Friday, July 20, 2012

Overnight at Paradise Inn: Rainier's Rustic Jewel

Years ago I spent an evening huddled in front of a big stone fireplace in the Paradise Inn lobby, reluctant to leave the warmth and return to my tent at Cougar Rock campground down mountain. But tonight I’m drifting from the lobby back up to my cozy room here at the inn, where a feather bed and down comforter await me.

Who says an outdoorsy girl can’t splurge on a little luxury now and then?

As a lover of rustic mountain lodges, craggy mountain peaks, and national parks, surprisingly this is my first overnight at Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier.  A friend has never been to Rainier after many years living in Seattle, and I’m flattered she’s asked me to take her to The Mountain. Amazingly, I found a room at Paradise less than two weeks out. (Okay, so it’s a Monday night.)

On this lovely July day, we arrive at Mount Rainier National Park via the historic Nisqually entrance on the southwest side of the mountain.

After about 2.5 hours driving from Seattle, our first stop is a few miles into the park at Longmire to stretch our legs and have lunch. We meander through lush forest around the Trail of the Shadows, a self-guided nature walk around a large wetland fed by volcanic mineral springs.

As we drive higher up the winding road past waterfalls fed by fast-melting snow and get glimpses of glacier-heavy Rainier, my friend Felicity can't help but gasp. "This is incredible!" she cries at one point.

Seeing Rainier up close for the first time does that to even the most jaded urbanite.

The Incredible Hulk of Cascade volcanoes never fails to be anything less than awe-inspiring. And from the Paradise area at 5,400 feet elevation on the mountain's south flank, visitors can get a taste of the high alpine meadows.

Magenta paintbrush and avalanche lilies in a meadow above Paradise

There's still a lot of snow covering the meadows above Paradise Inn. After checking in, I stroll along the road below the lodge, where small waterfalls have sprung like leaks in a failing dam. And where there is well-hydrated soil, there are lots of wildflowers.

Paradise Inn

Mountain lupine
In one of the most civilized afternoon rituals I've experienced in quite a while, we enjoy tea and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for overnight guests. I'm not sure if this tradition has been ongoing since the inn opened in 1917, but it's a lovely throwback to an earlier era.

After a relaxing afternoon, we're dining in the inn's cavernous dining room, where the service is very friendly and the food is not bad. But the Hogue Cellars pinot grigio goes down easily. An overnight at this historic lodge is more about the setting anyway.

With a steady stream of visitors from all over the world in the summer, there's also a range of activities going on based at the Jackson Visitor Center across the parking lot. After dark, an enthusiastic volunteer from the Tacoma Astronomical Society has set up a big telescope for stargazing.

Soothed by the mountain fresh air, I linger only briefly in the warm inn lobby before heading to bed.  Although there are numerous cozy nooks with comfy chairs to sit and read, tonight a sound sleep comes quickly.

Paradise Inn at dusk
One of several stone fireplaces in Paradise Inn
After an extravagant breakfast buffet the next morning, we opt for a "meadow meander" led by interpretive ranger Maureen McClean, a school teacher in the off season. Since the meadows are still under several feel of snow, we walk along the roadside and hear about alpine wildflowers.

Interesting factoid we learned from Maureen:   A patch of pink mountain heather she pointed out on the edge of the parking lot is probably 400 years old, and one patch in the park has been dated to over 1,000 years old. These hearty plants are older than many ancient forests!

Ancient pink mountain heather
Before heading back to the urban lowlands, we grab sandwiches from  Tatoosh Deli and enjoy a few more moments on the lodge deck overlooking the Tatoosh Range. A solo woman invites us to share her table, and we strike up yet another easy conversation with a happy, relaxed visitor. Everyone is happy and friendly up here. I meet interesting people from Georgia, Kentucky, Connecticut, Arizona, and my own Washington.

L to R: The Castle, Pinnacle Peak, Plummer, and Deman peaks in the Tatoosh Range
While this is a quick overnight, we both leave feeling refreshed and exhilarated from our time at Paradise. Although Rainier is a fantastic place to hike and climb, sometimes slowing down and just enjoying the wildflowers is  perfect.

Have you been to Paradise? We'd love to hear about what your visit was like in a comment below (especially those of you who have climbed Rainier).

When You Go
Rooms and campsites fill up quickly and early in Mount Rainier National Park, but you could be lucky like me and hit an opening from a last-minute cancellation. Our small room with twin beds and a sink was $112 + tax ($127 total). For an extra $50 you can get a private bath in your room, but we were happy to wear the  ample terrycloth robes and slippers provided by the lodge and walk down the hallway to shared showers and bathroom. The season at Paradise Inn is short - just June into September. However, the equally comfortable National Park Inn at Longmire stays open year-round.

Depending on the annual snowpack, the meadows above Paradise are generally free of snow by August, when you can hike up trails up to Panorama Point for fabulous views. And you'll likely see fat and happy hoary marmots, "the biggest flirts in the park," according to Ranger Maureen McClean.


Mary said...

Out of the handful of places I've been in Washington, Mt. Rainier, particularly Paradise, is my favorite. Your post made me want to jump on a plane post haste!

Dave Wenning said...


I used to ski at Paradise years ago. I think it's also where the summit hikers set off.

jill said...

Yes, Rainier and Paradise can truly be Paradise on a beautiful summer day. You have to see the wildflowers at their peak in the meadows.

Dave, yes, most summit climbers set off from Paradise. We saw several climbers setting off for the summit when we were there earlier this week.
I've cross-country skied around Paradise and once hiked up the Muir Snowfield with tele skis and skied down, was fantastic view up there!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jill. These are such fresh, vivid photos, I can smell the trees and hear the waterfall.


BBCF said...

It was kind of sad when St. Helens blew her top and became squat instead of Fuji-like, but if Rainier fell apart I would be bereft. It's the first thing I look for when anywhere within a sight line. I love flying over the mountain when leaving, and especially coming home. Haven't been to Paradise in years, maybe it's time soon.

JGT said...

Hi Jill,

Another great post! How beautiful! Everything but your description of the meal made we want to be there! I love reading your posts.

Auntie C said...

OK, we are scheduling our September visit right now! I have some photos of Rainier from our flight back from Utah; a clear day, with startling views of Rainier and surroundings right out of my airplane window. I have never seen a glacier , so going to go there and cross that off my bucket list!

TC said...

Another awesome post Jill! Beautiful photos. Makes me want to stay at Paradise Inn - now. I've never really been in the building any further than a restroom stop before heading to Camp Muir. I wouldn't mind finding one of the nooks to hang out and read in right now!

Anonymous said...

Your photos were lovely. We hiked to Fremont lookout on Sunday. Also stunning!

Lisa Osse said...

Another excellent post, Jill. Glad you had such lovely weather. Once again, you have succeeded in making me homesick!

jill said...

Yes, Fremont Lookout is a great hike, see my link on the blog for my account of hike there last year.

Thanks Lisa, we'll be seeing you relatively soon!

Dave Wenning said...

Paradise was THE place to ski in the 1950's. Is the starship day lodge still there or was that Crystal Mountain? Old brain might be getting them mixed up. I have only seen Paradise when there was 10 feet of snow on the ground. I guess I need to get down there again, in the summer this time.