AT PARADISE, WHICH, which, let’s face it, is where we all deserve to be, I stood on one end of the mezzanine of the long, woody lodge admiring a superstructure of peeled Douglas fir logs that frame the rafters of the 1917 structure. “If you were going to count this truss alone, you’d find 70 logs,” said Ken Hardy, foreman of the construction crew that rebuilt Paradise Inn over the last two years. And if I were going to count all the logs in the whole building, starting with the stump mailbox and 1,500-pound tables in the lobby and the pine-branch headboards in the guest rooms…well, I can’t count that high. Suffice it to say that the bare logs and frontier decor are a considerable part of what makes the inn special, not to mention the location, seemingly at the top of Planet Washington.
The venerable old hostelry reopened in May at the 5,400-foot level of Mount Rainier National Park, making it the highest lodging on the mountain and a great base for exploring Rainier’s network of trails and alpine meadows. Twenty-one miles from the southwest entrance to the park, and 85 miles from downtown Seattle, the inn has been closed for repairs for the last two seasons; a horrific windstorm in November 2006 caused havoc on the roads and made access to the park difficult until May 2007. Crews have been trying to catch up with maintenance to everything from roads to campgrounds, and this season marks the first time that Mount Rainier looks ready again for the crowds who come from everywhere—Germany, New Zealand, Japan, Puyallup—to enjoy the park.
It is to the inn’s massive lobby that thousands of hikers repair every year to get out of bad weather, or get a cup of coffee, or just relax before or after hitting the trails. The room is flanked by tall stone fireplaces and decorated with even more natural wood furniture—including a piano cabinet, all done in logs and varnished wood, that Grizzly Adams might have owned.
Renovations to the inn have almost entirely been structural: Bracing it, taking apart the fireplaces stone by stone to fortify and bring them up to code (some of the stones in the dining room still had their chalk numbers when I was there), and creating ADA-compliant rooms.
Of course, the whole point of Paradise is to get outside and soak up some of the best alpine scenery in the world.
The 118 guest rooms are simple and spare and small, but perfect sanctuaries after a long day on the mountain. The restaurant dishes up surprisingly elegant fare, including elk roulades, good and flavorful salmon cakes, coq au vin, a pork chop stuffed with sweet onions, and the inn’s signature bourbon buffalo meatloaf that has been on the menu since the beginning of time and is, in the words of one diner, paradise on a plate.
There’s no escaping nature at the inn. Wildflower-motif lampshades from artist Dale Thompson hang from the rafters. It’s fun to wander the mezzanine with a pamphlet in hand from the gift shop and study up on Thompson’s yellow Columbia lilies and bright pink Lewis monkey flowers, which are two of the 64 flowers depicted on the shades.
Of course, the whole point of Paradise is to get outside and soak up some of the best alpine scenery in the world. The surrounding meadows are covered by dozens of species of real wildflowers—including white, four-petal Canadian dogwood and lavender, star-shaped candy flower. Plus, there are 246 miles of trails in the park, and Paradise serves as a nexus for many of them. The Nisqually Vista Trail, which begins just west of the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, a short walk from the inn, is an easy, 1.2-mile loop, with elevation gains of 300 to 500 feet, that takes in views of the mountain’s summit and the Nisqually Glacier. A more strenuous hike begins further down the mountain at the Longmire museum and ascends 1,700 feet over nine miles as you make your way to broad Narada Falls, which cascade some 160 feet down a sheer cliff. Serious hikers take on the 93-mile long Wonderland Trail circles the top of the mountain, with campgrounds (reservations from the National Park Service are a must) along the way. A note to pet owners: Dogs are not allowed on the trails, even on leashes, nor are they allowed to stay in your room at the inn.
Climbers go into thin air with the assistance of mountain guide companies. A popular Mount Rainier climbing package is Alpine Ascents’ three-day Muir Climb up Ingraham Glacier and Disappointment Cleaver that begins with a camp on the first night at 10,000-foot Camp Muir, acclimatization and a move to a second camp a thousand feet higher on the second night, and a summit try on the third day. Because of its easy access and 26 named glaciers, Rainier is a trophy ascent for climbers, and a necessary stepping-stone to bigger peaks like Mount Everest and Alaska’s Mount McKinley.
All of which, I’ll be honest, fatigues me to just think about, so it’s back to the Paradise Inn. A new snack bar off the lobby is serving espresso and panini, and a guy on the knotty-pine piano is banging out “Stairway to Heaven.” Interest in the inn has been strong since it reopened, and according to reservations manager Pam Newlun, the lines were ringing off the hook when they opened this spring. “Our biggest fear going into the renovation was that people would forget,” she said. That clearly hasn’t happened, and although reservations may be hard to come by on short notice, keep trying. Cancellations are frequent and it is possible to snag a spot at the inn in summer, particularly weekdays.
So meet me at the Monkey flowers, baby. And if that isn’t your vision of Paradise, not to worry. There’s a wildflower for everyone this summer on Mount Rainier.