway, and explore his outdoor sculpture park filled with life-size figures of animals and other objects he fashions from pieces of old machinery and scrap metals. 

Recycled Spirits of Iron 

One of my favorites is a skier Klennert crafted using old car bumpers for the skis, a milk can lid for the hat and water faucet handles for the ears.  There’s no charge, but Klennert accepts donations.

Six miles from the park entrance is the Ashford Creek Gallery where owners Jana Gardiner  and Rick Johnson sell pottery, cards, candles, glass and watercolors made by a dozen local artists. There's a small library of used books  on local history, mountaineering and nature for sale, and an upstairs museum filled with a historical collection of paintings and prints by Northwest artists.

The highway dead-ends at the Nisqually entrance to the park. From there, it's an easy 6-mile drive to Longmire (elevation 2,700 feet),  making the National Park Inn a reliable destination year-round.

Cross-Country skiing near Paradise

Once the road between Longmire to Paradise opened, we followed the ranger's recommendation to snowshoe in an area called Barn Flats, a closed road with a pullout for cars and wide, flat trails, good for cross-country skiing as well.  

Evening entertainment

Later, back at Longmire, we hiked along the Trail of the Shadows, a flat, kid-friendly path where a sign marks the rock-ringed hot springs where visitors once paid $8 per week to bathe and stay at a resort established in 1890 by explorer James Longmire.  Renovations over the years have transformed the inn into a  rustic mountain lodge with simple but comfortable rooms that become more affordable off-season with 50 percent discounts on mid-week stays. 

I found myself grabbing for my phone more than once, before remembering that the inn has no Wi-Fi. Instead of surfing the Web, guests play Candy Land, read or do jig-saw puzzles. 

For those who must go online, Wi-Fi is available at the Copper Creek Inn,  a cozy roadhouse 2.5 miles from the park entrance where wild blackberry pie is always on the menu. 

If you go in winter

See Visit Rainier for general tourist information.Check here for the park's updates on reopening after the government shut-down.  The Nisqually entrance and National Park Inn remained open most of the time the government was closed, but the road to Paradise was closed, and park services were limited. 

Vehicle access into the park in winter is only available through the Nisqually entrance (Sunrise is closed). The road from Longmire to Paradise closes nightly, and usually reopens at 9 a.m., although can open later or remain closed all day due to weather. Call 360-569-2211for current road conditions, or check MountRainierNPS on Twitter for updates.
All vehicles, even those with four-wheel drive, must carry tire chains from Nov. 1-May 1. Entrance fee is $30 per vehicle and passengers. 

What's open/closed

The Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at Paradise is open Fridays- Sundays, 10 a.m.-4:15 p.m. in winter. The visitor center will be also open Monday, Feb. 18.  The National Park Inn and restaurant at Longmire is open year-round for lodging, food, gifts and snowshoe rentals. Paradise Inn is closed for the season.

Open daily from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., the Longmire Museum provides general park information, winter activity guidance and backcountry permits.

What to do:

A winter visit to Mount Rainier can include hikes, ranger-guided snowshoe walks, snow play, camping and cross-country skiing.

Rangers offer 1.8-mile, two-hour snowshoe walks at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays through March. Register one hour in advance (no phone registration) at the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. Five dollar donation suggested.

Winter snow play at Paradise

Sledding and sliding are permitted in designated areas at Paradise, depending on snow conditions.  Visit Rainier has links to information on snow shoe and cross-country ski trails. and tips. 

Where to stay: 

 • The 25-room National Park Inn at Longmire has rooms with ($187-$230) and without ($132-$166) private bath. Off-season specials include a 50 percent discount with a two-night minimum stay Sunday-Thursday through April 25, excluding holidays. 

 A "senior saver" package, also good mid-week through April 30, includes a 10 percent room discount, breakfast and afternoon tea.  Two first-floor rooms are ADA approved. 

• See Visit Rainier for lodging outside the park in cabins, private home rentals and nearby inns and bed and breakfasts.  

Whittaker’s Motel and Historic Bunkhouse offers rooms with private baths starting at $70 in winter. A cozy cafe serves hot drinks, breakfast sandwiches and snacks. Whitaker Mountaineering next door rents snowshoes, skis, snow tubes, tire chains etc.  

This story appeared in the Seattle Times on Feb. 24, 2019

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