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Photo by J Walker.

Northwest Weekend: Mount Rainer

There's plenty of winter fun to be had on Washington's iconic Mount Rainier, from snowshoeing on high ridges to warming in cozy lodges -- all in the Northwest Weekend | by Eli Boschetto

When it comes to winter recreation in the Northwest, there are plenty of destinations available, but one stands— quite literally—above the rest: Mount Rainier.

weekend_longmire_diekema.jpg
A snow-drenched National Park Inn. Photo by snow Doug Diekema.

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Day 1

Getting there

Your weekend begins by driving to Ashford. From the Seattle–Tacoma area, that means taking State Route 7 south; from the Portland–Vancouver area, take U. S. Highway 12 east to SR 7 north. If you’re coming from the east side of the Cascades, the Yakima and Spokane areas, you have a bit more of a trek. When White Pass on US 12 is open, that is the quickest route to connect to SR 7 north; if the pass is closed, then opt for Interstate 90 west over Snoqualmie Pass and work your way south to connect to SR 7 south.

Once in Ashford, you have arrived at your de facto base of winter weekend operations, just west of the national park entrance. Located within this small mountain recreation town are a selection of lodges, bed-and breakfast inns and country cabin facilities for your overnight stay, as well as a variety of restaurants for dining, grocery stores for essentials, a coffee shop for your morning pick-me up and a gear supply for any outdoor necessities you may have left at home.

Where to eat, drink and sleep

It’s a good idea to know where you’ll be resting your head for the weekend. Reservations are recommended for most establishments on winter weekends.

Cozy cabin rentals are available at Deep Forest Cabins, Jasmer’s Fireplace Rooms and Wellspring. Each offers secluded cabins ranging from small and intimate, perfect for a romantic couple’s escape, to large and spacious for bringing the friends or the whole family.

If a refined mountain lodge is more your style, Alexander’s Country Inn is a charming Victorian inn offering uniquely appointed accommodations, from basic rooms to luxury suites, in addition to their fine dining room and relaxing day spa.

Or if all you need is a soft pillow and a place to dump your gear, check out Whittaker’s Historic Bunkhouse Motel. With 18 individual rooms and a hostel style bunk room, this renovated loggers’ building is in the heart of Ashford.

weekend_sledding_TK.jpgSledding is a great activity for kids on the mountain. Photo by TK.

Stay even closer to Rainier

Another option is to stay inside the park at the National Park Inn in Longmire. Services here are more limited, and unless you come fully stocked and self-sustaining, you’ll likely be making the short drive back to Ashford once or twice. The inn offers basic and deluxe rooms for very reasonable rates. In addition, there is a dining room and small store for essentials.

Visitors here can truly unplug and enjoy their surroundings, as there is no television, phone or Internet service. Instead, spend your time sitting on the wide porch and enjoying the views of Mount Rainier with a hot chocolate or coffee cocktail (the Camp Muir is pepperminty delicious!), or challenge your companions to one of the many board games or puzzles in the guest lounge. There are even winter vacation packages that include complimentary breakfasts, snowshoe rentals and afternoon tea.

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Day 2

Get up on the mountain

Since you’re likely to arrive around midday, near the inn are several snowshoe trails just right for stretching your legs. For an easy outing, start near the Wilderness Information Center and hike the Wonderland Trail 1.7 miles to Cougar Rock Campground. The gently undulating trail wanders through snowy forest between the park road and the Nisqually River. For a more challenging warm-up, the 4.6-mile Rampart Ridge Trail climbs steeply to a 4,035-foot viewpoint. Hikers should carry a map and compass and be comfortable with winter routefinding.

When you start to hear the dinner bell ringing, there are several tasty options to choose from. In Longmire, the dining room at the National Park Inn offers a nice selection of salads, hearty dinners, beer, wine and cocktails.

Chow down in town

If you’re heading back to Ashford, stop into the Copper Creek Inn. There will likely be a wait, but it will be worth it. The historic inn, which also has overnight accommodations, has been serving up its famous dinners to Mount Rainier visitors since 1946. Be sure to save room for their legendary blackberry pie!

If a big burger and cold brew are more your speed, head to the BaseCamp Bar and Grill. Select from a variety of beef, salmon, black bean or veggie burgers, all piled high with your favorite fixings. Then wash it all down with a local microbrew.

Copper Creek Inn Mount Rainier
The Copper Creek Inn and selection of pie.

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Day 3

Snowshoe (or sled!)

Start early the next morning, because you’ll want to get up to Paradise to get parking before the masses arrive. Grab a cup of joe in the dining room in Longmire, then drive the park road 11.5 miles to the Jackson Visitor Center. The road is plowed through the winter, but traction devices may be necessary at some times.

The visitor center remains open in the winter, offering a spacious lounging area, gift shop, cafeteria and trail information. Now you just have to choose your activity, as the snowy slopes around Paradise become your winter playground for the day. A variety of snowshoe trails, from beginner to advanced, await eager adventurers.

The two most popular trails are the loop around Panorama Point and the out-and-back on Mazama Ridge. Advanced snowshoers may want to venture onto the Muir Snowfield. Other winter activities at Paradise include ranger-led snowshoe walks. These two-hour guided hikes cover 1.5 miles of trail while the ranger presents an interpretive program about winter on The Mountain.

There is also a sledding hill where young and old alike can zip down the snowy mountainside (riding devices not provided). If snow conditions are favorable, there is also opportunity for backcountry skiing and snowboarding.

Whether you’re visiting for a weekend or longer, Mount Rainier has plenty to offer in its wintry wonderland.

Mount Rainier Northwest Weekend Map
This article originally appeared in the Jan+Feb 2014 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.