Winter in Mt. Rainier NP
Winter, as anywhere, is a totally different season in Mt. Rainier NP, except there are three parts to it of varying lengths and severities depending on the seaonal, monthly and daily weather. And as so, the photographer has a choice of when and where to go to suit their interests and activities in the NP.
Note.--The road above Longmire to Paradise is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the winter of 2012-13, until later in the spring, depending on the snowpack and weather. Anyone at Paradise after the gate is locked on Monday will not be permitted to leave until Thursday morning after the road is open. This is new this year so please plan your trip with this in mind.
The winter season in Mt. Rainier NP has three types of weather and scenery from the start in late fall through the winter to the start of the snowmelt in late spring. These three partial seasons are separate by the snowfall and snowpack and the consistent temperatures, which are part of the normal Pacific Northwest seasonal weather patterns. These are broken into the the late fall, the real winter and the early spring.
The late fall is the period between the seasonal cooling from the summer into fall along with the first of the winter storms. This occurs sometimes between mid-to-late October to mid-to-late November, when snow and cold becomes the norm. These storms deposit early snowpack on Mt. Rainier, often only persisting at higher elevations as warm fronts and rain storms melt the lower-to-mid level elevation snow.
Once into December the storms are colder with the snow slowly building at higher elevations and persisting at low-to-mid level elevations. Major storms can still melt and reduce the snowpack and cause major floods as experienced in recent years (2006-2008) but by mid-December we're normally past those with only the rare exception with rain-on-snow events through winter. This blends into the real winter season often associated with winter in Mt. Rainier NP, meaning snow everywhere and snowstorms anytime.
And this is what this guide wants to provide the information for photographers. This season usually lasts from early-to-mid December to mid-to-late March and some year into May, a good three to six months of snow and cold weather. Only the rare drought years when there is a low snowpack, meaning little or none at lower elevations, will you expect anything but winter conditions. And if you like winter, this is your time.
The snowmelt usually begins late April to late May, sooner during drought years, late Februrary, and later during years of higher than normal snowpack, early-to-mid May. The length of the snowmelt varys with elevation and location in the NP, but usually ends sometime in June to mid-July. It is the period of March through April, into May or June in some years, when the snow is present but temperatures are spring-like, and everything begins the sesasonal changes for another year.
Weather & Climate
Mt Rainier during the winter season, from the late fall (pre-winter) through the winter and into and through the spring snowmelt, has both climate and weather. The climate is the seasonal pattern and trend through the (pre to post winter) winter period which is reflected in the temperatures and precipitation, as rain or snowfall and by the snowpack. This information is used by the managers and scientists in the region and the NPS for the seasonal and longterm management and operation of the NP's resources.
The weather is the dynamic daily and short term weather, again reflected in the temperature and precipitation in and around Mt. Rainier and the NP. The weather is used for the daily management and operation of the NP. This is what most people see when they visit the NP, the condition of the NP and the status of the facilites, resources, etc. The accumulation of the daily weather, the changes, trends and patterns, becomes the seasonal weather and eventually into the seasonal and annual climate.
In short, the climate is what you plan for and the weather what you prepare for with your visit to the NP. The climate is what you look at for the normal and extremes of the weather and conditions, and what you look at to determine the range of possibilities during your visit. The weather is what you look at for the latest forecasts and weather to adjust your plans, schedule and gear. It's where you prepare to be flexible as the weather and conditions change.
That said, you can find additional resources for climate and weather information below.
So what's up to do in Mt. Rainer NP in the winter? A lot depends on the weather and snow conditions, and the access and conditions of the roads, trails and facilities. But first and foremost you should familarize yourself with the NP's winter recreation information and rules from what they open and operate, such as roads, travel, facilities trails, snowparks, etc.
And if you're ready for snow and decide to photograph in the NP, what do you do? First, prepare your vehicle for winter and keep the proper winter emergency gear for everyone in your party. Second, prepare yourself with the right clothing and equipment (food, ten essentials, etc.). Third, plan your trip with alternatives. Be flexible and ready to leave when necessary or asked because of one rule.
There is no overnight camping in vehicles in the NP and not anywhere else without a permit.
There are designated parking areas at Paradise for backcountry camping, unless there is an overflow. All vehicles parked elsewhere are expected to leave nightly unless there are problems. And the last point is simple, prepare your camera gear and bring extra gear. You don't want to miss shots
The Paradise area is most visited area of the NP with the Jackson Visitors Center, Mountain Guide Center, and Paradise Inn. This area is also the longest drive from Seattle, Tacoma, or Portland, as it's just south of the mountain and near the center of the Park, accessible only by the highways inside the Park. Next to the Sunrise area the Paradise area has the closest view of Mt. Rainier with many short trails to viewing areas, great for photographs.
The Northeast area is most easily accessible area of the NP from Seattle, with the White River entrance and the road to Sunrise with the visitors center which is open July through September. It is accessed via highway 410 from Seattle on the way to Cayuse Pass or from Yakima over Chinook Pass. Highway 410 continues south into the Park as highway 123 to the southeast area and highway 12 as well as highway 706 to Paradise.
The Southeast area is the most accessible entrance from Portland via Interstate 5 to highway 12 or via the backroads east of Mount St. Helens Volcano Monument to Randle. It can also be accessed via highway 12 from Yakima over White Pass at Naches where it splits with highway 410 to Chinook Pass. You can also access the area via highway 7 at Morton to Elbe.
The Southwest area is the most accessed entrance for visitors from Tacoma via highway 7 south of Tacoma, or via highway 161 from Puyallup. The highway becomes 706 at Elbe to the Park entrance, to Paradise (Jackson visitors center), and onward to highway 123 in the southeast area. This area can also be accessed via highway 52 at Randle off highway 12 to highway 706 at Ashford.
The Northwest area is accessed from either Seattle or Tacoma via highway 165. It is the least accessible as it's via rural highways from various locations to the split to the Carbon River entrance and the Mowich Lake entrance, each with their own access to the NP. In addition the Carbon River road is closed at the NP boundary (trail only), and the Mowich Lake road closes seasonally, usually October or the first significant snowfall to early July, earlier depending on snowmelt.
So. where are the photo locations? Well, you are limited to the access, which is mostly to one drive, highway 706 at the Nisqually entrance (Longmire and/or Paradise), but you can hike or snowshoe into others via the highway or trails, such as the Carbon River road, the Mowich Lake road, highway 123 (Ohanopecosh entrance), and the highway 410 past the Crystal Mountain Blvd. turnoff (closed past).
What facilities are there? All of the entrances have some type of facilities (campgrounds, visitors centers, services, ranger station, etc.) at or near the entrance or at the destination. So, what can you expect to find available? These are described by the area and entrance.
Southwest (Nisqually) entrance.-- The Longmire visitors center and National Park Inn are usually open, only closed when the Nisqually entrance is closed. Paradise Inn is closed for the season but the Jackson visitors center is open on weekends and holidays when the road from Longmire to Paradise is clear (closed nightly and opened after snow removal and closed longer from floods or landslides). Otherwise, you're on your own, and, as said, come prepared.
Northwest (Carbon River and Mowich Lake) entrances.-- The northwest has two entrances. The Carbon River entrance is usually open through the winter, and only closed when major snowstorms make access via the highways impossible or floods damage the access highways or bridges. There are no services there except campgrounds with a permit. The Mowich Lake entrance has the same problem with the shared highways and its access road through the National Forest. The road is closed at the entrance with hike-in access to the winter campground with a permit.
Northeast (White River) entrance.-- The northeast entrance at the White River entrance closes at highway 410 November 1st or early if necessary by weather conditions. In addition later in the winter, usually mid-November to mid-Decmeber, highway 410 closes just south of the exit for Crystal Mountain Boulevard (ski resort).
Southeast (Ohanapecosh and Stevens Canyon) entrances.-- The southeast entrance at the exit of highway 123 for the Stevens Canyon Road (highway 706 from Paradise) closes November 1st. The Ohanapecosh (highway 123) closes at the entrance later in the winter, usually mid-November to mid-December, and may close at the intersection with highway 12.
Note.-- While the northeast and southeast entrances are closed to vehicles, they are open to snowmobiles beside hikers (snowshoers and cross-country skiers).
For practical purposes, this means only the three entrances on the west side of the NP have any access during the winter. The east side highway entrances are closed at boundary until the spring snowmelt when the state Department of Transporation clears the highway.
So what's there to photograph? Well, on clear days, there is Mt. Rainier, other mountains, and lots of snow scenes. On other days, it's find something else besides scenic shots, but still lots of snow scenes. The exception will be the Carbon River road/trail as often it's below the snowline for the first few miles into the NP, so you can get the transistion from winter forest to winter snow.
Most digital cameras will do fine in cold weather to a point, but you should be familar with your camera with cold weather and temperatures and in snow or rain. Many digital cameras are only moisture resistant and not completely weather sealed, especially when swapping lenses. And remember you should always carry spare batteries.
You should watch your exposure readings as snow tends to need 1-2 f-stops additional exposure to avoid turning the snow off-white. This applies if you shoot film or jpeg (digital) format. Shooting raw format negates this except it will help get the initial capture correct and avoid extensively shifting the exposure in your photo editor and risk losing highlights or shadows in the image. It's a personal choice, and even some photographers bracket shots to merge images.
You can also try shooting black and white, or monochrome setting, in the camera to create some interesting photos. Many upscale dgital cameras have settings to do both color in raw in color and monochrome in jpeg as well as have different monochrome filters for different effects. But all that said, often film cameras are better suited for winter photography as they have less effected by colder temperatures and draw less power. And there are still some excellent color and black and white films for capturing snnow scenes and landscapes.
Having described winter in Mt. Rainier NP, where the weather and snow conditions dominates everything in the NP, and having described the photo opportunities there during the winter, the next description is of the preparation and time you should follow with your visit to and in the NP, much of which is presented in the introduction of Dan Nelson's book "Best Snowshoe Routes Washington" book and the NPS Mt. Rainier NP winter recreation Web pages.
To do this I will describe general information for the preparation of your vehicle, your activities. Additional information is available from the resources below.
Visitors who have visited Mt. Rainier NP in the past either with their vehicle or a rental one are experienced to know what preparations are necessary for the trip, emergencies and their visit, so this description is for the infrequent or new visitor, especially if it's your first winter visit.
This is critical if you're flying in and renting a vehile, you should check with the rental agency to ensure some basic stuff is already in the vehicle or available if not. This includes chains, even with four-wheel drive cars, SUV's or trucks for all four wheels, which is mandatory for 4-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles.
That said, you should prepare your vehicle not just for the trip but for your visit and any time you may spend waiting, reasons as noted below. This should include fleece or wool blankets, extra food and warm drinks, and extra clothes.
This is important as the NP closes the uphill road between Longmire and Paradise nightly and is controlled by a gate just east of Longmire. It opens scheduled mornings (Thursday-Monday), weather permitting, after the parking lot at Paradise and the road are cleared of snow.
In addition during and after snowstorms the road from Longmire to Paradise is controlled just west of the Glacier Bridge over the Nisqually River to, if necessary, restrict travel of the uphill grade to Ricksecker turnout and on to Paradise. Restrictions include type of vehicle and the use of chains. The parking lot on the west side of the bridge is the area for installing and removing chains.
Another reason for preparation is that the Jackson visitors center is only open weekends and holidays during the winter season (November to May) and weekday visitors will not have any facilities available. This means you have to bring everything you need along with leaving daily if you don't have a camping permit, since there is one rule there.
Overnighting camping in vehicles is not permitted at Paradise or anywhere in the NP.
This means you're visiting the Paradise area for a day visit or overnight camping. Camping permits are available at the Longmire Museum and parking for overnight camping is restricted to certain areas at Paradise, see the NP information for winter recreation (PDF).
Daily.-- There are several activities at Paradise during the winter, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and the snowplay area, the last of which opens when there is at least 5 feet of snow at Paradise and only in certain areas around Paradise, and which you should confine your recreation to those areas and stay on the designated paths or trails.
Overnight.-- There are overnight camp sites throughout the NP in winter with permits, see winter recreation for the designated area at Paradise and other areas in the NP. They open winter camping in many areas when there is 5 feet of snow at Paradise and 2 feet elsewhere. This usually occurs between mid-December and mid-January.
Every entrance has winter activities, although as noted the eastside entrances are closed to traffic allowing only hiking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing on the road in the NP and as noted the northwest entrances are similar except the Carbon River one is generally snow-free for most of the distance to the Ipsut Creek campgroun, and the Mowich Lake is open to snowshoeing or cross-country skiing to the campground at Mowich Lake which is open for winter camping with a permit.
This pretty much leaves the southwest entrance from the entrance to Longmire and on to Paradise, the latter is the most visited winter destination. The Longmire area is often snow-free mosts years, except for some years with persistent low elevation snow and major snowstorms, but the snow level down to < 2,500-3,000 feet elevation means encountering snow within a short distance from any trailhead.
This leaves the Paradise area which has an array of winter activities and photography. The first is that the Jackson visitors center is open weekends and holiday (10 am to 5 pm). There is the snowplay area for snowboarding and downhill skiing, and although not close to Crystal Mountain Resort, it is great for families, is far less crowded and closer to Seattle.
Snowmobiles are allowed within the NP on selected distances on some roads, which you can find described here, see bottom of page. In short, snowmobiles are allowed when the road is closed for traffic but this comes with on strong advisory.
Please be aware of winter travellers on foot and share the road with them.
It is your responsibility to be aware of snowshoers, cross-country skiers and other visitors on the road along with you.
For photographers there is simply the snow and the mountain. There are the many trails available with snowshoeing and cross-country skiiing. There is backcountry winter camping with a permit to get to higher elevations and some great vistas and views. The only real consideration is the danger of avalanches, so you have to talk with the rangers and ensure you're aware of that possible where designated by advisories.
What all this means is that you have to plan and come prepared for winter. For those familar or experienced, this is just the statement of the obvious, but many visitors are less of either, so some basic information is helpful. As you may guess by the weather, which you have to plan for and be flexible with our time and plans in the event of the weather and conditions, it's about bringing the proper extra clothes, food and gear and emergency gear.
This is fully described by the NPS with winter recreation Web page. This is the one source you should follow to ensure your visit is a great experience and not something else from the lack of preparation. And remember, everyone there is in the same place, many with experience to help when necessary, along with the great NP staff. These preparations are also described in the books listed below.
Below are some books and resources for additional information.
Please use the contact link to send e-mail.
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