Mt. Rainier National Park was spectacular on this crisp Indian Summer day, and we enjoyed hiking a trail in the subalpine meadows of Paradise (originally named by a woman who thought the exuberant summer wildflower display looked like paradise).  Our wildlife total included two American Black Bears, who were feeding ravenously on blueberry bushes red with autumn color.  Wisps of clouds rose from the mountain’s summit, which was brilliant white with fresh snow.

Our real purpose in visiting Paradise was to see the new $22 million National Park Service visitor center that opened two days ago.  With my long-ago background in parks and nature centers, I enjoy seeing new visitor centers and evaluating their potential for success, so a visit to this new rustic-style center gave me an impression of what planners now believe is “state of the art.”

The old Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise looked like it was designed by an architect for the Jetsons.  Essentially, it was.  In 1962 Seattle hosted its famous World’s Fair, which featured the iconic new Space Needle.  This monument, still the symbol of Seattle, illustrated what was thought to be the American future–and this closely matched the original prime time showing of the animated sitcom, The Jetsons, which favored the same sorts of futuristic design themes.  The National Park Service, in that design climate, approved a visitor center design that echoed the top of the Space Needle–as if the towering base of the structure lay buried in lava oozed by the great mountain.  That structure opened to the public in 1966, an exciting era of growth within the National Park Service and a time when post-war America was at its most optimistic.

Fast backward nearly a hundred years.  Mt. Rainier National Park was the fifth national park in the nation, and the early design of its roads and structures was sublime.  Roads were designed to curve gently around the mountain, winding through a dark tunnel of ancient forest, then coming around a curve to see the massive mountain suddenly emerging in magnificent splendor.  The experience of driving these roads reminds me of a musical score, with low bass chords followed by a brass crescendo.  In the same era, structures were created with logs and stone and cedar shingles, echoing the materials found naturally on the mountain.  This park helped pioneer this rustic style, and today visitors still love the early Paradise Inn and other buildings that were born in that surprisingly sensitive era.

Fast forward to the new century.  The futuristic spacecraft theme of the original visitor center looks as dated as a console television set from the 1960s.  In contrast, the nearby Paradise Inn, built in 1916, is still elegant after all these years.  It is in this context that the National Park Service planned a completely new visitor center, which would fit in with the original historic architecture but which would be built to contemporary “green” standards.  The old visitor center had physical problems of handicapped accessibility–it doesn’t even have an elevator for its multiple floors.  It also had a complex snow melting system to try and deal with the up to 1,000 inches of snow that Paradise receives each year: the concrete roof has a built-in system of tubes carrying hot water to melt the snow.  These are powered by diesel–burning up to 500 gallons of diesel on a cold day in winter!  The windows use old insulation standards and the center just looks “tired” overall.

The new Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, named for a powerful senator representing Washington State when the original visitor center was funded and built, has been planned for several years.  I like the overall look of the Center, though I think the soaring interior is more successful than the exterior.  The natural wood and black metal of the interior work beautifully together in the cathedral ceiling, and the craftsman-style copper light fixtures harken back to the time when the original buildings were erected at Paradise.  The exterior consists of stone and wood and a bank of beautiful windows on each side.  These windows have shutters that are open during the day to let in light and views, but they close when the Visitor Center closes, to conserve energy.  Good idea.

Much of the lobby is open, and visitors can see at a glance the opportunities to see a movie, get information from a desk ranger, visit the exhibits, or browse the bookstore.  The big, multi-paned windows look out in one direction on the great mountain and in the other direction toward the Tatoosh Range.  Circulation patterns for people browsing the center’s features work well.

The exhibits explore the major stories associated with the mountain:  the eruption history, subalpine meadows, volcanic hazards, wildlife, climbing to the summit, and effects of pollution and other outside influences on the plants and wildlife of the park.  Everyone’s favorite exhibit is on the main floor:  this is a scale model orientation map that lights up when a visitor presses a button to show, say, the route of the 93-mile Wonderland Trail around the mountain.  I once worked as an exhibit designer, and I’ve noticed that every visitor center designed in the last 25 years is described as having “state of the art” exhibits.  This one included.  The exhibits are effective, though probably not as gripping in story or execution as the planners hoped.  I think the problem with exhibits is that even though they have beautiful graphics and some interactive components, they simply can’t compete with today’s everyday interactive gaming and internet computer experiences.  And that’s all right.  Not everything has to dazzle and absorbingly entertain us.  Here the star experience is The Mountain itself, and the trails that lead from the Visitor Center.  Today, for example, the bears feeding on huckleberries are what every visitor is going to remember.  And that’s great!

The most effective part of the Visitor Center was the theater, which featured a spectacular new movie about Mt. Rainier, including stories about climbers, wildlife, and the geologic history and hazards of the great volcano.  It was so beautifully filmed in high-definition video that some visitors stayed in the theater to watch it a second time.  It was as close to perfect as this type of movie can be.

All in all, the National Park Service did a great job on the new Visitor Center; the tax dollars were well spent.  As we left the park, there was a touch of alpenglow on the upper reaches of the massive volcano.  A fitting end to a great day in one of America’s great national parks.

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Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.

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BS and MS in natural resources, with early career work as an artist and nature center director. Became a full-time photographer in 1990. Sells photographs at art shows nationwide. Publication credits include National Geographic, Alaska Magazine, National Wildlife, Audubon, and scores of other magazines, books, calendars, and electronic media.

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