As I made my way through the park, gravel and dirt lay on the roadsides – unusual for late winter- with the Paradise area boasting far less than its annual 50-75 feet of typical snowfall. When I arrived at Paradise, the parking lot was full, so I turned around for the short trip down to the overnight lot. It was me, the wilderness and several hundred of my closest friends gearing up for a day in the snow. Before I could confirm the 53 degree temperature, I noticed a collector’s edition rear-wheel drive Firebird arrive; further confirmation that this was not a typical snow year in the Pacific Northwest.
The 1:30 ranger-led interpretive snowshoe outing that I had hoped to join was canceled due to staff illness, so I decided on a self-led 3.5-mile excursion to Reflection Lakes.
From the Paradise parking lot at 5,400 feet, I followed the Narada Falls trail from behind the Paradise Inn, down a steep incline beside an unnamed drainage. The trail was uneven and icy in places, requiring deliberate, front weighted steps throughout. As the hike progressed, the rising temperatures softened the snow’s surface so that my snowshoes had a better bite. As I wove amongst the trees, the trail became bare in places and offered a coniferous, baked earth scent usually associated with mid-summer hiking.
The trail descended steeply toward the junction to Narada Falls. I turned left here, and after two narrow bridge crossings, I joined the Paradise Valley trail, jogging east approximately an eighth of a mile, and found the Reflection Lakes trail. The route made several elevation gains and losses, crossing a path to Mazama Ridge, before losing elevation, climbing again, and then dropping down to the lakes. What small sense of accomplishment was gained at arriving lakeside was quickly lost, as I noticed several walkers in jeans and street shoes walking in on the road.
The lakes still held a cover of snow, and Clark’s nuthatches were happy to join anyone willing to expose their lunch. Nearby hikers from the Seattle area enjoyed Rainier beers and cold cuts. Following a water break, I decided to head back the way I came to avoid a longer trek in the sunshine on the Paradise Valley route. Once back at Paradise, I removed my gear and trekked back to the overnight parking lot in the sunshine, then headed down to Longmire for a stay at the National Park Inn.
Comfortable, and far less rustic than I had anticipated, I made use of my room’s shower and amenities before checking out the rest of the facilities. Families gathered in the game room to sit before the fire, read and play games. Others enjoyed the sight of Mt. Rainier from the front porch while sipping wine. A pleasing absence of electronic devices was evident at the Inn, which lacks cell and Wi-Fi service for those looking to unplug. Trout was served for dinner, on a bed of sweet pea risotto that should not be missed.
A well-provisioned store adjacent to the Inn offered everything from touristy knick knacks, to toiletries and donut holes. The area is also home to the Wilderness Information Center, the Longmire Museum, and historic buildings; reminders of the settlement created by James Longmire and his family shortly before the turn of the 20th century. The Trail of Shadows, directly across the road, features stunning old-growth stands, as well as hot pools and a historic cabin, which were part of Longmire’s Medical Springs in 1888 and 1889. The wide, mostly even path offers something for hikers of all abilities.
My bed was a heavenly retreat after an afternoon outdoors, and I opened my windows to enjoy the mountain air, and light of the full moon. Only the winds in the trees and the distant sound of running water could be heard. Away from the low exterior lights of the Inn, the moon bathed the wilderness in a pale blue light, lending even greater enchantment to an already enchanting place.
Written by Kari Desser