Mount Rainier Proposed Timed Entry Reservations
Updated: Jun 14
Mount Rainier National Park (MRNP) has proposed a few different alternatives that include timed entry reservations to manage overcrowding during peak season at Paradise and Sunrise. The comment period for this proposal lasts until June 26, 2023.
Park leadership met with the Cascade Backcountry Alliance, along with other stakeholders, such as Washington Trails Association, The Mountaineers, National Parks Conservation Association, and many more, on June 8th, 2023 to discuss the proposal and answer questions.
This post will summarize the alternatives, issues most relevant to our users, and highlight how the community can make their voice heard.
Making Your Voice Heard
We know that this is a lot of information to digest. But these discussions will have an impact on recreation at MRNP and even outside the park for many years to come, so it is essential to make your voice heard!
We encourage you to write a comment to the MRNP staff. These are some topics that might be relevant to snow and backcountry users:
How climbing permits might interface with timed entry reservations.
How you get permits (reservation, walk-up).
When you would like to make reservations (one week before, one day before, day of, etc).
The times of year you visit MRNP.
Places you enjoy visiting within the Park, and how you access it.
Here are a few ways you can ensure your feedback is helpful:
Be specific to your needs as a backcountry skier or climber.
Offer justification for your positions. It is not helpful to just say “I don’t like Alternative X”.
Offer alternatives or suggestions.
Think outside the box! Your ideas do not have to fit into the listed alternatives.
Point out any errors or inconsistencies you find in the proposal.
This is just the proposal phase, so there will be more opportunities for the public and CBA to comment on actual implementation details.
If you do not feel comfortable making a comment, but have opinions on the topics covered in this article, then let us know, either by commenting on this post or contacting us on our website! We will do our best to incorporate community feedback into a letter that the CBA will submit to MRNP.
If you would like to learn more about the important aspects of this proposal, continue reading!
MRNP has a few motivations behind this proposal:
Maintain a quality “visitor experience”
Protect the environment from ecological damage resulting from overuse
Prevent overparking problems
Reduce entrance station queue lengths
At our meeting, MRNP expressed that the sanctioned parking supply at Paradise correlates approximately with a sustainable amount of foot traffic on the trails. When Paradise is overparked, that is when they start to see more significant ecological impact, along with a degradation of user experience (determined from surveys). Thus, from their perspective, this is not just a “parking problem”.
MRNP has outlined four different alternatives.
Alternative 1: No Action
This alternative would mean no change from existing operations.
Alternative 2: Corridor Level Access Management
In this option, timed entry reservations would be required to enter the Nisqually, Stevens Canyon, and White River entrances during peak times. Initially, “peak times” would be July 1 to Labor Day Weekend, from 7 AM to 5 PM daily, with the possibility of extending this season back to Memorial Day Weekend, which would impact snow users more.
Users entering the park before 7 AM or after 5 PM would not require a reservation. Additionally, if you have another permit (climbing, wilderness, camping) you would not be required to have an entry reservation. The details of how this would work are discussed later on.
There would be a small reservation fee (under $10) to cover the vendor’s costs.
This is currently the Park’s preferred alternative.
Alternative 3: Site Level Access Management + Cougar Rock Shuttle
This option would require timed entry reservations for Paradise and White River / Sunrise specifically, but not for other areas in the Nisqually Corridor (e.g. Narada Falls, Comet Falls). This would be enforced by some new permit check stations on the Paradise Loop Road.
There would also be a rearrangement of park entrance gates to increase throughput.
A 30 minute shuttle from Cougar Rock (inside the Park) to Paradise would bring some users to Paradise. About 100 parking spaces would be created at Cougar Rock for the shuttle. However, this would not increase the total visitor capacity at Paradise, only reduce the number of cars.
Alternative 4: Site Level Access Management
This alternative is the same as Alternative 3, but without the shuttle.
Here are a few considerations essential to this plan and our user group specifically.
In the proposal, it is stated that visitors with another sort of permit (climbing, wilderness, camping) would not be required to get a timed entry reservation permit. Beyond that assurance, there are few details. When we asked MRNP leadership about this, they encouraged us to give suggestions about how this could be implemented in an effective manner.
Snow users often get climbing permits to travel above 10,000 ft on Rainier. For skiers especially, many do one day ascents. Currently, this requires getting to the Paradise Ranger Station before it closes at 5 pm the day before, which can be particularly onerous for working folk. Many might go down to Ashford for the night. Parties could be split between multiple cars, each coming from work as quickly as they can the day before. Some parties do routes as a carryover (e.g. ascend the Kautz and descend the Emmons) and thus require multiple vehicles. For all these reasons, there are many different situations that could arise.
If a climbing permit reservation functions as an entry permit, there might need to be a way to indicate all of the vehicles associated with this permit, and each vehicle gets an entry permit that is valid during the dates of the climb and the day before.
There are a few changes to the climbing permit system that could help this situation:
Allow for virtual interactions (phone call or video call) with the climbing rangers instead of picking up permits in person.
Remove the need for in person permit pickup for teams with a successful unguided climb in their experience.
Remove the need for in person permit pickup altogether. After making an online reservation, you could just self register, like at Mt. Hood, right before you begin your ascent at an early hour.
We understand that the entire climbing permit system is inconvenient and antiquated. That is why we are suggesting various alternatives that would improve the process for frequent climbers, while also decreasing the traffic to Paradise, since climbers would not have to enter the Park during peak hours just to pick up their permit.
There are of course concerns for abuse of climbing permits to get an entry permit. However, the $65 annual climbing fee cost should discourage this. And as members of the community, we should honor these policies with integrity, and encourage others to do the same.
If you have comments about how timed entry reservations should interface with climbing permits, please let us know, either by commenting on this post or contacting us through our website!
Walk-up permits will suffer because a visitor would be required to get a timed entry reservation just to visit the ranger station seeking a walk-up permit. Perhaps MRNP could move all walk-up permits online, but there is some value in allowing visitors to talk to a ranger and get suggestions.
If there were a ranger station outside the park, perhaps the operations could be moved outside the gate so that an entry permit would not be required to visit. If site level access management is selected, then greater use of the Cougar Rock Ranger Station, which would not require an entry permit to access, would help this problem.
Impact on Other Areas
Conservation groups are concerned about the potential spillover impact from managing visitation at Paradise. Hikers will likely seek other nearby areas and hikes in Washington that might not have the infrastructure (e.g. paved trails, restrooms) to manage higher numbers of hikers. While an extra 100 hikers might have some impact at Paradise, they will likely have greater impact at another location that is more wild in nature.
At the meeting, some other impact-reduction impacts were discussed. Hiker education and trail design can be used to discourage meadow damage. Other national parks like Glacier have successfully implemented trail closures during snowmelt season to reduce impact.
Corridor vs Site Level Access Management
Corridor vs Site Level Access Management is the key distinction between Alternatives 2 and 4. Which is better? That is challenging to answer. A few considerations we have:
Site Level Access Management might be slightly harder to implement, with a new entrance station at Paradise. It also could be more confusing to some users.
Corridor Level Access Management might lead to the abandonment of certain areas of the park (e.g. Westside Road). These are lightly trafficked areas that might lose any appeal if users have to compete with Paradise visitors just for an entrance permit. From the perspective of MRNP, this would run counter to their goal of spreading usage out.
How Reservations Are Made
In other National Parks, entry reservations are typically made on Recreation.gov. A certain percentage is made available at different points before the date, such as one month before, one week before, one day before, and the day of. What is the ideal distribution?
MRNP is different from many popular National Parks in that the majority of the usage is by locals. What implications does this have for how permits should be distributed?
Snow users tend to have stricter weather requirements than other visitors, so last-minute reservations might be more critical for them.
There should be a generous cancellation policy to incentivize users to relinquish reservations they do not intend to use.
There were also many discussions about equity around this topic. Some questions asked were:
Are reservation systems more or less equitable?
How does the amount of the reservation fee affect equity?
What can be done to improve accessibility for people who speak or read other languages than English?
Many people are questioning why shuttles are not a bigger part of the proposals. Even the Cougar Rock Shuttle in Alternative 3 is relatively small in scale.
As explained earlier, MRNP does not want to increase the actual visitation to Paradise to manage ecological impacts and sustain the “visitor experience”.
There have been past attempts at a Paradise shuttle, but usage was low. Perhaps more users would use it if it provided an alternative to entry reservations. But visitors would still require a vehicle to reach the park, so that is still a big barrier.
Park leadership also admitted that a shuttle system would be costly and likely require resources to implement that they currently do not have. Thus, a shuttle does not seem likely at this point.
Winter Operations Update
We know you are all anxious about 2023-24 winter operations at Paradise. Last winter, operations were reduced to weekends only due to staffing shortages.
After the meeting, we asked the MRNP leadership about next winter. They have filled some job vacancies but others remain unfilled. We offered to share the listings for SAR and winter rangers when they are made available, since some members of our community might be interested in these roles. They expressed gratitude for the volunteers that helped through last winter and will likely lean on volunteers once again.
They are optimistic about resuming normal winter operations next winter.
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