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Photo by Lisa Champlin.

Wild Weddings

How to rock a responsible outdoor ceremony on public lands | by Dawn Hammer

One of the first dates my husband, Jim, and I shared was a hike to Comet Falls in Mount Rainier National Park. Jim was an Eagle Scout who took his first weeklong backpacking trip as a teenager. He left the East Coast nearly a decade ago to chase mountains and eventually landed in the Pacific Northwest. By contrast, I had grown up car camping along the West Coast but had never done any real hiking. Jim properly introduced me to the wild. Practically overnight, I fell in love — not just with Jim, but also with the Mountain.

I capitalize that word because, to Jim and me, Mount Rainier deserves the utmost respect and adoration. We visit her in all seasons, every year, and have yet to discover all of her secrets. She looms large in our hearts and has been the setting for many most beloved memories: midnight viewings of meteor showers in Grand Park, quiet alpine sunrises from Skyscraper Mountain, fairy-tale meadow walks in Berkeley Park and numerous up-close encounters with wildlife.

Katie Lowery, officiant; Trinity Bower, maid of honor; Dawn Hammer, bride; Luke Bower, best man; and Jim Clagett, groom; are all smiles after the couple’s Mount Rainier wedding “faux-lopement”. Photos by Lisa Champlin/@thisopenshutter.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise when, during our annual day-after Thanksgiving snowshoe ramble through Paradise, Jim dropped to one knee and, voice slightly shaking, asked me to be his wife. But it was. And yet another joyful Rainier memory was added.

There was never really any question where we should get married.

We knew that in order to stay true to ourselves, we were going to need to plan an intimate, outdoor ceremony. While we would have loved an elopement deep in the backcountry of Rainier, there were certain members of our families — our children, our parents and my siblings — who needed to be included as we said our vows. The ceremony, which I soon dubbed our “faux-lopement,” stayed small enough that we could host it at our Mountain without disturbing her natural order.

Planning a ceremony in a national park has an entirely different set of rules (and stresses) than any other venue. You must remember that you are only a visitor, that there are regulations to follow, and that your impact, and the impacts of your guests, can have long-lasting ramifications to wild spaces if you don’t take special care.

The Dos and Don'ts

Here are the things we learned from hosting our Mount Rainier National Park faux-lopement.

  • DO contact the national park or wilderness area where you are hoping to hold your ceremony. Ask about regulations and recommendations for areas that accommodate a specific party size without impacting the surrounding areas or impeding other visitors’ experiences. Jim and I are familiar with Paradise and knew where we could go that would be large enough for our group of 12, keeping us on trail while allowing other hikers to pass by easily. We submitted our proposed site at Myrtle Falls to the park via their Special Use Permit form, paid a $60 application fee and received approval from the national park. If you are traveling to an unfamiliar area, ask the contact person (most likely listed on the national park’s or wilderness area’s website) for recommendations on an appropriate location for your group size.
Dawn and Jim walking to ceremony site at Paradise Mt Rainier. Photo by Lisa Champlain..jpg
Photo by Lisa Champlin/@thisopenshutter.
  • DO consider the members of your party in your location selection. The trail to our location, while a 10-minute walk uphill, was relatively mild and fully paved, which made it accessible for everyone. Some guests even walked there the day prior, to find out how long it would take them to reach it.
  • DO consider any entrance or parking fees, or parking limitations. Again, if you are hosting a ceremony at a national park or other managed wilderness area, there may be regulations that limit the number of cars. While this wasn’t an issue at Mount Rainier in the area we selected, we still carpooled to minimize the spaces we occupied. We also figured out beforehand who in our party were National Parks pass holders and arranged for them to be drivers, so that no one had to pay an entrance fee.
  • DO be prepared for any type of weather. Or, really, anything else. Ceremonies, like life, often do not follow even the most assiduously planned checklist (trust me — I had several). For an outdoor ceremony, especially one in which there is nowhere to hide from bad weather, be ready to go with the flow and enjoy the fact that nature is unpredictable and sometimes volatile. In our case, we made sure that the cabins we rented in Ashford had gathering spaces large enough to accommodate us all if the weather turned foul.
  • DON’T allow your photographer to go off trail to get the most Instagram-worthy mountain ceremony wedding shot ever. Don’t go off trail yourself. Don’t allow your guests to do so either. If you are going to the trouble to plan and host your ceremony somewhere wild, respect the wilderness you are visiting. We met with our photographer prior to the ceremony, shared some images that we loved, discussed areas that would be appropriate for photo opportunities and made clear that our number one priority was to follow Leave No Trace ethics. Seek out photographers who share your values — it is not hard to do in the Pacific Northwest.

Guests walking to ceremony at Myrtle Falls Mt. Rainier. Photo by Lisa Champlain..jpg
Guests walking to the ceremony in Paradise. Photo by Lisa Champlin/@thisopenshutter.

  • DON’T forget to feed your guests. Make sure wherever you are going can accommodate your group and make reservations if possible. We arranged breakfast for our guests at the Paradise Inn after our morning ceremony. Other options could have included a picnic at the tables provided near the park entrance, or homemade fare at the cabins in town. Be creative, but also respect the rules of your location. Don’t plop down a picnic blanket in the middle of a fragile meadow. If you pack it in, pack it out.
  • DON’T introduce invasive or nonnative species with your flower selection. The stipulations you must agree to in order to conduct a ceremony at Mount Rainier include that you will not attempt to decorate your ceremony area in any way, and that you will not throw rice, birdseed, confetti or flower petals. They even suggest that you not carry fresh flowers, as almost any type would be nonnative to the subalpine terrain. Our bouquets and boutonnieres were composed of dried flowers, which we learned in hindsight were still not the best option; we spent a fair amount of time picking up dried rosebuds and other little petals that drifted down as we walked. 

Our Mount Rainier faux-lopement was everything we wanted — intimate, filled with love and laughter, and set in one of our most beloved places. It took more work, I think, than would have been required had we opted for a venue that took care of all of the little details for us and was perhaps easier for our guests to get to. But we wouldn’t do a thing differently. Our wedding day will always be looked upon as the crowning beautiful memory in a kaleidoscope of beautiful memories the Mountain has provided us.

Jim and Dawn at Longmire. Photo by Lisa Champlain..jpg
Photo by Lisa Champlin/@theopenshutter.

Where to Wed

National Parks: National parks require a special use permit for weddings. Visit the website of the park where you would like to hold your wedding to get more detailed information.

State parks: A number of state parks have facilities to reserve for weddings, including beautiful amphitheaters. Such facilities offer a compromise between a completely outdoor wedding and a wedding with some facilities available.

Forest Service land: Permits are required for events of 75 people or more. For smaller events, check with the local ranger district for detailed information about what is allowed and where.

Wilderness areas: Weddings in wilderness areas require parties to follow all regulations for the particular area. That means, in most cases, the maximum party size is 8 or 12, including pack or saddle animals. It is also vital to follow Leave No Trace requirements in wilderness areas, including not bringing flowers. Check with the land manager for the particular wilderness area for details. 

Want to make a meaningful impact with your wedding registry? Learn how here. For wedding inspiration, check out WTA’s Pinterest board.

This article originally appeared in the Jan+Feb 2019 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.