Photo Credit: Jason Hummel
WWA Summary: Restricted access in Mt. Rainier National Park’s most popular winter-use area (Paradise Valley) raised significant concern during the 2022-23 winter season. Now, we’re working with the Park Service to address the staffing issues as well as give our feedback on their visitor use plan (comments due June 26, 2023).
This winter saw limited public access to the most popular winter-use area in Mt. Rainier National Park: Paradise Valley. Due to staffing shortages, the Park Service was only able to open the Longmire-Paradise road on weekends.
This raised significant concern among our members in the Pacific Northwest, as Paradise is one of the most popular winter recreation destinations in the state of Washington. In December, shortly after the Park Service announced the weekday closure, we and several other Washington-based recreation partners met with Mt. Rainier National Park Superintendent Greg Dudgeon and Deputy Superintendent Kevin Skerl to learn more about the reasons for limiting access and how we could help the Park remedy the situation. We met with Park leadership again at the end of the season this May for a follow-up conversation.
What We Learned
Since 2008, staffing levels at Mt. Rainier have decreased by 37% while visitation has increased by 39%. This means there’s no cushion in capacity – when somebody retires or moves on to a new job, the Park simply doesn’t have a person to do that particular job anymore.
Last fall, half of the positions critical to maintaining winter access to Paradise were vacant. With staff only filling 13 of the 26 positions necessary to plow the road, man the gates, clean the bathrooms, and interact with the public, Supervisor Dudgeon felt that his best option was to focus on keeping the Park open for the days when most winter visitors come – weekends. Reflecting back on the season, Superintendent Dudgeon said he feels he made the right choice in terms of public and Park Service staff safety. He also recognized in hindsight that he should have made the decision earlier, rather than delaying and hoping the Park could fill more vacancies so that the public would have had more advance notice of the limited winter operations. But, despite Paradise only being open on weekends this past winter, overall visitor satisfaction was high. Even with some additional closures forced by inclement weather, Paradise was open at least one day most weekends over the winter and there were no reports of excessive crowding.
Park leadership is optimistic that by next winter Mt. Rainier will be able to return to regular operating hours. They have been steadily chipping away at the staff shortage, tackling the problem from multiple angles. For example, one barrier to staffing vacancies at Mt. Rainier is a shortage of affordable housing in the vicinity of the Park. To address this, Mt. Rainier is considering how to be more strategic with available employee housing, making more units available for permanent employees and their families versus seasonal employees, and the Park has applied for, and received, a Park Service grant to offset the costs of private-sector housing for seasonal staff. And, as of early May, the Park Service had filled about 75% of the positions needed for winter operations at Paradise.
While this is a good start, there is always uncertainty about what could happen between now and December. If you know somebody who’s looking for a career with the Park Service, this could be the opportunity they’ve been waiting for! More information on available jobs is online here.
Visitor Use Plan: Comment by June 26, 2023
In addition to working to ensure full winter access to Paradise, Mt. Rainier is also in the midst of visitor use planning process that will bring big changes to summer access. The Nisqually to Paradise Corridor Draft Management Plan proposes to implement a timed-entry reservation (permit) system for popular areas of the park, including Paradise. The Park Service has been developing this plan for the last three years and they’re seeking feedback on the draft plan.
The draft plan proposes four alternatives, including a no-action alternative:
- Alternative 1 (No Action)
- No changes to current management
- Alternative 2 (Corridor-Level Access Management, Park Service Preferred Alternative)
- The Park would establish a reservation system for the Nisqually, Stevens Canyon, and White River entrances. Access to all destinations beyond those entrances would require a reservation.
- Alternative 3 (Site-level Access Management, with Cougar Rock to Paradise shuttle)
- The Park would establish a reservation system for visitors to access Paradise and provide a within-park shuttle system from Cougar Rock picnic area to Paradise. Visitors without a Paradise parking reservation could have the option of parking at Cougar Rock and taking the shuttle.
*Note that the scale of this shuttle system is relatively limited. A more expansive shuttle service is not currently under consideration in part because the Park is not seeking to increase actual visitation to Paradise, and because shuttles are expensive to maintain and operate. However, we believe a robust shuttle system should be part of any timed-entry permit system.
- A reservation system would be implemented at the White River entrance.
- Alternative 4 (Site-Level Access Management)
- The Park would establish a reservation system for visitors to access Paradise parking lots and the White River entrance.
Across all Alternatives, winter day use access would be expanded at Cougar Rock by opening the road from Longmire to Cougar Rock during some days when it is not possible to open the road to Paradise. In addition, the plan calls for improvements to signage and wayfinding, scenic vistas, accessibility, trails, trailheads, picnic areas, parking areas.
How Does This Affect Skiers and Mountaineers?
The timed-entry system would initially be in place July 1 through Labor Day from 7am to 5pm. While this is outside peak season for backcountry skiing and wouldn’t affect people entering the park before 7 and after 5, snow-based recreation (ie mountaineering) is a year-round activity on Mt. Rainier. Furthermore, the plan allows for the possibility that the timed-entry season or hours could be expanded if deemed necessary.
Skiers and mountaineers tend wait for a good weather window before heading to Mt. Rainier, so a timed entry system could impact our community’s use of the Park as it will make spontaneous trips more logistically challenging. However, a percentage of reservations would be available for walk-up purchase. In addition, visitors with another reservation inside the Park (such as a wilderness or climbing permit) would not need a separate park entrance reservation. It’s not clear, however, how climbers and skiers would navigate the timed-entry system if they want to get an alpine start and need to pick up a climbing permit from the Paradise Ranger Station the day before. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for parties to arrive in multiple vehicles, either because a party is doing a point-to-point route or because they’re arriving in the Park from different locations. In these cases, it’s unclear how the climbing permit/entry permit combination would work for a party split across multiple vehicles. If the Park’s intent is for climbing permit reservations to double as entry permits, the plan should allow for multiple vehicles to be associated with a single climbing permit, and for climbing permits to allow Park entry the day before the climb. It would also be helpful if the Park offered alternatives to picking up climbing permits in person. Likewise, if walk-up climbing permits could be picked up outside of the Park or outside the timed-entry area climbers and skiers seeking a walk-up climbing permit would not first have to navigate the timed-entry permit system.
We also have some concerns that a timed-entry system for Paradise will displace some visitors to other nearby areas, especially National Forest lands that lack the infrastructure to handle higher levels of use. For example, many of the trails at Paradise are paved whereas trails elsewhere are natural surface and more susceptible to damage from heavy traffic. And, few other places have a ranger presence like Paradise does, so it’s harder to ensure visitors are staying on trails and not causing resource damage. We’re also concerned that a permit system for the Paradise corridor will end up discouraging people from visiting the less-traveled areas of the Park that fall within the corridor, counter to the Park Service’s goal of spreading visitor use out.
Finally, we are encouraging the Park Service to implement a robust shuttle service from both the Nisqually and White River entrances along with any timed-entry permit system. A shuttle system throughout the Park would provide equitable access opportunities, relieve congestion, reduce climate impacts, and improve recreation experiences. For example, backcountry skiers and hikers often undertake point-to-point adventures in the Park. Right now, doing so requires a single party bringing multiple cars to the Park. If shuttles were available, point-to-point adventurers could leave their car at the shuttle parking lot. Shuttles are also an important complement to a timed-entry system for private vehicles, ensuring all can access the Park while not increasing congestion along roadways and parking areas.
Take Action: Share Your Voice by June 26, 2023
By sharing your thoughts with the Park Service during this comment period (which ends June 26), you can help ensure the new visitor use plan meets the unique needs of Mt. Rainier’s skiing and climbing community.
The Park Service is accepting comments via their website until June 26, 2023. In your comments we encourage you to share your experiences from other Parks with timed-entry permits, ideas rooted in experiences you have had at Mt. Rainier, and offer ideas to help the Park Service craft a viable plan. Simplistic comments like “I do/don’t want to see a permit system” or “I like Alternative X” aren’t very helpful.
If you need inspiration, our friends at Cascade Backcountry Alliance shared some helpful tips for commenting on their website here!