By Deborah Bergin

The Spring Mountain Visitor Gateway, recently open to the public, encompasses 90 acres of Forest Service land and serves as both a gateway to and an orientation for the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area (SMNRA), while also functioning as a destination for families in the Las Vegas community.

The project represents the culmination of five years of work coordinated by the Las Vegas-based architecture firm LGA. Built on a defunct golf course that had badly damaged the site, the Spring Mountain Visitor Gateway acts as an urban interface to introduce guests to the unique ecosystems of Mt. Charleston and the SMNRA.

The project includes a Visitor Center, Education Building, trails for varied skill levels, picnic shelters and two amphitheaters.  The Visitor Center and Education Building are both designed to deliver an inside-outside experience, creating a natural, holistic feel that honors the landscape.

The Visitor Center includes an information area, an interpretive gallery and a retail store. The gallery was designed for theatrical effect with suspended blue banners and decorative lights representing the sky.  A central audio experience of nature sounds is suspended above a bench crafted from a 3,000 year old Bristlecone Pine tree ring. The exhibits describe the 7 ecological zones that occur in the SMNRA and their associated flora and fauna.  There is cultural interpretation of the history of human engagement in the mountains including recognizing Mt. Charleston as the birthplace of the Paiute People.  The exhibits also describe the sustainable design process and features in the building and site elements.

The interior building finishes include redwood from salvaged picnic tables, used for wall finishes and in the retail and information desk casework.  The building has a large wood-burning fireplace to serve as functional heating and as a central gathering feature.  An art installation called “Polage” occurs at a strip of south-facing windows that interpret the plants and animals of the mountain.  The art only reveals itself when viewed through polarized viewers or sunglasses. The exhibit kiosks use weathered steel to match the building exterior panels, high definition images of flora embedded into 10′ high glass blades, carved animal sculptures and interactive displays.

The Gateway honors the Paiute people, who hold Mt. Charleston as their ancestral birthplace. The Seven Stones Plaza was designed to represent the seven different nations, and the creation story is told through subtly etched images that surround the large center stone.

This site is also home to the Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Memorial.  The memorial honors those who served our county, especially those who served in secret, and those whose service required the ultimate sacrifice during the Cold War.

“Prior to this project, there had never been an orientation to Mt. Charleston or SMNRA,” Deborah Bergin, LGA’s project manager for the Spring Mountain Visitor Gateway said. This led to overuse of the areas that were more easily accessible, such as Cathedral Rock, without an understanding of the impact on the surrounding ecosystem.

“By repurposing an already heavily disrupted area for the Spring Mountain Visitor Gateway, we’ll actually alleviate overuse in other areas,” explained Craig Galati, whose architectural firm has built a reputation as pioneers of eco-smart designs and green building methods. “Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, which is on the other side of the same mountain range, had to start charging admission in an effort to slow down visitation, as the heavy volume was having a negative impact. For Mt. Charleston, there’s no entry charge to go on the property, and the Visitor Center will help protect Spring Mountain by properly directing and educating visitors.”

“We like to do transformational work,” Bergin said. “We’re teaching people from Las Vegas to love the mountain. My hope is that in 5-10 years they will become stewards and take ownership. If that happens, we will have accomplished our goals.”