To meet growing visitation to Mount Rainier National Park, the National Park Services (NPS) is pondering changes to the Nisqually to Paradise corridor. Between, 2008 and 2018 visitation increased by 30% and congestion along with it, which has worsened visitor experience and endangered park resources.

With new interventions, NPS is looking to relieve roadway congestion on Highway 706 and Paradise Road, ensure quality of visitor experience along viewpoints and trails, combat overuse of parking lots and facilities, protect culturally significant assets, and preserve the natural environment.

The project’s main goals are as follows:

  1. Examine current and potential visitor opportunities and develop longer term strategies to provide safe access, connect visitors to key experiences, and manage use of the park;
  2. Incorporate best practices for managing visitor use to protect resources and promote visitor experiences; and
  3. Protect the unique resources in Paradise Meadows.

Planning is currently in Phase 1, the Foundation and Problem Analysis phase, so no options have been shared yet. Viable options will be explored in Phase 2.

Some Douglas firs and Mount Tahoma frame National Park Inn wooden lodge in Longmire.
Longmire is NPS main base of operations for Mount Rainier National Park and is also home to National Park Inn, shown here with Mount Tahoma in the background. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Prospects for Indigenizing Rainier to Tahoma?

The NPS has been silent on the issue of restoring the mountain to one of its indigenous names. British explorer George Vancouver named it after his friend and fellow Royal Navy officer Peter Rainier. Rainier fought in the American Revolutionary War, and earned a promotion for capturing a large American privateer in a bloody battle.

Tacomans have long lobbied to call it Tahoma, and some Puyallap tribal members have proposed naming it Ti’Swaq’ or “sky wiper.” Renaming hopes rose when Mount Denali officially returned to its indigenous name after a sojourn as Mount McKinley, but nothing has come of it yet.

Laying out options

The bluntest approach to reducing congestion would be to widen roads and expand parking lots. This would be completely antithetical to the message of protecting the park’s natural resources–not to mention that many of the roads are historically listed and protected.


Nisqually to Paradise corridor (in yellow) is where changes are being considered. (Courtesy of National Parks Service)

Public bus services is an option to serve a growing number visitors and relieve parking lots. Bus service for national parks already exists, models like the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS) demonstrate viability for NPS.

Courtesy of Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System

YARTS not only serves the park, but it also provides public bus service to neighboring urban and rural communities. The Merced route operates year round, and the other three are seasonal. NPS could work with Pierce County to develop routes for the surrounding communities.

Year-round trips to between Mount Rainier National Park and Pierce County’s transit centers could provide an alternative mode of transportation to the park. Connections to Tacoma and/or Puyallup could bring the park and rural communities into the region’s greater public transportation systems. In 2023, Pacific Avenue bus rapid transit will extend from Tacoma as far south as Spanaway, offering a potential hub for park-bound transit service. A bus route to Yakima could serve a similar purpose, but less demand might make that a better seasonal candidate.

Four photographers with tripods point their camera at Myrtle Falls from a viewing ledge near Paradise.
The paved trails from Paradise Visitor Center are heavily trafficked in the summer, and getting a good photo can require elbowing your way in as observed here at Myrtle Falls. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Busing won’t work for all of the park’s needs; it could potentially bring more visitors and endanger park resources. NPS could use a lottery system to restrict access of more fragile parts of the national park. Limiting access to vulnerable trails and other sensitive areas of the park could help create a safe and sustainable system for the park. It could even improve the visitor experience, and reduce congestion and facility overuse.

A field of light purple and red wildflowers with a pond and Mount Tahoma peaking above a row of trees in the background.
Meadows can be damaged when visitors wander off the trail, such as the popular Naches Peak Loop at the eastern edge of the park. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

Lottery systems aren’t new to the National Parks Service. The Denali Park Road, Grand Canyon Rafting, and Yosemite’s Half Dome all operate with a lottery system. Of course, oversight of the lottery system would have to exist to ensure that the process is equitable and truly fair.

Participate in the process

The National Park System opened up the project to public comment on August 10th, 2020. Explore the issues and key locations identified by NPS in their online open house. More details on the process and the project can be found on the official project website.

Public comment on Phase 1 will be open through October 5th, 2020. Share your thoughts with NPS in their survey. Help them identify priorities, issues, potential options, well managed parts of the park, and desired experiences.

To participate further be sure to check out their virtual public meeting on September 1st, 2020. Instructions to join have yet to be posted, but they will be found at their website. Follow the project through its next two phases and make your voice heard.

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Shaun Kuo is a junior reporter at The Urbanist and a recent graduate from the UW's Jackson School. He is a Seattle native that has lived in Wallingford, Northgate, and Lake Forest Park. He enjoys exploring the city by bus and foot.

1 COMMENT

  1. A bus to Mt. Rainier that connects with the region transit system would definitely be used, especially on summer weekends. The only problem, of course, is figuring out how to pay for it.

    Because such a bus would have a very long route, it is probably not feasible to run more than one daily round trip, with service limited to weekends and holidays, during the summer tourist season. I would have it run to Tacoma Dome Station, providing a timed connect with a southbound 594 for the morning trip. Unfortunately, due to the long route and unpredictable traffic, a timed connection is not possible for the return trip, and riders would just have to wait up to 30 minutes for a connection to Seattle; eventually, Tacoma Dome will get Link service, running every 10 minutes, and a timed connection won’t be necessary.

    I would have the bus run express through Spanaway, taking the freeway to SR-512/SR-7, then stopping only at connection points, including a stop at the P&R at the corner of SR-7 and SR-507. After that, the next stop would be Ashford, followed by stops at various trailheads along Paradise Road, inside the national park.

    After dropping people off, I would put the bus to use in the middle of the day running a local shuttle service within the national park, going back and forth between Ashford, Longmire, Paradise, and other trailheads, until it’s time for people to head back home.

    Because this would be a very long route, it probably justifies a substantially higher fare than you would pay on a regular transit route. Clellem Transit’s Strait Shot Express runs a similar-length route between Bainbridge Island and Port Angeles, charging $10 each way, so the same $10 (plus an additional $5 southbound for those who don’t have an America the Beautiful Pass) seems reasonable.

    My guess is that, if well-advertised, this would be a surprisingly popular route. Trailhead Direct has already proven that the demand for transit to hiking trails exists, and Mt. Rainier is a more popular destination than Mt. Si. If well advertised, I could even see the service operating with a 40-foot bus and being mostly full.

    I should also mention that my entire comment here is based on a now-hypothetical world where COVID does not exist; for obvious reasons, I don’t think such a bus route can be remotely considered until we have a vaccine and the need for masks and social distancing goes away. Even then, it might take several additional years before people feel safe riding it or before the budgets of public agencies recover enough to point where they could afford it.

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