Friday, January 27, 2023
Jan. 27, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Paradise lost? Angst mounts over Mount Rainier National Park weekday closure

By
Published:
4 Photos
A group of snowshoers and their shadows go for a walk near Paradise at Mt. Rainier National Park Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022.
A group of snowshoers and their shadows go for a walk near Paradise at Mt. Rainier National Park Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022. (Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK — The road to Paradise is closed on weekdays.

Mount Rainier National Park’s most popular winter destination has beckoned skiers, snowshoers, sledders and snow lovers for more than a century. But despite blue skies last Monday, the observed New Year’s Day holiday, all was quiet at Paradise, even as Cascades ski hills and cross-country trails were packed.

Park officials announced Nov. 29 that the road beyond Longmire would remain closed Mondays through Fridays this winter due to inadequate staffing, drastically reducing accessibility to Paradise and hampering nearby businesses that rely on winter recreation. Winter camping is permitted Saturday nights only, while the snow play area and sledding hill will not open this season.

The closure severely curtails access to the beloved winter recreation destination, incensing Washington’s outdoors community and spurring it to action. Park leadership hopes recruiting efforts may yield additional open days but sees no path to a full reopening this winter.

“The staffing and capacity challenges facing Mount Rainier are being seen across the federal public land system and affecting access and management in a myriad of ways,” said Winter Wildlands Alliance policy director Hilary Eisen. “This weekday closure at Paradise, however, is certainly the most high-profile loss of winter access that I’m aware of.”

Washington winter ‘wonderland’

A hand-painted sign emblazoned “Mt. Rainier National Park” hangs from a wooden arch at the Nisqually entrance to America’s fifth-oldest national park, established in 1899. Six miles east through old-growth forest is Longmire, a national historic district with an inn, a museum and a past life as a 19th century homestead and mineral springs resort.

But come winter, few park visitors choose to end their journey at Longmire, 2,700 feet above sea level, where trees largely shroud Rainier from view. Most intend to continue 12 miles along a switchbacking road, trading neon-green moss for a rarefied world of ice and snow at Paradise.

At 5,400 feet, Paradise is the highest point in the state easily reached by car in wintertime. Deemed “a wonderland of glaciers and snow” by University of Washington Dean Milnor Roberts after a 1909 expedition, Paradise’s high altitude often grants powder snow when other mountain passes get wet snow or rain, and its status as a national park offers infrastructure like restrooms and a visitor center without the cost or crowds of your local ski resort.

Paradise is popular with families for sledding and snow play, snowshoers and Nordic skiers, out-of-town visitors eager to see snow up close, and backcountry skiers and winter climbers who explore the park’s higher reaches. The closure has pinched a nerve in a region dealing with chronic overcrowding at winter recreation access points, an issue that flared elsewhere Jan. 2 as Stevens Pass and The Summit at Snoqualmie handled overwhelming crowds, and day hikers packed the Mount Tahoma Trails network.

As a result, a coalition of outdoor recreation organizations and residents have banded together to lobby the park.

“I’ve heard from more members on this issue than any in recent history,” said Betsy Robblee, conservation and advocacy director for The Mountaineers, the Seattle-based outdoors club whose history is intertwined with the park.

Over a month into the closure, park leadership insists it is making strides in the short term and preparing for the long term.

“We are leaving no stone unturned in trying to open the road to Paradise more days this winter,” said Mount Rainier National Park Superintendent Greg Dudgeon. “For next winter, we are working proactively now to come up with solutions so this doesn’t happen again.”

Signs of strain were visible in the fall, said Pacific Northwest ski historian Lowell Skoog, who has documented over a century of winter recreation at Paradise. Before the advent of chairlifts, thousands of skiers visited rope tows at Paradise and Cayuse Pass on winter weekends. Lingering wartime closures of Paradise even prompted U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson to arrange federal funds for snow removal in 1946.

Skoog said the road to Paradise was more reliably open in the 1930s than today.

“The goal has been to try to keep it accessible, and this is the first time I’m aware of where that goal seems to have been put aside,” he said.

Dudgeon insists otherwise.

“Our goal has always been and continues to be reliable and safe access for the public,” he said. “This was not an easy option for us or one we took lightly.”

‘Perfect storm’

The park’s website calls Paradise “one of the snowiest places on Earth where snowfall is measured regularly,” which means keeping the road open is no small task. Maintaining the winding stretch between Longmire and Paradise through avalanche terrain requires plow drivers holding a commercial driver’s license who operate special equipment to clear old roads and historic bridges. Snowplow operators are chief among the several personnel categories where the park has a deficiency this winter — five instead of the usual 10.

It takes a minimum of 26 staff to maintain seven-days-a-week access at Paradise, and there are 13 current vacancies. Shortages include entry-level positions like custodians to clean restrooms and remove trash; skill-specific jobs, like utility systems operators to maintain the power and water at Paradise; and first responders who provide emergency medical services for everything from car crashes to skiing injuries. If any of these roles go unfilled on a given day, the park will not open the road to Paradise, even if it is plowed.

The issue is not budgetary but a lack of qualified candidates.

The park has funds for these full-time positions, which pay $25.60 to $39.57 per hour, plus benefits. The rates are set by the National Park Service headquarters on the General Schedule pay scale for federal employees. (Washington’s minimum wage is $15.74.) For seasonal employees, staff housing is available at the park. The park posted vacancies on three occasions over the past year at USAJobs.gov, but did not receive enough applications to fill all roles.

For permanent employees, the high cost of housing has been a deterrent. “We’ve been told by some people who have tentatively accepted a position that they just couldn’t see themselves living in the area and being able to afford a home,” Dudgeon said.

Dudgeon has made three visits to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, with another scheduled later this month, to recruit potential employees transitioning to civilian life who want to stay in Western Washington and who have valuable skills working with heavy equipment and machinery. The effort has not yielded applicants yet, and requests to borrow staff from other national parks did not pan out.

“We hoped to pull a rabbit out of the hat, but there was no rabbit,” Dudgeon said.

Rippling beyond Paradise

The impact of the closure has percolated throughout Washington’s wintertime recreation community and beyond. Closing the gate to Paradise five days a week has hurt longtime businesses in Ashford, the park’s western gateway community, and dissuaded local guiding outfits from using the park for avalanche education.

Five miles from the park’s Nisqually entrance, vacation-rental owner Carol Kristen has seen a significant chunk of her December and January business evaporate. The 50-plus-year Ashford resident and her husband bought 10 acres of property and opened Almost Paradise Lodging in 1999. Her husband has since died, and now Kristen relies on the business to care for her disabled adult son.

Kristen described the property as “almost paradise” when she toured the four honeymooner cabins with hot tubs decades ago. Her customers don’t come all the way to Ashford just for the mossy trees at Longmire.

“Paradise is the bigger draw,” Kristen said. “People want to go all the way up and find the big, nice, beautiful, snowy alpine.”

When the park announced the closure, cancellations followed. Bookings are down some 60% year over year in both December and January, and Kristen had vacancies during the normally full holiday week. According to data shared with The Seattle Times from PriceLabs, a dynamic-pricing tool for short-term rental properties, December occupancy in Ashford averaged 39%, compared with 60% in December 2021.

Another Ashford business, The Trailhead Bar and Grill, announced via Facebook on Dec. 9 that it would close for the winter due to the access restriction. On Jan. 2, there was no hint of a holiday lunch rush at the Copper Creek Inn, which claims to be the oldest continually operating restaurant in Washington and offers some of the first dining options for travelers exiting the park.

While Paradise is crawling with guided mountaineering groups come summer, local guiding outfits dialed back their winter operations in the park even before the closure due to inconsistent gate openings. Seattle-based companies Edgeworks, Alpine Ascents International and Mountain Madness told The Seattle Times that they have shifted avalanche education courses elsewhere in the Cascades even though Paradise offers the ideal classroom.

“Paradise is such a great venue for avalanche education because we can teach the fundamentals of terrain management, avalanche phenomena and mountain weather all within easy access of a parking lot,” said Alpine Ascents International’s Jonathon Spitzer, the director of field operations who has taught dozens of avalanche courses inside the park, including to rangers. “It’s one of the few places in the Lower 48 where you can see glaciated terrain within half an hour of a trailhead. There’s no place like it.”

The park’s rationale for opening only on weekends is that it allows the public more reliable trip planning. But guide services said they published their avalanche course schedules earlier in 2022 and cannot change their winter plans at this late juncture.

For those who do venture out on the weekends Paradise is open — still not guaranteed, with winter storms forcing closures Saturday, Dec. 10, and Saturday, Dec. 24 — there will be less avalanche forecasting information available without the avalanche observers and the public submitting weekday observations.

“We’re still putting out a forecast, but some of the snowpack nuance gets lost when you’re not getting consistent observations,” said Northwest Avalanche Center Executive Director Scott Schell. “It’s definitely going to impact our operations and the users that we serve.”

Organized response

While road washouts and downed trees take their toll on access to trailheads and campgrounds across Washington, the weekday closure of a marquee destination at a historic national park has elevated Paradise on many agendas.

U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish, whose district includes Paradise, received a flurry of constituent feedback on this issue and called a meeting with Dudgeon to discuss how weekday access can be restored. On Dec. 16, Dudgeon met with The Mountaineers, Cascade Backcountry Alliance, Washington Trails Association, American Alpine Club, Access Fund, American Mountain Guides Association, Northwest Avalanche Center and Winter Wildlands Alliance to explain the predicament.

The closure has frustrated the park’s most ardent adventurers.

“You can go to one of the snowiest places on the planet and see winter in its full throes at one of the most iconic views in the U.S.,” said Gig Harbor-based mountain photographer Jason Hummel, who attended the meeting as a local ambassador for Winter Wildlands Alliance. “That’s a powerful thing.”

A Change.org petition to restore weekday access had garnered nearly 2,500 signatures as of Jan. 5. The petition points out that 1922 marked the first winter climb of Mount Rainier — and it fell on a weekday. The petition also calls the park to engage the public on a decision that came with no prior warning.

“I was absolutely blindsided,” Hummel said. Neither outdoor recreation groups nor public officials, like Gov. Jay Inslee’s outdoor recreation adviser, Jon Snyder, received advance notice.

“This was an emergency operational decision and the park prioritized public notification of the change to winter operations so visitors could plan ahead,” Dudgeon said. “Our park leaders communicated this change as quickly as possible to our partner communities.”

With applicants currently under review from a recent posting, Dudgeon hopes to salvage some of the season by hiring eligible hands. “This might allow us to add another day or two of access to Paradise,” he said. “But that’s a big ‘if.’”

While this winter has left recreationists and businesses out in the cold, park officials say they do not intend for a locked weekday gate to become permanent.

“This has been an incredibly challenging situation for the park. This is not where we wanted to end up,” said Dudgeon. “As disappointing as this season has been, we are diligently working to make sure this does not happen again next winter.”

Loading...