Mount Rainier in the Winter

It’s coming! Roads, campgrounds, and facilities in Mount Rainier National Park are already starting to close for the winter, but that doesn’t mean the fun has to wait until next summer. You can still get into the park where the action is to enjoy all kinds of winter activities, including skiing, snowshoeing, and winter photography. So, I thought I’d give you a sampling from previous years to give you a little taste of what’s to come.

During the winter, many of the roads in Mount Rainier National Park are too difficult, dangerous, and expensive to keep plowed under the heavy snow load experienced in the park. For example, WA 410/123, which runs north/south across the eastern side of the park and over Cayuse Pass, generally closes about the beginning of December. The road up to Sunrise, the highest point in the park reachable by car, is already closed as of mid-November. Other small roads are also closed, and most of the rest will close in December.

But one of the roads that’s open year-round runs from the Nisqually Entrance to Longmire. This area in the southwest corner of the park is at a lower altitude, and while it does get snow, it doesn’t get so much that the Park Service can’t keep it open. In fact, they will typically keep the road plowed all the way up to Paradise, weather permitting, though they do close the road at night, when conditions tend to get more dicey.

And so it is Paradise that attracts most winter enthusiasts. Skiers, snowboarders, sledders, and snowshoers fill the parking lots around the Paradise Visitor Center before strapping on their snow gear of choice and heading up the mountain. And of course, every single one of them has checked both the weather forecast and avalanche conditions before heading out. Yep.

Anyway, once a year my friend Scott usually leads a photo trip to Paradise through the Seattle Mountaineers. The is a good opportunity for photographers to get out onto some of the trails around the area with the added safety provided by having others present on the shoot. Winter travel presents more than the usual array of dangers, and it’s never advisable to travel alone in the backcountry in winter. It’s just too easy to get into trouble that you can’t get out of by yourself.

Snow Day, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

The late afternoon sun peeks through the trees over a snow covered hillside near Paradise, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

I remember falling into a treewell once while on a winter scramble with the Mountaineers, and it’s a pretty helpless feeling to have your face plastered up against a tree, your feet dangling helplessly below you and a huge wall of snow at your back, pinning you to the tree. I managed to get out, but it was nice having someone there to take my pack and ice axe while I struggled to extract myself, and to know that someone knew where I was if things turned nasty.

I love to photograph the interesting shapes that appear when big globs of snow weigh down tree branches. With a little imagination you can envision all kinds of animals and giant insects in these living snow sculptures.

Tree Under Snow, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

A tree is crushed under the weight of snow in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Snow Ghost, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

A tree covered in snow takes on the appearance of a walking figure, perhaps a ghost or an alien, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

We try to schedule these trips when the weather is not so bad that it’s dangerous to be out on the mountain, or when so much snow has just fallen that the road is closed. But a clear blue sky, while fun for snow sports, is not necessarily what photographers are looking for. One year a thin layer of clouds moved in while we were up there creating, some interesting lighting conditions.

Photographer and Sun, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

A photographer captures a winter scene under a fog-shrouded sun, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

But our group is usually the most excited about sunset, when shadows get long and and the light gets colorful. That’s certainly my favorite part of the trip, though we have to keep an eye on the time for fear of being locked in when the road closes. (I’m pretty sure the rangers wouldn’t trap us up there, but you never know!)

And every year we start the same debate about an hour before sunset: where in the park do we want to be for the sunset shoot. This place has this advantage, that place has that advantage, but it’s only good if the light is doing such-and-such. And so we settle on a spot by default, until – just before sunset – somebody has a brainstorm and decides they absolutely have to be somewhere else, and take off like a shot to get there in time! Photographers are funny like that.

Evening Light at Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park, Washingt

Evening light bathes the buildings at Paradise, in the Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

So after a mad dash, when sunset finally arrives, most of the day’s visitors have left, and a peaceful quiet settles over the area as the mountain prepares for nightfall and the photographers begin shooting. It’s also the time when you’ve stopped moving around, and start to realize that it’s a bit cold out there. But, we stay there as long as we think we can without getting locked in, and then reluctantly gather our tripods and head back to the car.

Dances with Clouds, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Mount Rainier glows in the warm light of sunset as wispy white clouds pass overhead, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Another day in Paradise is over, and our thoughts shift to the burgers and blackberry pie that await us just outside the park at the Copper Creek Inn. After all, no trip to the mountain would feel right without that classic stop on the way back to Seattle!

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2 Responses to “Mount Rainier in the Winter”

  1. Carmen Clemente says:

    Hi Ed — as usual, amazing pictures and nice reading! We miss you here at Getty. Stay safe out there!

    Hmmm… blackberry pie.