A Winter Wonderland in Mount Rainier National Park

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I opened up the weather app on my phone and apprehensively scrolled to the tab for Ashford (Mount Rainier National Park) and saw a bright sun next to Saturday and Sunday—the weather window was holding and it was going to be a beautiful weekend in the mountains. I like to keep nearly daily tabs on the weather in all of my favorite areas: Mount Rainier, the North Cascades, Mount Hood, the Olympics as the weather changes constantly. Sometimes I’ll check the forecast on Monday and the weekend looks like it will be clear but as the days go by the forecast will get increasingly worse. Not this time. This time the perfect weather window held and I could not pass up the opportunity to get out into the mountains and go on my first winter camping trip of the season.

When I moved to Washington I assumed we would be able to go winter camping almost every weekend but I was sadly and naively mistaken. There have been only a few nice weekends this winter and Alex and I happened to be out of town for each of those. Not wanting to miss yet another nice weekend we packed our bags, set our alarms for 6am and then drove to Mount Rainier National Park. 

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We arrived to the gate at Longmire just before 9am. Each night this gate closes at 5pm and doesn’t open again until 9am the next day, at which time cars fill the parking lot and spill out onto the street. We were okay with the stop, we needed to pick up our backcountry permits in the Longmire Museum anyway. A few convenient aspects of winter camping are that advance reservations are not possible and there is no backcountry quota (because when are too many people going to want to camp in freezing temperatures?) so you don’t need to worry about not scoring a permit! 

After we picked up our permit we headed to Paradise. Paradise is a winter hotspot so there were people everywhere. Large groups heading out on snowshoes, kids sledding in the designated snow play area, and plenty of others getting ready for a fun day in the snow. We shouldered our very heavy overnight packs, clipped into our bindings and began skinning. Despite arriving early in the morning the trail was already well-packed and easy to follow. The first portion of the trail meandered up through sparse tree cover while the imposing Mount Rainier grew ever larger ahead of us. We finally reached the point where the trail splits, continuing straight would lead to Panorama Point via a steep hike while heading to the left leads to Glacier Vista. We headed left and before long we found ourselves on a ridge directly across from Mount Rainier. We had an unobstructed view of the entire volcano and its many glaciers. The spot was perfect. We immediately began setting up camp.

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For the remainder of the day we explored the area immediately around our camp and enjoyed the panoramic views. The Paradise area was, as expected, quite busy for the entire day but as the afternoon wore on the crowds thinned out. The gate at Longmire closes at 5pm so day hikers needed to be out by then or they were also going to be spending the night!

By the time sunset came around we were all alone except for one family who had set up camp on the ridge above us. 

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As the light changed it was as if the entire landscape around us shifted. Everything was softer, the jagged rocky outcroppings were suddenly mellow, the snow transformed into a featureless swath of white, and the surrounding volcano’s faces shone a brilliant pink. Alex and I ran around camp unsure of which direction to look. Finally, the light faded and dusk was upon us. We retired to the tent and slept.

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The next morning we woke with the sun. Overnight clouds encompassed Mount Rainier leaving our view of the summit obscured, but the sunrise over Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and the Tatoosh Range was still spectacular. 

After we had breakfast we decided to skin up to Panorama Point to get a few laps in before the Longmire gate opened and day hikers flooded the area again. We made it to Panorama Point in about a half an hour, we transitioned out of skins, locked into ski mode and then skied down just as the first snowshoers were coming into view. The snow was crusty and icy but it was fun, after we had our fill of skiing we headed back to our tent to break down camp and head back to the car.

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We had anticipated the ski back would be quick and easy, however, we didn’t accommodate for our overnight packs which made the skiing tremendously more difficult. Downhill skiing with a heavy pack is definitely something we’re going to have to work on in the future! Regardless, we made it back to the car in one piece albeit a little disheveled. Sunday was just as beautiful of a day as Saturday but it was time for us to head home. We repacked our car and headed for Seattle, another successful winter camping trip under our belts.