The new building is impressive visually, with high glass windows that let natural light in and a lounge equipped with a stone fireplace. Exhibits are top notch as well. A nature center is packed with displays explaining the history and ecological uniqueness of the park. The center has a gift shop, a large balcony with a view and is designed in a way to collect rainwater for recycling and power its lights with solar panels.
But what now is easy to see, that the park boasts the best visitor center in the state park system, according to Gorges State Park Superintendent Steve Pagan, was not always so easy to visualize.
The state’s purchase of the tract in the 1990s put thousands of acres of unique gorges and waterfalls along the southern Blue Ridge escarpment into public ownership.
But, the land acquired for the park had a long way to go before it could live up to its potential: the forest was once logged for its hardwoods, and the infrastructure was primitive, a terrain dissected by old logging roads and lacking adequate accommodations for thousands of visitors.
Although a few hiking trails traversed the area, they were rugged, long-distance trails used primarily by backpackers.
In the 15 years since the park’s dedication, the slow process of developing the 7,000 acre tract into a site that would suit visitors traveling from across the state, and the country, began to take form.
During the past five years, the park has paved and properly graded primary roads through the park, built two picnic shelters and bathrooms, and constructed new maintenance facilities for the park. This month, the crowning jewel — the visitor center — will open after 1.5 years of construction.
The change is apparent in the office arrangements of the staff. Pagan said when he changed posts in 1999, from being a park ranger in Raleigh to working at the new, and still widely unknown, Gorges State Park, he was given a temporary work office next to the post office in the nearest town next to the entrance of the park. He moved into his new office on Dec. 23.
“It was my Christmas present from the state,” Pagano joked.
This year, Christmas will come early for Pagano and the rest of the staff at the park, in the form of the newly completed visitor center, part of a $7 million facilities project for the park. Soon, Pagano and his staff will have offices inside the visitor within the park boundaries, along the main entrance drive.
Although Pagano said the old offices in town served the park well in its early years, helping to connect with members of the community stopping by the post office, the new visitor center is the next natural step for the park.
Currently, the park sees about 100,000 visitors per year — a number which peaked around 130,000 visitors in some years and dipped to 80,000 in others — but when the master plan for the park was completed in 2003, the drafters envisioned a park that would attract as many as 500,000 people in a year, Pagano said.
The visitor center will be open seven days per week, year-round, and its parking lot stands ready to receive about 80 vehicles at a time, with special parking for alternative fuel vehicles and car poolers.
Once word about the new visitor center and picnic shelters at the park spreads, park officials hope the visitors will come to fill the spots and the hours.
The first large influx of visitors is planned for Oct. 12 when the park hosts the grand opening ceremony for the facility at 2 p.m.
Yet, Park Ranger Kevin Bischof said much more work is in store for Gorges State Park. More trails will be built, beginning as early as this winter, to provide access to more of the natural features of the park, including more nature hiking trails suitable for families.
Bischof lamented that one of the most stunning ecological attributes of the park — the nearly 25 stunning waterfalls — can be the most difficult to visit because of the lack of groomed trails.
The park’s 90 inches of average annual rainfall coupled with its rapid rise in elevation — a few thousand vertical feet over a few miles — make for perfect conditions for waterfalls. Many unique habitats exist in the spray emitted from the cascading water.
Also park officials would like to develop adequate camping sites for a variety of tastes. Although the park has primitive camping facilities that one must hike to, there is little else available. Plans are in the works to develop as many as 75 camping sites that would be suited for recreational vehicles and families looking to car camp.
Pagano stressed that projects undertaken by the park are closely linked to the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. Established by the General Assembly in 1994, money gathered from a tax on real estate purchases funds parks and recreation projects across the state — from buying land for state parks like Gorges to helping town’s make swimming pool repairs, build skateboard parks or create greenways.
These funds provided the resources to transform Gorges into a bona fide state park. The purchase of the lands for the park as well as the infrastructure projects — from the road construction to the new visitor center — were paid for by the trust fund.
In 2011, the fund had about $26 million before $14 million was diverted by the N.C. General Assembly to cover other costs in state budget, including operating costs for state parks. This year, those funds were not diverted.
“Without this trust fund none of this park would exist, and I’d still be a ranger in Raleigh,” Pagan said.
What is Gorges State Park?
The 8,000-acre Gorges State Park is the one of the newest additions to the N.C. State Park system and the only state park west of Asheville. It is located in Transylvania County, about an hour from Waynesville if you take N.C. 215 and an hour from Sylva if you take N.C. 281.
The park has around 25 waterfalls and a network of backcountry trails and primitive camping. A brand-new visitor center features nature exhibits and classrooms for nature programs, as well as an information desk for visitors coming to explore the park.
The park also has two picnic shelters and is open seven days per week, year-round.
How it came to be
Gorges State Park stemmed from a 10,000 acre purchase by the state from Duke Power in the late 1990s. The land was eyed decades ago for the construction of a dam for hydropower, but that plan never came to fruition. Meanwhile, the tract remained in tact and devoid of development, setting the stage for eventual protection as park.
Nearly 3,000 acres were placed under the control of N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission for use as a game land, while the rest was designated for the state park.