Who Wants To Go To Paradise?

Every winter my Seattle Mountaineers friend Scott leads a photography snowshoe trip to the Paradise Valley in Mount Rainier National Park. This year it was early April before we went, but what a gorgeous day it was!

The Paradise area at Mount Rainier is known for its stunning views of the mountain year-round and for its glorious wildflower meadows in the summer. And in the winter, it truly is a winter wonderland as it becomes a prime destination for backcountry skiers, snowshoers, and families with small children, where tubing off the mountain into the parking lot is a favorite activity.

Paradise was accidentally named by the daughter-in-law of James Longmire. Longmire was an early settler to the area who farmed his homestead in a nearby valley but also worked as a guide and surveyor on the mountain. When his daughter-in-law first saw the area, she exclaimed, “Oh, what a paradise!”. And it certainly is! The Paradise River runs through the valley, where the historic Paradise Inn and the recently rebuilt Jackson Visitor Center now stand.

In the winter, most of the park’s roads are closed due to the substantial snowfall the park receives. So at this time of year, Paradise is the highest point in the park that can be reached by automobile, and there are times when even this road is closed due to excessive snowfall or lack of sufficient personnel. But it’s usually open daily until late afternoon, and later on weekends.

So every year, Scott schedules a Saturday snowshoe trip for photography on the Mountaineers website, with the caveat that the trip may be repeatedly rescheduled until the weather forecast looks good for the upcoming Saturday.

Our definition of “good” is “good for photography”. The Mountaineers will go out in just about any kind of weather with no thought of rescheduling (well, some members may think about bailing, but they don’t do it – they suffer in silence), but there’s really no point in going to photograph Mount Rainier if you can’t see it.

Tatoosh Range, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

The Tatoosh Range dominates the landscape as three cross-country skiers make their way through Paradise Valley, in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

We’re not looking for clear blue sky. We need some clouds to add interest, and if you have just the right amount of cloud cover in just the right places, you can get beautiful colors on the mountain at sunset. But overcast – no. That usually means no mountain at all.

So on this trip, we are willing to reschedule if necessary. And that’s exactly what happened this year – for many weeks as the forecast repeatedly called for rain, snow, and overcast conditions on Saturdays. As Scott said in one email, “We’re going to go on this trip – the only question is whether we’ll still need the snowshoes when we do!”.

Waiting for the Light, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Scott McLain waits atop a mound of mud-splattered snow for the light on Mount Rainier to change at sunset. The Paradise Inn is partially visible at the bottom left, at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

In early April (now officially spring, not even winter any longer), we saw a forecast we liked. By this point the ten who had originally signed up had been whittled down to three, but at least we wouldn’t waste a whole day and lots of gasoline going to visit an invisible mountain.

We met at the parking lot in Longmire (named after James) at 10:00 AM and headed up the road to Paradise, noting the signs that assured us that the downhill gate would be locked at 9:00 PM. This is one deadline you don’t want to miss, although I assume the rangers would make some attempt to herd people down the mountain – assuming you’re somewhere that they can find you and not up on the side of the mountain somewhere. A car parked at the Paradise parking lot at night is not cause for alarm and won’t get a ranger’s attention. Paradise is the starting point for the summit route via Camp Muir and Disappointment Cleaver, so there are always cars there overnight.

Waiting for the Light II, Mount Rainier National Park, Washingto

Zi Low watches the sun set, hoping for the right light on Mount Rainier, at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

When we got to the Paradise parking lot the mountain was still covered in clouds, but the forecast called for clearing by late afternoon, so we weren’t concerned. We put on our snowshoes and started up the mountain. The forecast avalanche danger was not high, but it was still a concern. If you’ve ever seen a wall of snow come down the mountain as we did on this very trip several years ago, you take your avalanche training very seriously. So every route-finding decision we made started with a discussion of how to avoid the avalanche slopes that are not uncommon in this area.

The Tatoosh Range across from us was clearly visible, unlike the shrouded top of Rainier, so we focused our photographic attention on that area. Even though it was midday, my least favorite time to shoot landscapes, the intermittent cloud cover made for some interesting patterns in the snow and sky. Passing snowshoers and skiers added a human element to our images.

As evening approached we headed back down to the parking lot to set up for what we hoped would be a colorful, stunning sunset on the mountain. It didn’t happen. Sure, the clouds cleared enough that we could see most of the mountain, and it was certainly beautiful. But as for color, there was none. According to Scott, the color had happened the night before, but he was out of position and unable to do anything with it.

Evening at Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Late afternoon sun sets on Mount Rainier as a blanket of clouds rolls by, at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Oh well. This is a perfect example of how the life of a landscape photographer works. You really do have to revisit the same place over and over to get the best images. You can’t expect to show up on a random day and get a Nat Geo cover shot. But hey, there are worse things in life than having to return to Paradise, over and over again!

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One Response to “Who Wants To Go To Paradise?”

  1. Sue-Z says:

    Great trip,sign me up!