It's called Paradise for a reason. Vibrant wildflower meadows and spectacular views of Mount Rainier have long made Paradise the most popular destination at this revered national park.
Reached at 5,400 feet by following a winding road across the south side of the park, Paradise is a stopping-off point for most visitors to the area. It's known for scenic hikes, nature tours, and food and lodging at Paradise Inn, a national landmark. A visit to the park without Paradise might seem, well, incomplete.
But Mount Rainier offers other beautiful sites -- from mountain lakes and cascading waterfalls to peak lookouts and ranging vistas -- and visitors are being encouraged to discover them all the next two years. You see, Paradise isn't lost, but it is under construction.
The National Park Service is building a new visitor center and refurbishing the aging Paradise Inn, a project that is expected to last into summer 2008. The activity means far fewer rooms will be available within the park itself, and parking in Paradise will be at even more of a premium the next two summers.
Despite the inconvenience, the effort is aimed at ensuring Paradise endures for generations to come, park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga said. "Obviously, we can't replace the nostalgia of Paradise the next two years," Uberuaga said. "What we're trying to let people know is: There are a lot of other special parts of the park. Rediscover Rainier -- try something you haven't done before. Go someplace you haven't gone before."
Park officials will be making an extra effort to offer nature walks, exhibits and information at other locations within the park, including the Ohanapecosh Visitor Center, near an old-growth area known as the Grove of the Patriarchs.
The grove, a mix of western red cedars, Douglas firs and western hemlocks estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old, sits on an island on the Ohanapecosh River, protected from wildfires that have burned across the area in the past. Some are more than 25 feet in circumference and more than 200 feet tall, creating a canopy so dense the sky can barely be seen.
"The canopy created by the trees is kind of a cathedral," Uberuaga said. "It's another compelling part of the experience."
The trail to Tipsoo Lake on Chinook Pass -- just inside the northeast entrance to the park -- offers spectacular views of Mount Rainier, as well as beautiful wildflowers during peak bloom from mid-July to mid-August.
In the northwest corner of the park, a trail through wildflower fields and over a suspension bridge leads to the snout of the Carbon River Glacier. A shorter hike on the Carbon River Rain Forest Nature Trail leads visitors through the only inland rain forest at Mount Rainier.
The park maintains more than 240 miles of trails. Visitors also could create their own theme for sites to see, such as hiking to each of the four lookouts, or visiting all of the lakes or waterfalls inside the park, Uberuaga said.
Most important, they should enjoy the scenic ride through the park on a highway that was built with an appreciation for the wonder of nature, he said.
"It was designed to blend in the earth. You turn one corner and there's a waterfall, another corner and there's a historic rock wall or a sentinel tree," he said. "You can have an incredible road experience and go to an area that you seem to have passed by over the years. Every sector of the park has one."
Surrounding communities offering lodging
Paradise will remain open the next two summers. The new visitor center will be only about one-third the size of the old one, allowing it to be more architecturally compatible with the scenery and closer to Paradise Inn and the ranger station.
The old visitor center will remain open until the new center opens, likely in late summer 2008, which means visitors to the park will still have a place to gather information, enjoy exhibits and buy trinkets and books. The old center is expected to be torn down the following year.
More of an impact to visitors, though, may be the closure of Paradise Inn, an aging lodge and restaurant built in 1917. The inn will be closed until spring 2008, which means the park will be short 128 rooms for the next two summers -- rooms that would normally be filled all season.
For visitors who still hope to overnight in a historic inn, the National Park Inn in Longmire, the park's first headquarters in 1916, has 25 guest rooms, a restaurant and gift shop. Mount Rainier also has six campgrounds inside the park, with more than 500 campsites. Campsites can be booked online at two of those campgrounds.
In preparation for the Paradise construction, area communities also have been gearing up to meet the swell of summer visitors seeking lodging and dining.
"Everybody's been kind of aware that they should have all their ducks in a row to get through this," said Steven Cadematori, who operates Alta Crystal Resort at Mount Rainier near the northeast corner of the park on the Chinook Scenic Byway. Sitting on 25 acres, the resort has 24 suites and a honeymoon cabin and offers family activities each night.
The Crystal Mountain Ski Area will offer ski lift rides to the summit, where visitors can enjoy a sunset dinner at the restaurant. Hotels at the base of the mountain also will be open this summer, he said.
Overall, the neighboring communities should be able to pick up any overflow, he said.
"There are going to be some lower numbers visiting Paradise -- mostly due to lack of parking. But the rest of the area is going to have as high or bigger numbers," Cadematori said. "It'll be good to get people to know the national park from a wider view."
Accommodations: The only lodging inside the park this summer and in 2007 will be at the National Park Inn in Longmire, where prices range from $100 for a room without a bath to $185 for a two-room unit with a bath. Call 360-569-2275 for reservations. The National Park Service also accepts online reservations at Cougar Rock and Ohanapecosh campgrounds. Call 800-365-2267 or visit http://reservations.nps.gov/.
Outside the park: A number of neighboring communities offer lodging and dining in varying price ranges, including Enumclaw, Ashford, Elbe, Eatonville, Morton, Randle and Packwood.
To the northeast, the Alta Crystal Resort at Mount Rainier offers suites in three chalets surrounding an indoor pool and hot tub. For reservations call 800-277-6475 or visit http://www.altacrystalresort.com.
Additional lodging and dining opportunities can be found at the Visit Rainier Web site, http://www.altacrystalresort.com.