Mount Rainier National Park | Mazama Ridge
Mount Rainier National Park is a pristine outdoors recreational area well-known for its old-growth forest, swiftly flowing streams, waterfalls, wildflower meadows, and most of all, its glaciers and vast open snow fields. At 14,410 feet, the mountain is the highest peak in the Cascade Range and is quite the accomplishment for mountain climbers. Offering recreation all year, Mount Rainier is a prime destination for winter activities because as a National Park, there is no downhill skiing or snowboarding allowed. Therefore the Park lacks the commercialization and the crowds that chairlifts and ski lodges can bring. Snow camping is allowed almost anywhere in the park as long as snow depth has reached 5’ at Paradise and 2’ elsewhere in the park. In winter, the only two park entrances open are the Nisqually Entrance, in the southwest corner of the park, and the Carbon River Entrance, in the northwest corner of the park.
Recently I returned to Mount Rainier National Park for snowshoeing and overnight snow camping. I had planned for my friend and I to snowshoe from Paradise up to the Mazama Ridge and pick out an appealing spot in the open meadow to set up camp. As a backcountry permit was required, we checked in with the rangers at the Jackson Visitor Center who warned us that a strong Arctic cold front was expected to enter the area overnight and frigid temperatures and strong winds were in the forecast. The ranger also noted that visitors were having issues making it up to the Mazama Ridge due to the lack of a trail and a steep incline to the top. I too had been following the weather forecasts and was looking forward to some true winter weather, which to me only adds to the enjoyment of snow camping.
The snowshoe to Mazama Ridge is a moderate shoe with the distance 4 to 6 miles roundtrip and roughly a 1,000 foot climb to a high point of 5,700 feet. I say 4 to 6 miles roundtrip because once you make it up to the ridge you are in a vast open meadow and can wander essentially for as long as you like searching for a perfect spot to camp, take a break, or add distance to your workout. As a favorite destination for snowshoe trips, the Mazama Ridge has earned its popularity for breathtaking and wide-open views of Mt. Rainier and the Tatoosh Range. There are multiple ways to reach Mazama Ridge and I decided to take the route where avalanche hazard is at its lowest. The trip started from the Jackson Visitor Center parking lot in Paradise where it was 20 degrees outside. We shoed downhill on the Paradise Valley Route road for 0.6 miles to the 4th Crossing which was on our left, and began our climb up to the ridge. The 4th Crossing was not marked at the time we were shoeing and could be difficult to locate. However, you can see the Mazama Ridge and its tree line from the road, and it became clear to me by looking at the landscape and my map that the only way to make it up to the Mazama Ridge would be to head left up the moderately steep hillside and make our own trail up to the ridge. This climb up to the ridge is short at 0.5 miles but it is steep, and in this short distance is where you gain your elevation. Early on we crossed a narrow log bridge over Paradise River and in hindsight, we were quite lucky to find this bridge as there was no trail to guide our way. After the bridge crossing, we began to climb up to the ridge by making our own switchbacks and after a nice workout we made it up to the ridge and shoed a few yards through the tree line where we finally had a view of the rolling subalpine meadow. As the foul weather was just starting to roll in, I did not have the highly anticipated views the area is famed for. I continued to wander through the meadow staying close to the tree line where I found what felt like a perfect place to set up camp under a stand of large pine trees to offer some protection from the elements.
At this time it was getting later in the afternoon and the temperature had dropped down to 18 degrees and things were fairly calm while I was setting up my gear and taking a couple of short side treks to explore the area further. Around dinner time, the temperature had dropped to about 12 degrees and the winds started to pick up a little. This made for very cold and crunchy lasagna with red meat sauce because although we got the water boiling, and I kept the packet in my jacket for insulation, it wouldn’t truly cook all the way through. However, a number of Jubelales warmed me up and come 9 o’clock the wind became strong and was whipping up the snow that was falling. So we headed to our tents for the night.
This is where the fun began as a little while later I could hear the sound of a freight train slam into my tent every 10 seconds with the strongest winds I have ever experienced while camping. Confirming recently with the forecast records, the wind gusts were 50-60 mph and every few seconds the wind would slam into my tent and throw me around inside. If you have experienced strong winds before, there is nothing like that sound where you can hear the slight beginnings of a wind gust and actually hear it intensify and pick up momentum and then waiting a couple of seconds and anticipating it slamming into your tent. It is a unique experience and becomes almost harmonic after a while. I wasn’t able to fall asleep that evening but for a brief period I emerged from the bottom of my sleeping bag and when I opened my eyes and turned on my head lamp, I saw that my tent was filled up to my sleeping bag with snow that kept blowing under my rain fly and apparently through the sides of my tent. I was able to snap a quick photo of myself and checked my thermometer which read 8 degrees. In all honestly, that evening was true insanity being rocked by the winds and pelted with snow. I kept thinking it would let up, but it never did. By 7 o’clock in the morning, the wind and snow had not let up at all. At this time we were practically being blown off the ridge. I got out of my tent to start to pack up and noticed that my friend’s tent had collapsed on top of him and his rain fly was shredded. It was an intense scramble to pack up and once we were back on our trail, it took some skill and luck to remain on my feet while I shoed down the ridge to level ground and back to Paradise. I have to admit, I was hoping the weather would be extreme, and as long as I have the right gear and proper planning, it just adds to the excitement of being in the outdoors and for me makes a routine trip into a true adventure.
My snowshoe trip to Mazama Ridge lived up to my expectations. I am pleased to add my own experience for my fellow outdoors enthusiasts to read and I encourage you to make your own adventure.
To Get There:
The park is 150 miles from Portland and is easy to find due to the frequent signs to Mount Rainier National Park. From Portland, take Interstate 5 to Highway 12. From the town of Morton, take Highway 7 to the town of Elbe and take Highway 706 to the Nisqually Entrance and follow the road to Paradise.
Be sure to visit the National Park Service website for Mount Rainier National Park to read and understand the park’s regulations, guidelines, and current road status and weather.