In winter, the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Mt. Rainier National Park offers many great family-friendly activities, from sledding in the Paradise Snowplay Area to exploring the center’s interactive exhibits. Open year round, the visitor center is located 19 miles northeast of the park’s Nisqually Entrance and 12 miles northeast of Longmire.
From Paradise’s large, well-plowed upper parking lot, you’ll see three snow-covered buildings: the Jackson Visitor Center, the Paradise Guide House, and the Paradise Ranger Station. The area surrounding the visitor center, also known as Paradise, is the primary winter-use area in the park and receives an average of 641 inches of snow every year.
Originally built in the 1960s, the Jackson Visitor Center was completely redesigned and rebuilt in 2006 to match Paradise’s historic buildings. Operated by the National Park Service, the visitor center is open weekends and holidays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during Rainier’s winter season, generally October through May.
If the snowfall is light, you and the kids can continue through the parking lot for views of the historic Paradise Inn. The splendid ca. 1917 inn is perched at 5,400-ft. elevation with Mt. Rainier looming in the background. With the exception of the visitor center, the inn and all of the other buildings at Paradise are closed in winter.
On a clear yet blustery morning, my husband Erik, our three-year-old son Finn, and I arrive at Paradise. We bundle up and head to the Snowplay Area with our bright yellow sled in hand. Walk up a short hill above the visitor center and there you’ll see folks of all ages zooming down the two runs in plastic sleds, saucers, and inner tubes. For safety, no hard toboggans or runner sleds are allowed. Three-year-old Finn laughs with delight as we speed down the run, several hundred feet in length.
Prefer to ski in the park? Take the kids cross-country skiing on Paradise Valley Road/Stevens Canyon Road, closed in winter to cars and snowmobiles. When the snowpack is stable, this easy yet popular 3.5-mile trek to Reflection Lake offers grand views of Rainier and the Tatoosh. The route begins in the Paradise parking lot. Winter recreational maps are available at the visitor center. Ski rentals are available in nearby Longmire at the National Park Inn General Store or in Ashford at Whittaker Mountaineering.
Or sign up at the visitor center for a two-hour, ranger-guided snowshoe hike. Moderately strenuous, this hike is great for beginners and families. While only adults and kids eight years and older can sign up, the rangers will allow you to bring younger children in front or back carriers. Dress them very warmly, rangers say, for little ones will get very cold because they aren’t moving. Folks can borrow snowshoes from the visitor center for a $4 donation per pair.
After your winter activities, you and the kids can stow your gear and head over to the visitor center to warm up. We enter the visitor center through the double doors into a spacious lobby, its tall windows offering views of snow-capped Mt. Rainier and the Tatoosh Range. At the far side of the lobby is the center’s information desk, which is staffed by friendly park rangers. For a hearty lunch and warm beverages, the cafeteria is located down a short hallway to the left of the information desk.
After lunch, Erik slips into the visitor center’s theater (located behind the information desk) to watch an informative film, The Restless Giant. At 21 minutes long, the film offers a helpful overview of Mt. Rainier’s summer and winter activities. The film plays in a continuous loop, beginning at 15 and 45 minutes after each hour.
We drive back down the mountain to Longmire in the late afternoon. A tired Finn quickly falls asleep in his car seat, a stuffed animal clutched in his hand.
Note: All vehicles are required to carry chains in the park from November through May. The road between Longmire and Paradise is plowed throughout the winter but may close unexpectedly due to severe snow and ice. For current road conditions, call 360-569-2211 or check @MountRainierNPS on twitter. There is a National Park Service entrance fee for visitors driving up to Longmire and Paradise. Go here for current information on park fees and passes. For more information on winter trails and hikes call the Jackson Visitor Center at 360-569-6571.