Mount Rainier Winter Access Update

Our staff and recreation partners met with Mount Rainier National Park leadership to discuss the recent winter recreation season, how the Park is working to address its staffing challenges, and the prospects of more regular access to the Paradise area next winter.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
May 10, 2023
Mount Rainier Winter Access Update
Mazama Ridge, in the Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park. Photo by Eryn Allen.

As the highest and oldest road access for winter recreation in Washington, the Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park offers an unparalleled outdoor experience and is integral to Mountaineers programs. This winter looked a little different on the mountain as the Park restricted weekday access to Paradise through the Longmire gate. We heard from many in our community who expressed concerns about the closure.

Along with several recreation partners, we engaged with Mount Rainier National Park leadership in December 2022 regarding the decision to limit access to Paradise for the 2022-2023 winter season. We approached these conversations in the spirit of partnership, understanding the staffing challenges the Park is facing, but also sharing our desire to see the Longmire to Paradise road opened on a more consistent basis.

We recently met with Superintendent Greg Dudgeon and Deputy Superintendent Kevin Skerl for a follow-up conversation to discuss how things went at Paradise this winter and the prospects of more regular access to the area next winter and into the future. The conversation provided us greater insight into the many challenges facing the park, and the progress they’ve made to address them.

Reviewing the Winter Season at Paradise

The primary challenge leading to reduced access was not a lack of funding, but rather a lack of staffing. Park leadership shared that it requires 26 staff positions to open the road for winter access, and they were unable to fill half of those positions prior to the start of the 2022-2023 winter season. These vacancies are representative of the Park’s larger hiring challenges. Mount Rainier National Park typically experiences a ten percent vacancy rate for staff positions, but 30 percent of all positions were open and unfilled last winter.

Although it was a difficult decision to close the Longmire to Paradise road on weekdays, Park leadership felt like they made the right choice for public and staff safety. “It was a relatively safe winter season: there were only a couple of significant safety incidents,” shared Superintendent Greg Dudgeon. “We didn’t stretch the staff too thin or take them beyond their capabilities for the sake of access.” A robust cadre of volunteers also helped support staff efforts to facilitate safe weekend visits to Paradise.

Staff reiterated that they care deeply about providing access to Paradise, and in hindsight, they should have made the decision earlier and afforded the public more advance notice of the operational changes.

Despite the disappointing loss of weekday access, the public seemed to take full advantage of the opportunity to visit Paradise on the weekends. The Longmire gate was able to open most weekends during the season for at least one day. Weekend gate closures were the result of inclement weather conditions, not a lack of staff capacity.

One of the concerns we frequently heard from our members was how the closing times of the Longmire gate can impact winter visits to Paradise. In our recent meeting, Park leadership shared the need to keep closing times consistent due to staffing and safety considerations. Winter road crews usually start at 5am and need to head home around 3:30pm. When they send plow drivers home, they don’t have flexibility to clear the road or respond to incidents if the gate is kept open longer than the 4pm closure time. Later in the spring, road crews are also dispatched to begin clearing roads on the east side of the Park.

Addressing Systemic Hiring, Housing, and Funding Challenges

The staffing issues the National Park Service (NPS) is facing are not unique to Mount Rainier. National Parks across the country are feeling the crush of staffing and hiring challenges. On a recent visit to Mount Rainier, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland mentioned that the National Park Service is experiencing hiring challenges that pencil out to about one applicant for every 1.8 vacant positions.

Unfortunately, the problem is bigger than just hiring: a number of factors, including the lack of available and affordable housing and commuting distance, also impact the Park’s ability to hire and retain staff. Park leadership shared that they’ve started to think more strategically about how to use their permanent housing assets. They’ve also received funding through an NPS pilot program that provides lease funding to help offset costs of private sector housing for seasonal staff. These changes will allow the Park to provide housing benefits as a recruitment incentive in the near term.

Chronic underfunding of public lands is also a key challenge for the Park, just like it is for other public land managers. While the Park’s budget has increased by 16 percent between 2008-2022, staff levels are down 37 percent and visitation to Mount Rainier is up 39 percent. Increasing federal land manager staffing and funding is a top advocacy priority for The Mountaineers, and we’ll continue to share ways to take action on this important issue.

Striving for Regular Winter Access to Paradise Going Forward

Superintendent Greg Dudgeon shared that, at this point, they expect to restore more regular operations and access next winter. The Park is still working to fill crucial vacancies and reviewing a number of different strategies and recruitment pathways to make sure this winter was a one-off situation.

As a sign of progress, they have met about three quarters of their current hiring need for winter operations, filling open utilities and custodial positions and hiring new road crew members. To help address road crew hiring needs, the Park launched a new partnership with nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord to develop an internship program. They also plan to hire for seasonal winter ranger positions this summer, and believe they can attract good candidates.

Overall, staff believe they can have the vast majority, if not all, of those vacancies filled by next winter. While leadership is optimistic, this current outlook doesn’t factor in additional vacancies or other challenges that might arise before next winter. The Mountaineers will continue to engage with Park leadership and amplify the Park’s open positions.

What’s Next?

We appreciate how passionately our community cares for Mount Rainier and the special winter recreation experiences it provides. Despite limited access to Paradise, The Mountaineers facilitated 59 youth and adult activities in the Paradise area this winter, including snowshoeing, scrambling, and backcountry ski trips. To our leaders and members, thank you for your understanding and ability to pivot quickly and make the most of the winter season for our community.

We'll remain in contact with Park leadership to stay abreast of their hiring efforts and discuss long-term improvements in winter recreation access. We’ll keep in touch with what we hear moving forward, but in the meantime, please feel free to continue sharing your feedback with us. Superintendent Greg Dudgeon and Deputy Superintendent Kevin Skerl also want to hear directly from you. You’re encouraged to reach out to them to share any concerns and questions about the Park’s management and operations.

Mount Rainier National Park is currently reviewing and assessing potential strategies to better manage visitor use during peak visitation over the summer months, including a potential timed-entry reservation system. Keep an eye out for an upcoming blog that details this process, how we’re engaging on behalf of our members, and the opportunity to comment directly as a part of this planning process.

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Diann Sheldon
Diann Sheldon says:
May 15, 2023 09:54 PM

Thank you for this update. It answers a lot of questions I have myself as well as surrounding community members.

Evan Wendel
Evan Wendel says:
Sep 21, 2023 10:40 AM

Given that winter is now right around the corner, I was curious if NPS leadership at Mt Rainier has provided any recent updates on what winter recreationalists can expect as far as access to Paradise is concerned during the 23-24 season? It'd be great to have more details on precisely what this statement will mean for visitors: "Superintendent Greg Dudgeon shared that, at this point, they expect to restore more regular operations and access next winter." Definitely hoping that last winter was indeed a one-off deal. Myself, and I'm certain many others, appreciate any further info the Mountaineers team might be able to share. Thanks!

Conor Marshall
Conor Marshall says:
Sep 26, 2023 09:14 AM

Hi Evan, Thank you for following up on this. We have not received any further update on anticipated staffing levels or access status at Mount Rainier during the upcoming winter season. We are in regular communication with Park leadership and will share an update with our community as soon as possible. Superintendent Greg Dudgeon and Deputy Superintendent Kevin Skerl encourage the public to continue to share concerns or additional questions directly by email to Thank you for your continued engagement in this important issue. Best, Conor.