If you’re planning a trip to Mount Rainier National Park, the drive to Paradise should be at the top of your “must-see” list. Famous for its beautiful meadows covered in wildflowers during the summer and its close proximity to the glaciers of Mount Rainier, Paradise is the most visited area of the park throughout the year. It’s also the location of the main visitor center for the National Park, known as the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center.
Located at an elevation of 5,400 feet, the Paradise area surrounding the visitor center receives an average of 680 inches of snowfall (nearly 57 feet) every year, making it the “snowiest place on Earth where snowfall is measured regularly.” Despite the impressive amount of snow that accumulates here each winter, the Jackson Visitor Center is open year-round.
Originally known as the Paradise Visitor Center, the building was renamed in 1987 to commemorate the life of Henry M. Jackson. Jackson was a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Senator for the state of Washington from 1941 until his passing on September 1st, 1983. He was instrumental in the creation of the first Paradise Visitor Center in 1966 as part of the National Park Service’s “Mission 66″ park renewal program.
The original visitor center, seen to the right, was frequently criticized for both its appearance as well as its functionality. The building was said by many to look like a flying saucer, and local residents likened it to a sunken version of Seattle’s Space Needle. Furthermore the building was not properly engineered to handle the snowfall at Paradise. The building’s structure was so inadequate that the Park Service spent 300 to 500 gallons of diesel fuel per day during the snow season – which lasts more than 6 months of the year – just to melt the snow on the building to prevent the roof from collapsing. This amounted to an annual power bill of nearly $190,000 for the building.
Recognizing this inefficiency, the Park Service began construction of a new visitor center in 2006. Still known as the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, the new building opened to the public on October 10, 2008, and was followed by demolition of the original visitor center in spring of 2009. Inspired by the traditional style of the historic buildings found throughout the rest of the park, the new visitor center was designed to withstand the heavy snowfall that occurs throughout the winter.
Heating for the new energy-efficient building costs 77% less than the original building. The savings are largely due to a pitched metal roof designed to shed snow, energy-efficient windows, and a reduction in the new building’s size of 70% to 18,000 square feet. These energy savings will amount to an estimated $7 million during the life of the building, which cost $21.2 million to build.
With almost 2 million visitors each year at Mount Rainier National Park, the new visitor center receives a lot of traffic. The updated interior of the visitor center features informative displays on local wildlife, mountain climbing at Mt. Rainier, diagrams on how the inside of the volcano works, and even a theater that plays a movie about the National Park’s history (On a side note, the film crew stayed at our cabins during filming!). The traditional style of the new building may not draw the same attention as the former “flying saucer,” but it will certainly create just as many memories for Paradise visitors for years to come.