To hikers and climbers near Puget Sound, Paradise isn’t in the afterlife or an abstract idea for a Caribbean beach, it’s an actual place. Paradise is an area of reference in the National Park Service map and the name of a valley in the same region of Mount Rainier. The name is also synonymous with the starting point for most visitors’ adventures in Mount Rainier National Park.
Coming from Tacoma or Seattle, people normally pass through Ashford on route 706 – where the guide concessions are located – and enter the park through the Nisqually Entrance in the southwestern corner of the park. From there, visitors continue to the Longmire Museum or just drive straight to Paradise – just 16 miles from the entrance. The road in Paradise itself is mainly in the Paradise Valley. (Keep in mind, road access is limited in the winter based on conditions.)
When most people think of a valley they think of it as the deepest area between two mountainous slopes. Paradise Valley is not a valley like that. Instead it’s actually elevated. It is actually a broad shoulder of the mountain with elevated features on three sides of its plain. On the north end, flowing into Paradise Valley, is Sluiskin Falls – named for the Indian warrior guide to Stevens and Van Trump in 1870 I wrote about earlier – and Narada Falls on the southern end. The water plummets about 200 feet from Narada Falls and out of the “valley.”
Paradise Valley is technically a “hanging valley.” It is also what is left of a glacial cirque. Treeline is approximately 7,000 feet elevation, and Paradise sits at approximately 5,400. There, at that elevation, in winter the landscape can see 30 feet of snow. It buries the Paradise Inn on the western rim of the valley, only to melt and give way to some amazing alpine meadows.
For non hikers and climbers, Paradise is often where the journey stops, but oh what a view! From this hanging valley of alpine flora, you have a front row seat to take in the mountain. If you thought Rainier seemed enormous from Puget Sound, here it would make your HD television’s definition wanting. From there, you can take in the Nisqually Glacier, Gibralter Rock, the edge of the Emmons Glacier and Point Success.
For the hikers and climbers, Paradise is just the starting point. If you’re inclined to hike, there are several trails around Paradise for brisk walk to take in the views or pick up the Wonderland Trail – which circumnavigates the mountain – from the base of Narada Falls. For the climbers, this is where the ascent really begins. More on that later.
Sources: 1) Schmoe, Floyd, A Year in Paradise: A Personal Experience on Mount Rainier in the Early 1900s, The Mountaineers (1999); 2) National Park Service’s Mount Rainier website.