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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Paradise at Mount Rainier announces winter access schedule

A snowshoer hauls a sled through snow near Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park last winter.  (Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times)
By Gregory Scruggs Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Feet of snow have fallen at Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park, and starting this week, the park promises to provide access to the area at least five days a week during the year’s snowiest months.

From Wednesday until next spring, the gate from Longmire to Paradise will open at 9 a.m. Thursdays through Mondays, weather and staffing permitting, the park announced Wednesday. The gate will close for departing day users at 4 p.m., the same as last winter, but one hour earlier than years prior.

This year’s access policy improves upon last winter, when staffing shortages kept the gate to Paradise shuttered Monday through Friday, including holidays, prompting widespread pushback from outdoor recreation groups and the general public.

In prior years, Mount Rainier National Park has provided access to Paradise seven days a week, weather permitting, and park officials still seek to restore that level of access.

“Due to ongoing staffing shortages, the park does not have the capacity to maintain public access seven days a week,” park spokesperson Patti Wold said. “The road will reopen seven days a week this winter if/when we have adequate staffing levels to support increased access.”

Gig Harbor, Washington-based adventure photographer and Winter Wildlands Alliance Ambassador Jason Hummel attended a closed-door meeting last January with park superintendent Greg Dudgeon as recreation groups blindsided by the sudden November 2022 announcement sought clarity. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Hummel said of Wednesday’s news.

At 5,400 feet in elevation, Paradise receives more reliable snowfall and below-freezing temperatures than arguably any other mountain terrain in Western Washington that is accessible via paved roads, with infrastructure like bathrooms, a parking lot and a lodge.

As such, it plays a critical role in the state’s wintertime outdoor recreation ecosystem.

“While the highway passes, ski areas and various Sno-Parks remain open, they have become overly crowded as the population has doubled in the last 40 years,” Hummel said. “Having a quiet national park to take the family to for snowshoeing and skiing is an experience hard to find elsewhere in Washington.”

Whether the road to Paradise opens on any given day is governed by a complex decision matrix that includes road plowing, avalanche hazard, forecast weather and availability of staffing for ancillary needs like first aid, facility maintenance and law enforcement.

Since last winter, the park has improved net staffing numbers by seven to support winter operations in areas like utility systems and custodial operations, Wold said. “Critical vacancies remain in search and rescue, emergency services and road crew,” she said.

Last winter, Dudgeon chalked the staffing shortage up in part to a housing pinch for park employees in nearby communities like Ashford and Eatonville. Since then, Wold said, the park has sought additional funding to lease housing outside the park for seasonal staff to free up park housing for permanent staff.

“The park began offering this park housing to permanent employees on a bid system to help attract and retain employees,” Wold said. “Retaining employees allows the park to provide reliable visitor services.”

In July, National Park Service Director Chuck Sams toured Mount Rainier with Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Sammamish). During a news conference, they acknowledged the role of affordable housing and the cumbersome USAJobs.gov application system in last winter’s staffing debacle. They pledged improvements, like more funding for park housing needs and a more aggressive recruiting strategy to find park staff.

While the partially restored weekday access is welcome news, winter weather doesn’t abide by the days of the week. On a recent Wednesday, the park’s webcams showed two dozen vehicles in the Paradise parking lot under sunny skies, with fresh snow giving the meadows and mountains a pristine white sheen. Soon enough, a bluebird powder day that falls on a Tuesday or Wednesday will still leave recreationists out in the cold.