A striking new visitors center and gateway would give hikers a place to start their adventures—or to spend the whole day
By T.R. Witcher
Compared with the obvious splendor of Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston winds up playing something of a second banana. You think about going there once or twice a summer to escape the heat. It’s a little slice of Colorado, sure, lovely and all, but for the casual visitor—uninitiated to the charms of Cathedral Rock or Mary Jane Falls—there’s an element of placelessness about the place.
A new visitors center and gateway under construction may change that perception. “There’s an amazing number of people who just drive up and drive back and never get out of the car,” says Deborah Bergin, project manager for Lucchesi Galati Architects, the firm behind the design.
Officially, the area you and I call Mount Charleston is the 316,000-acre Spring Mountain National Recreation Area, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. In other words, it’s a lot to explore, and could benefit from a spot that’s at once an interpretive center and a starting point for the day’s adventures. The 90-acre visitors gateway project—which is on the site of a former golf course just before the turnoff to Lee Canyon—aims to be this and more. The center, which is slated to open early in 2015, is perched at the edge of a slope that descends to a wash and then rises up on the other side to a steep escarpment. It’s a dramatic location that drivers fly right by; Bergin and her colleagues at LGA want everyone to slow down and appreciate it.
The complex is planned as a series of concealed and revealed moments, where the cliff and the buildings float into and out of view, playing peek-a-boo with visitors. The winding approach off Kyle Canyon Road, which will be accessible by one of two planned roundabouts, is meant to decompress visitors and ease their transition into the new complex. Builders carved levels into the flat site to heighten its drama; they then organized the site elements around a landscaped dry streambed that will drain water off the site during storm events.
The main building, the visitors center, is a small but striking, butterfly-roofed structure clad in textured concrete and Cor-Ten panels that will rust and develop a nice patina with time. Inside, visitors will be able to learn about the entire recreation area while taking in views through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall.
“This project is not about the building. It’s not about the site. It’s about serving the public and serving the mountain for the benefit of the public over the long term,” says John Harris, the Forest Service’s project manager on the job, as he leads a tour of the site. “I firmly believe this facility will put this whole place on the map.”
In addition to the visitors center, the gateway project will include an education building that can be rented out for events; two small amphitheaters; picnic shelters for family cookouts; a “meadows” area for kids to play; and a “solitude node” for serene contemplation. The gateway will also include a monument to the seven Paiute tribes that view the mountain as their ancestral home, and a Cold War memorial—the nation’s first—to honor victims of a plane that crashed near Mount Charleston during the 1950s en route to Area 51. The crash was classified until just a few years ago—even family members had no idea how their loved ones had perished.
If it’s successful, the project’s design will help hold all those pieces together. “The spaces you create between buildings and plazas become those outdoor village spaces where temporary community happens—where the synergy of all the pieces comes together,” Bergin says.
Though it sounds counterintuitive, one of the site’s goals is to get people off the mountain. Too many visitors simply drive to the end of Kyle Canyon Road to take in Mary Jane Falls Trail or Cathedral Rock Trail; the concentration of people in a handful of spots degrades the environment. Or visitors simply have no idea where to go and follow other cars and park off the side of the road.
Bergin and Harris hope people will swing through the visitors gateway, learn about the mountain’s ecology and cultural history, and decide to spend the day there, taking pressure off the rest of the forest—especially off its most well-trodden areas. Over the last two years the Forest Service has been building a series of new trails that fan out from around the gateway, giving folks the options of short and easy loops and longer ones, including a three-hour trek that takes visitors up on the escarpment and its magnificent views down the canyon. In addition, campgrounds throughout the recreation area are being refurbished.
Bergin, who was a project manager on the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, says the gateway has the potential to reach even more people, especially Las Vegas visitors who know little about Mount Charleston. “This project is about teaching people to be comfortable in the forest,” she says, “and transforming those people into stewards of the forest.”