Dramatic visitor center introduces Gorges State Park to new audience

A dramatic new visitor center, picnic shelters and related amenities have opened up North Carolina’s westernmost state park to a wider audience. Formal dedication of the facilities on Friday marked completion of the first phase of development at Gorges State Park in Transylvania County.

Similar to visitor centers built at 21 state parks and state recreation areas since 1994, the 7,100-square-foot facility at Gorges offers a unique design fitted to the park’s mountain setting, and features museum-quality exhibits, a teaching auditorium and classroom along with administrative offices. Two day-use picnic areas with shelters were built nearby, and three separate parking areas offer space for 160 vehicles. The project represents an investment of $6.4 million from the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, the principal funding source for state park capital projects and land acquisition.

The dedication coincided with a quarterly meeting of the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority. Authority Chairman Bill Ross Jr., said, “This is a place where the community came together to build something special. You’ve come together to build and a support a world class state park.”

Indeed, the park staff regularly relied on help from the community when Supt. Steve Pagano set up shop in a tiny interim office just outside the park boundaries in 2000. The state park had just been created from a land deal between the state and Duke Energy Inc. Gorges opened to the public in 2001 with interim facilities that primarily included picnic grounds, a gravel parking lot and rough trails. An ambitious master plan finished in 2003 calls for “perimeter development” to protect highly sensitive natural areas in the 7,500-acre park’s interior. The park claims 14 named waterfalls and at least 46 species of rare plants and animals. The next development phase will include camping along a loop road that leads from the visitor center.

Wayne McDevitt, who was secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources when the park was proposed, attended the dedication. He told the crowd that Gorges is a symbol of the state’s commitment to natural resources. “Every day I remind myself of the trust we’ve been given, a natural trust,” he said. “It’s a natural trust we should always protect. It’s that trust that makes it possible for us to give our children clean water and clean air.”

Lewis Ledford, state parks director, said, “This benchmark in the development of the park is the result of deliberate planning and careful stewardship of a very fragile mountain ecosystem. It’s fitting that the facility offer cutting-edge, sustainable building features.”

The state parks system has increased its commitment to sustainability by seeking certification for all large projects by the national Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council. Features at the Gorges State Park visitor center that will contribute to certification include both active and passive solar energy systems, geothermal energy systems, rainwater collection and water-saving fixtures and natural landscaping. The structure was designed by Pearce, Brinkly, Cease and Lee PA of Asheville, and general contractor was Cooper Construction Co. of Hendersonville.

(Below is a gallery of the new Gorges State Park Visitor Center. Click any image to begin.)

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