PARADISE, Mount Rainier National Park, Wash. —My family went to Mount Rainier to see the wildflowers, but every time we went outside, our 3- 1/2-year-old was begging us to let her build a snowman.
The Paradise Inn, circa 1916, is a hotel at what's reputed to be the snowiest place on Earth, tucked so high into the alpine wilderness (elev. 5,400 feet) that it is buried up to the rafters for much of the year. By late July, most of the snow had melted into dirty patches of slush — not quite enough for a late-season snowman but plenty for slippery fun on the trails.
My husband and I booked an overnight trip to the National Park Service-owned lodge with our daughter, Ruby. While Paradise is the starting point for many of the 10,000-or-so mountain climbers who attempt the summit every year, we sought less-ambitious nature walks of a mile or less.
It's impossible not to be charmed by the grand lodge, with huge stone fireplaces at each end of its great room, shining fir floors, and hand-painted lampshades dangling among crisscrossing beams overhead.
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A German carpenter spent the winter of 1919 at the lodge to carve much of the furniture, a piano and a 14-foot grandfather clock.
"The history alone in this place is unbelievable," said Jeri Kemp, the lodge general manager, who is spending her first season at Paradise.
Even better, a $22.5 million overhaul was completed in 2008. The lodge is on the National Historic Register, and while it's rustic, it's light-filled, cozy and appointed with thoughtful touches for visitors — from hooks for your purse in the bathroom to board games you can check out at the front desk.
The parking lot is packed this time of year. Backpackers strapping on ice axes and alpine climbing boots mingle with international visitors snapping pictures and families with baby carriers and strollers.
When we arrived, visitors were lunching on the partly-sunny deck, reading and playing games on the couches that front the stone fireplaces, and picnicking at big tables by the windows.
The lodge has a formal dining room as well as the Tatoosh Cafe, a coffee-shop-style place with beer on tap, grab-and-go sandwiches on artisan bread, ice-cream cones and fancy baked goods. While we waited for our room, we put on our hiking shoes and wandered out of the parking lot onto a trail that starts just 50 feet from the lodge entrance.
A 4.5-mile climb from the lodge puts you at 10,080-foot Camp Muir — the base camp for climbers going to the summit. Instead, we did a quick half-mile stroll to Myrtle Falls. The wildflowers bloomed late this year — it was the coldest June in decades — and hikers had to slip and slide across a few patches of slush on the trail.
When we got back to the lodge, Ruby was happily flushed, with wet knees and freezing cold hands.
We warmed up in the lodge, where socks and boots were already drying by the fireplace (only one was lit during our visit) and non-hikers were settling in to read.
Fog was rolling in, so we walked to the visitor center, which opened last year to replace a previous structure that critics derided for resembling a flying saucer. The new center has a sitting area and a cafeteria, complete with an espresso machine if you're looking for one (there's only drip coffee in the lodge).
Exhibits in the center's upstairs are designed to clue in visitors to the area's rich history — it hosted the 1935 Olympic Trials for downhill skiing and was a training ground for the 10th Mountain Division during World War II — and its beauty. The exhibits are hands-on and perfect for stir-crazy kids. There are buttons to push, big pages to turn, and binoculars to peek through. A kaleidoscope exhibit teaches about how snowflakes are made, and a giant laminated version of the longtime lodge journal records decades of people's favorite memories of the area.
Our bright-but-spartan room in the main lodge had two double beds and a bathroom. There are no televisions or telephones in any of the rooms, and you can't even get Internet or cellphone service.
"Every room is different," Kemp said. "There is no standard room in this building, ever."
Many of the rooms in the lodge do not have private bathrooms, so the lodge provides slippers and robes for people staying there. And rooms in the attached "annex" — completed in 1920 — were not renovated. They are scheduled to be upgraded in 2015, but until then, there is old-fashioned paneling and some older fixtures. It's a little noisy at night, despite soundproofing that accompanied the renovation. If a toilet flushes in the room next to you, you hear it loud and clear.
Christi Cantu and her husband and three children stayed in an annex room on their recent visit from Georgia. The in-room hospitality guide helpfully warns visitors they might see a mouse in their room, but Cantu said she still "freaked out" when one skittered across her floor.
The room was less upscale than some places they've stayed on family trips, Cantu said, but the area is so beautiful she said it tops a trip to Yosemite last summer.
"It just sort of brings us a little bit closer," she said. Her kids are 12, 8 and 4. "We've spent a lot of time right here (by the fireplace), having hot chocolate, playing games ... It's definitely great to kind of detox from electronics."
As evening fell, day-hikers headed down the mountain while overnighters bought a glass of wine ($7 at the cafe) and waited their turn in the dining room, where an all-comers menu offered rainbow trout, pasta, steaks and a venison shepherd's pie.
Every year here, in the snowiest place on Earth where snowfall is monitored (680 inches in an average winter), hotel managers crash-train a full staff as the snow is melting away from the parking lot in late May. In October, when the air chills again, they close it for another winter.
It was hard to leave the next day, which dawned bright and clear.
As we hiked after breakfast, we were surrounded by emerald-green meadows spotted with avalanche lilies and Indian paintbrush, and deer crossed the trail just feet in front of us.
And there were views of the Cascades in every direction—including, of course, the giant white cap of Rainier towering above.
IF YOU GO
The Paradise Inn is 87 miles by highway from Seattle, in Mount Rainier National Park. The drive took us about 2 1/2 hours. The inn is open from late May to the first weekend in October.
Rooms range from $104 for a room with two twin beds and no bathroom in the main lodge to $274 for a suite in the attached "annex" building with a bedroom, a private bath and a sitting area. We stayed in a $154/night handicap-accessible room in the main lodge, which had two double beds and a private bath. The annex rooms are larger, but they have not been renovated. Some lodge rooms are in the basement.
The inn is booked for much of August, but vacancies remain for all of September and the first few days of October.
There is a $15-per-carload fee (good for seven days) for entry to Mount Rainier National Park.
The Paradise Inn Dining Room has a full bar and serves sit-down breakfast ($8-$15), lunch (e.g., $10.50 for a burger, $13.50 for fish and chips) and dinner (e.g., $18.95 for baked rainbow trout, $19.75 for bourbon buffalo meatloaf). They don't take reservations, but the dining room is large and there are pagers if there is a wait. The inn was fully booked during our visit, and we waited about 15 minutes during the peak dinner hour. Tatoosh Cafe has sandwiches, snacks, wine, beer, hot chocolate and baked goods.
In the nearby Paradise Jackson Visitor Center, a cafeteria serves pizza, hot dogs and other lunch items, and has espresso.
For directions, reservation information and a virtual tour of the inn, see www.mtrainierguestservices.com/accommodations/paradise-inn.
For more information on Mount Rainier National Park, see www.nps.gov/mora.