One of the reasons I love living in Seattle so much is the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest. After growing up in Alaska, I have lived with enough snow to last a lifetime. When I want snow, I go to the mountains.
Despite the fact that this is definitely not an outdoorsy blog, I have been known to go outdoors from time to time. Especially when there’s a beautiful photo opportunity.
One such opportunity came last March when I was invited on a winter hike in Mount Rainier National Park. An unexpected snowfall made for an even more beautiful experience, even though it obscured our views of Mount Rainier herself.
Now that snow is starting to fall on the Cascade mountains again, I want to make sure fellow not-so-outdoorsy types know how to safely enjoy a hike like I did. There’s nothing quite like setting the first steps in freshly fallen snow. Get out there for at least one hike this winter!
Planning Your Winter Hike in Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier National Park is a 956.6 square kilometer national park established in 1899 to protect Mount Rainier and the surrounding region. A long-dormant volcano, Mount Rainier looms over the Seattle skyline from certain angles – much like Mount Fiji in Japan.
Depending on your route, it can take 2-3 hours to drive from Seattle to Mount Rainier National Park. There are three main visitor centers:
- Sunrise Visitor Center, on the northeast side of the mountain (~2-hour drive)
- Jackson Visitor Center (in Paradise, WA), on the southwest side of the mountain (~2.5-hour drive)
- Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, on the southeast side of the mountain (~3-hour drive)
Depending on conditions, you may not be able to reach Sunrise or Paradise in the winter. In my case I went hiking in Longmire. In Longmire, you can access the Wonderland Trail (a 93-mile circuit around Mount Rainier), stay in the National Park Inn, and explore the Mount Rainier National Park Longmire Museum.
On clear days, there are also spectacular views of Mount Rainier from the bridge over the Nisqually River, a short walk from the parking lot. The drive to Longmire is pretty good in winter, and the lots are well maintained. It never hurts to have a car with four-wheel drive when you’re heading into the mountains though! It takes about two hours to get from Seattle to Longmire.
Ensure You Have the Right Gear & Supplies
Winter hiking requires advance planning that you may not do for a hike in summer. You will need different clothing, additional layers, and a few extra pairs of socks in case your feet get wet.
You may also need snowshoes or different hiking shoes that you normally use for summer hikes. Be sure to consult weather forecasts and reports for accurate information. The Mount Rainier NPS Twitter account (@MouintRainierNPS) is updated regularly with trail conditions and road closures.
Lastly, you may think that winter hiking doesn’t require the same practical needs like food and water. Winter hiking is actually harder due to the conditions, and you should be sure to pack snacks to keep yourself energized. Despite the frozen water all around you, having enough water for your hike is also important – you’ll get tired and dehydrated faster when hiking in snow!
Know Your Trail Options
When arriving in the park, you’ll need to pay the standard fee for access. The cost to access Mount Rainier National Park is $25 per vehicle. While paying, you can also ask the park ranger about trail conditions and options.
From Longmire, we spent time hiking along the Wonderland trail – we went out and back along one stretch of the trail instead of attempting any loops. From other parts of the park, you’ll need to make sure you understand the rules for hiking (especially in winter conditions) and which trails are open.
It should go without saying: obey the posted signs and verbal directions from park rangers, and don’t hike on closed trails.
If you have a GPS, it could be good to pack with your other gear. In fresh-fallen snow, it can be hard to discern the trail if you aren’t familiar with the area. Given that I had zero cell service during the whole hike, GPS could help you should the signs or trail not be clear enough to follow.
Hire a Guide
As I’ve said, I’m not the most outdoorsy gal. Instead of attempting to plan, coordinate, and successfully do a winter hike on my own, I went on a guided hike hosted by Evergreen Escapes. Even in winter, Evergreen Escapes offers day trips from Seattle to hike in Mount Rainier National Park.
There are other providers, but I would highly recommend Evergreen Escapes for several reasons. First, they have a great reputation for providing high quality tours in the Pacific Northwest (and farther abroad). Second, from what I saw on our tour, the guides are competent outdoors-folk, and took care to make sure each of us hiking had a safe and enjoyable trip – even those of us who weren’t proficient with snowshoes or snow hiking.
Evergreen Escapes Nature Walk in Mount Rainier National Park is $225 per person. This includes all gear, transportation, and lunch after the hike. Learn more on their website.
Whether or not you choose a guided winter hike in Mount Rainier National Park, what’s most important is that you are safe during your hike. Here is a quick reminder of basic precautions you should take:
- Pack enough water and food, plus extra layers.
- Make sure you know the trail or have GPS to help navigate.
- Don’t hike alone unless you’re extremely competent at winter hiking in the region.
If that last point is the case, you probably didn’t make it this far in the article, which is aimed at more beginner and intermediate hikers.
Plan Your Warm Up Activities
Before you hit the trail, one last piece of advice: plan your warm up activities in advance. It can be anything from a steaming bowl of soup or cup of hot cocoa waiting for you at the end of the trail. If you have something to look forward to, you won’t mind so much if your feet get cold or you get snow down your back.