Improving Paradise: Mount Rainier National Park Gets a Fine New Visitor Center
The roughly 1.5 million people who visit Mount Rainier National Park each year can choose from among five developed areas, but Paradise is by far the most popular (about half a million visitors a year), and with good reason.
Perched over a mile above sea level at the foot of Mount Rainier, Paradise (short for Paradise Valley) offers comforts, conveniences, and access to outstanding recreational opportunities. There is a visitor center, lodging, other services, and of course, wildflower-clad subalpine meadows, spectacular mountain scenery, and miles and miles of excellent backcountry hiking trails. About 96% of the 36-square mile park consists of designated wilderness.
How did the name Paradise come to be attached to this place? The park website explains that “When James Longmire’s daughter-in-law, Martha, first saw this site, she exclaimed, ‘This must be what Paradise is like.’ ‘’ Anyway, that’s the story.
For all its fine qualities, Paradise had some pretty bothersome infrastructure deficiencies until quite recently. The park’s main visitor center, built in 1966, was too large to begin with (60,000 square feet), had become outdated, cost too much to run, and could not be affordably renovated. The Guide House that was so well known to generations of climbers had been built in 1921 and was many decades past its prime. The historic Paradise Inn, a chalet-like mountain lodge built in 1916, had been exceptionally nice in its heyday, but was sorely in need of major renovation. Paradise also lacked dormitory-style lodging. In general, the built environment of Paradise had a rundown look and feel, was unacceptably fire- and earthquake-vulnerable, and lacked some important amenities.
Nearly a decade ago, a very ambitious construction program was launched to fix what ailed Paradise. Nine years and nearly $50 million later, the results are very impressive. The Guide House and the Paradise Inn have been renovated, a new dorm has been constructed, and on a site near where the old Tatoosh Club once stood a sparkling new visitor center has replaced the old, worn out, inefficient one.
Progress like this is certainly to be applauded. As National Parks Conservation Association Northwest Regional Director Sean Smith has pointed out, updating park facilities and addressing the Park System’s huge maintenance backlog is a wise investment that protects national heritage resources for our children and grandchildren.
Green-designed and slimmed to 18,000 square feet, the new $22 million visitor center that opened today houses an information desk, outstanding exhibits, a snack bar, a gift shop, a book shop, and restrooms. Visitors can see a new 22-minute, high definition introductory film in the building’s second floor auditorium.
Speaking of the auditorium, it has a cooling system that utilizes cold water from the Paradise snowfield, part the park’s wide expanse of permanent snow and ice pack. Snowfield cooling water may be one of the visitor center’s more interesting green design features, but there are plenty of others. For example, the heavily insulated, steeply slanted roof retains heat and shucks snow, saving space heating costs and obviating the need for an expensive snow melt system.
Efficiently dealing with snow is a big deal here. Paradise gets about 52 feet of snow in an average winter (that’s right, fifty-two feet!), and is probably the snowiest place on earth where official snowfall measurements are regularly made. From November to late May, visitors can expect to find 10 to 20 feet of snow on the ground at any given time.
The new structure offers visitors outstanding views of the park’s namesake 14,410-foot mountain on the north side and the Tatoosh Range to the south. The visitor center’s great room, which is an impressive 60 feet high, has floor-to-ceiling windows on both floors. An outdoor plaza offers an additional prime vantage point for landscape appreciation.
Those familiar with the old visitor center will notice that the new one lacks a 360-degree panoramic view observation deck. Though it couldn’t be helped, it’s really too bad that visitors won’t be able to look to the west, down the Nisqually River Valley.
The old visitor center is scheduled for demolition next spring, after which the lower parking lot will be rehabilitated. The concrete from the aforementioned panoramic-view observation deck will not be wasted. It is scheduled to be recycled for parking lot construction.