Families visiting Mt. Rainier National Park this summer can make fun discoveries at Paradise's Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center. Located 19 miles northeast of the park's Nisqually Entrance and 12 miles northeast of Longmire, the Jackson Visitor Center is open year round and offers kid-friendly exhibits, a film about the park, ranger-guided programs, ranger-led seasonal hikes, a large gift shop, and a cafeteria.
When you enter Paradise's large upper parking lot, you'll see three buildings on your left - the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, the Paradise Guide House, and the Paradise Ranger Station. If you continue through the parking lot you'll see the historic Paradise Inn. Plan time to explore the splendid ca. 1917 inn perched at 5,400-ft. elevation with Mt. Rainier looming in the background. All buildings except for the Jackson Visitor Center date from the 1920s.
Originally built in the 1960s, the Jackson Visitor Center was completely redesigned and rebuilt six years ago to match Paradise's historic buildings. Although the Paradise Ranger Station is closed year round to the public, the Guide House is home to the Paradise Climbing Information Center, where visitors can pick up climbing permits as well as hiking and backcountry camping info. Both the Jackson Visitor Center and the Paradise Guide House are operated by the National Park Service. They are open daily in the summer, with the visitor center's hours usually from 10am to 7pm and the guide house from 6am to 4pm. Note: Do not entertain the notion of climbing Mt. Rainier, or any mountain the Cascades, without expert guidance and appropriate equipment. Ask park service staff for current information about nearby trails that are safe to hike.
My husband Erik, our two-year-old son Finn, and I arrived at Paradise on a clear summer morning and headed directly to the Jackson Visitor Center. We entered through the double doors into a spacious lobby, its tall windows offering wide-angle views of Mt. Rainier and the Tatoosh Range. At the far side of the lobby is the center's information desk, which is staffed by friendly park rangers.
After exploring the lobby, you can also check out the visitor center's bulletin board, which posts the daily free ranger-led hikes and junior ranger programs. The various program themes of the hikes and junior ranger programs change often, depending upon the leading ranger's expertise. Both the hikes and the junior programs usually run from late June until Labor Day. No sign-up is required and all ages are welcome to participate.
If you have time to spare before your hike or junior ranger program, you can slip into the visitor center's theater (located behind the information desk) and watch an informative film The Restless Giant. At 21 minutes long, the film offers a helpful overview of Mt. Rainier's summer and winter activities. The film plays in a continuous loop, beginning at 15 and 45 minutes after each hour.
While Erik watched the film, Finn and I walked upstairs to the balcony to explore the gift shop and the exhibits on the mountain's wildlife, geology, and human history. In the mini-theater I enjoyed the five minute film on the fascinating history of climbing Mt. Rainier while Finn peered at the interactive exhibit about Rainier's many animal inhabitants. All the exhibits are wheelchair accessible and an audio described tour of the exhibits is available at the front desk.
We next headed to the visitor center's cafeteria for a tasty lunch of sandwiches, salads, and cold beverages. Then it was time for our hike. After loading Finn into his bright blue backpack carrier, Erik and I joined our ranger-led hiking group for a summer wildflower hike. We thoroughly enjoyed our family day exploring the Jackson Visitor Center and hiking the short trails on Mt. Rainier.
Note: The National Park Service charges an entrance fee for visitors to drive up to Longmire and Paradise. For current information on park fees and passes go here. For more information on upcoming events, native wildflower hikes, and ranger-led programs at Paradise, call the Jackson Visitor Center at 360-569-6571.
- Carrie Uffindell