Looking for a winter wonderland to explore? Look no further than Mount Rainier National Park! The winter months brings almost daily blankets of fresh snow and leaves the forests, meadows, rivers, and wonderful peaks of the park in prime condition for winter photography and activities. Just a short drive from Seattle, Mount Rainier in the winter is the perfect cold weather getaway (even the wet and cloudy weather of the PNW won’t spoil your day, promise!)
Interested in exploring Mount Rainier? Check out my complete guide on visiting Mount Rainier during any season of the year!
Where to go?
Most of the park roads are closed during the winter months. The road is open from the Nisqually Entrance to Longmire and weather permitting to Paradise. Generally the road is plowed and maintained daily unless severe weather makes that not possible. The national park service posts updates on their website and twitter.
The road to paradise will have a few lookout points and overview where the snow is cleared. Otherwise, the only place you can stop is the Narada Falls parking lot, which will usually be free of snow. However, the main destination for you should be the Paradise area. This is where snow shoeing, backcountry skiing, and panoramic winter views can be found!
How to get there?
Getting to Paradise is pretty straight forward. Here is the Google Maps location of the visitor center. All vehicles are required to carry tire chains and AWD is generally recommended. Winter weather can change without notice and you’ll want to be prepared. If you don’t have tire chains, they are available for rent outside the park in Ashford.
Before going you’ll want to check the weather. Depending on how comfortable you are with snow, you can decide whether you wait for a sunny / clear day. It’s important to check the park twitter for updates as well. They post daily updates in the morning on when the road will open/close.
If it hasn’t snowed for a couple days and the weather looks good, you can make it up to paradise in any vehicle. The park does an amazing job keeping them snow and ice free. The webcams are a great resource in determining whether your vehicle is suitable for the current conditions.
What to see / do?
There is plenty to see at Mount Rainier National Park, even in the winter. If you enjoy snow sports, you’ll be able to snow shoe, ski, snowboard, and much more. If not, there’s plenty to see even from near your car.
Things to see near the car
As you make your way towards Paradise, there are plenty of vistas and viewpoints. They are hard to miss but if you pass one, don’t hesitate to turn around – almost all of them have stunning views!
If you want to get out of the car and stretch your legs a bit, the follow are good places to stop that don’t require snow gear:
- Bridalveil Falls
- Nahunta Falls
- Nisqually River Bridge (pictured below)
Tipsoo Lake is another great destination. It’s only accessible early in the season as the roads on that side of the park are not plowed. However, if there is snow in November, you may be able to catch a great shot at Tipsoo Lake covered in early winter snow.
And of course, your final destination, the Paradise area of the park. The visitor center is open when staffing allows and ranger tours are available on weekends. If you don’t have your own snow shoes, you’ll still be able to join the tour and equipment will be provided. (A $5 donation is recommended to help keep the equipment in good shape).
Things to see in the snow
If you love snow you’re in luck. Mount Rainier gets snow every few days in the winter and is great for winter and snow activities. Most popular things to do at the Paradise area would be snow shoeing, back country skiing/snowboarding, sledding, and snow camping.
For this guide I’ll cover the details for snow shoeing as it’s the most accessible and easiest way to sight see and explore.
Equipment and things to bring
- Waterproof / Winter Clothing (jacket, insulation, good layering). On a sunny day it won’t feel as cold but it can get windy and if there’s no sun the temperatures drop quickly.
- Waterproof Gloves
- Waterproof / Snow Pants. I like to wear insulated water proof pants (similar to what you’d wear skiing). This keeps me warm and lets me sit down on the snow as well (it’s nice to be able to sit down to take a break!)
- Waterproof Hiking Boots (warm ones!)
- Trekking Poles
- Snow shoes (see below for more details)
- Water / Drinks
And as for any outdoor excursion, don’t forget your 10 essential items.
If you have your own snow shoes already, great. You can skip this section! If not, there are a few options:
- Purchase your own, I use MSR Evo Ascent.
- Rent a pair at local sports store. There’s also a place to rent them outside the park in Ashford.
- Partake in a ranger guided tour (snowshoes can be provided). This option is only available on holidays / weekdays and operates on a first-come-first-serve basis.
I would recommend getting your own pair of snow shoes if you live in the area or plan to go multiple times. However, if you’re just visiting then rental options are generally quite affordable and will work well. Even if you plan to do the ranger guided tour, I would recommend bringing your own snow shoes (for fit, availability, etc).
Snow shoe trails
The easiest to be explore would be the area around the Paradise Visitor Center. You can head up behind the visitor center towards the mountain and look around. You’ll have good views and lookout points and are free to explore as you chose. There are usually plenty of people around here so you won’t have to worry about getting lost or losing your way.
If you are up to go a little further, you can head up to Alta Vista point which is around 1 mile away from the parking lot and a 500′ elevation gain. From here you’ll have have good views of the Tatoosh range and on good days you may be able to see as far as Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens!
For longer hikes you can head up to Panorama Point. One of the more popular destinations in the summer, this is a 5 mile trail with around 1500′ elevation gain. If visibility is poor that day it may be hard to find your way back so be sure to know where you are going! As the name suggests, this trail features many panoramic views of Mount Rainier, the Tatoosh Range, as well as the valley below.
Paradise to Mazama Ridge is also a great trail. In the summer this is a beautiful area for wildflowers but in winter you’ll find a totally different landscape. One of my favorite places in the park as you get panoramic views of Rainier with great leading lines provided by the surrounding ridges and peaks.
Another easy and breathtaking trail is the trek down to paradise valley. This one follows the Paradise Road (snow covered) slowly down into the valley. However, it’s prone to avalanche risk though so be sure to check with park conditions.
Get out there and have fun!
What are you waiting for? Check the weather and get out there! Mount Rainier is truly spectacular in the winter and well worth the trip (or two, or ten). Hope you have a good time and don’t forget to share your photos from there with me!
Interested in visiting in warmer weather? Check out my Photographer’s Guide to Mount Rainier which covers visiting the park year round and goes over some of my favorite places to explore and photograph.
For more photos, check out my Instagram (@xjjon) – feel free to drop me a message with any questions or comments!