Paradise Squeezed: Reduced Winter Access to Mount Rainier National Park

Staffing shortages have forced Mount Rainier National Park to restrict access to Paradise to weekends only this winter. We’re working with the Park to make sure this isn’t the new normal.

Photo Credit: Jason Hummel (@jasonhummel)

On November 29, 2022, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington announced that public access to Paradise, the popular winter-use area on the south side of the Park, will be limited to weekends this winter (weather, staffing, and equipment dependent). Paradise receives more snow than almost any other place in the United States (on average, 643 inches per year) and winter access depends on the Park Service’s ability to plow the 12 mile Longmire – Paradise road.

This year the Park Service simply does not have enough employees to plow the road or maintain visitor facilities. Rather than try to maintain daily access with a skeleton crew and subject the public to unpredictable closures, the Park Service decided its best option was to focus on keeping Paradise open on weekends. Unfortunately, this means a severe reduction in the number of days that the public can visit Paradise.

Why Does this Matter?

Backcountry ski access in Washington State requires either parking at a ski area, highway pass or a low elevation sno-park. What Paradise provides is a high elevation winter backcountry destination for skiers, snowshoers, and families looking to play in the snow. It is among the most popular winter recreation zones in the state.

“Few places offer that non-motorized experience that Paradise provides. It isn’t commercialized. Users aren’t competing with ski resorts for parking. In a state with so much wilderness, it can sometimes feel inaccessible in the winter. Paradise breaks that rule; it’s a way for people far and wide to experience one of the snowiest places on the planet, a privilege that’s been enjoyed in the winter since the 1930s. And it’s a loss not only to people now, but potentially to future generations without cooperation, intervention and support from the community.”

– Jason Hummel, Winter Wildlands Alliance Ambassador

While we’re relieved that the Park Service will at least be providing weekend access to Paradise this winter, we are disappointed by the loss of weekday access and are committed to helping the Park Service expand and improve winter access to Paradise in the future.

History

Mount Rainier National Park’s Paradise Valley has long been a winter recreation gem. According to ski historian Lowell Skoog, recreational skiers first reached the valley in 1909. The Park Service began plowing the road to Paradise in 1923-24, recognizing the draw this winter wonderland held for skiers.

The 10th Mountain Division trained at Paradise before moving to Camp Hale in Colorado, but wartime budget cuts forced the Park Service to cease plowing until after World War II ended. Plowing resumed after the war, and ever since, Paradise has drawn backcountry skiers and snowshoers. In more recent years, it’s also become a popular sledding area, and is the only place in Mount Rainier National Park where sledding is allowed.

For many years, the Park Service has limited winter access by closing the road overnight in order to manage snow removal and avalanche mitigation. And, winter access to Paradise has long been plagued by unpredictable hours that stem from the challenges wrought by being one of the snowiest places in the country. Paradise is remote, with most visitors driving 3-4 hours round-trip for a day of skiing or sledding, so unpredictable access or an unexpectedly closed gate is a major disappointment.

For a detailed history of skiing at Paradise, see Skoog’s 100 Years in Wonderland, in issue 6 of the Northwest Mountaineering Journal or his new book, Written in the Snows.

Why is Paradise Restricted this Winter?

Last week, we – along with The Mountaineers, Washington Trails Association, Cascade Backcountry Alliance, American Alpine Club, Access Fund, American Alpine Institute, and Northwest Avalanche Center – met with the Superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park, Greg Dudgeon, and Deputy Superintendent for Operations, Kevin Skerl, to learn more about why access to Paradise is restricted this winter and discuss how our organizations can help the situation.

The remote location, amount of snow, and difficulties with plowing the steep, winding mountain road have long posed challenges to keeping Paradise accessible in winter.

According to Mount Rainier’s Superintendent Greg Dudgeon, Mount Rainier used to have a 14-person road crew that worked around the clock to keep Paradise open. Today, however, the Park plowing crew is down to less than half of what it once was. They’re also short on Park Rangers, custodial staff, and utilities staff (the Park Service operates its own water, wastewater, and electrical systems). Unlike many of the public land management capacity challenges we talk about, where the agencies don’t have funding to hire the people they need, Mount Rainier has funding for these positions but people aren’t applying for the jobs. Without enough people on hand for full operation, the Park Service had to decide what they could provide with limited capacity.

Superintendent Dudgeon and his staff are working to find solutions to their staffing woes, including addressing a big reason behind staff shortages – housing. The cost of buying or renting a home near Mount Rainier National Park has risen considerably since the start of the Covid pandemic, and it’s not economically viable for a Park employee to find a place to live in the area on salaries that haven’t kept up with the costs of living. Because most of the positions that Mount Rainier is trying to fill are permanent jobs, the Park’s seasonal employee housing isn’t a great fit. However, the Park is exploring options, such as converting some seasonal housing to homes for permanent employees, and applying for funding through a new federal program that would allow the Park to subsidize rent for employees in non-federal housing. None of these options offer immediate resolutions to access issues within the Park, and are, at best, mitigating long term challenges.

Superintendent Dudgeon assured us that this will not be the new normal, and that Mount Rainier is committed to increasing winter access to Paradise in the future. We’re concerned, however, that without a clear plan for how to solve the varied problems facing the Park, there’s no guarantee that the present situation will change. For that reason we plan to continue to meet with Park leadership to improve winter access over the long-term.

How Can You Help?

Do you want to live and work somewhere that averages over 600 inches of snow annually and has amazing backcountry skiing? Apply to work at Mount Rainier! The Park Service is currently looking to hire many different positions that are critical to maintaining year-round access to Paradise. You could launch a new career and be part of the team that keeps Paradise open for all to enjoy. If you’re not in the market for a new job, you can still help by sharing these job opportunities with your network.

Mount Rainier National Park is also looking for winter volunteers. In particular, they’re looking for volunteers with EMS training (preferably EMT basic), Search and Rescue training, winter travel and survival skills, backcountry travel skills, and avalanche assessment skills. If you live near Mount Rainier and you’re interested in volunteering this winter, please email Chief Ranger Ben Welch.

Finally, share your ideas! We plan to meet with Park leadership again later this winter to see how their hiring efforts are going and to discuss long-term improvements for winter access. If you have ideas, please share them with us by emailing Winter Wildlands Alliance’s policy director, Hilary Eisen. And, both Superintendent Dudgeon and Deputy Superintendent Skerl assured us that they want to hear from the public. You can email them directly to share your ideas, questions, and concerns.

Visiting Mount Rainier this Winter

Most winter visitors to Mount Rainier travel to the Park on the weekends. Despite the reduced access to Paradise, Park staff are not expecting significant overcrowding at Paradise or elsewhere. While only Paradise provides reasonable access to the alpine areas that many winter visitors to Mount Rainier seek, the Park Service has put together a webpage detailing alternative winter destinations available in Mount Rainier on days when Paradise is closed. This winter, perhaps you’ll find a new favorite snowshoe or ski tour at or near Mount Rainier!

If you’re planning to visit Paradise this winter, please be patient and considerate of the challenges facing the Park Service. You can stay up-to-date on road conditions and status via the Park’s website and  twitter feed and we encourage you to check on conditions before heading up to the Park.