To describe the new visitor center on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a long time coming is something of an understatement.
Try some 76 years since plans were first hatched for a museum of this type, where visitors could learn about the cultural history of these mountains and the people who helped shape them. There never seemed to be enough money, and perhaps at times, enough interest, for such a visitor center to be built.
Until now, that is. The new Oconaluftee Visitor Center opened this month at the main entrance to the park just outside Cherokee, one that seems to do justice to the most-visited national park in the country.
“This is much more educational than the old one,” said Brenda Hornbuckle, who lives near Atlanta and was at the visitor center one day last week with her sister, Becky Strickland.
“I love it,” Strickland said, adding the two now plan to make another trip, and soon, so that the sisters’ grandchildren can tour the visitor center.
“This is a lot more updated and a lot bigger,” Strickland said.
And that is true: the old building, pressed into service as a “temporary” visitor center in 1948, will return to its original purpose as an administrative building for park personnel. The new 6,000-square-foot visitor center highlights Cherokee history, early settlers and mountain culture. The visitor center on the Tennessee side focuses on the mountain environment, wildlife and nature.
“There was always the intention of having a visitor center on this side of the park,” said Lynda Doucette, supervisory park ranger in Oconaluftee. “I’m just really tickled we finally have a building.”
And what a building: Built entirely from private funding for $3 million, Oconaluftee Visitor Center is, in a word, “powerful,” as Lisa Bach of Seymour, Tenn., described it. The exterior is wood and stone, very visible from nearby U.S. 441. So much so, some 1,300-1,600 people each day are stopping by — double the 600 to 800 daily visitors in the former, make-do center.
Bach said she was stunned by the building’s beauty and the quality of the presentation.
“I love it,” she said simply.
That’s exactly what people such as Holly Demuth, North Carolina director of the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, were hoping. Demuth used words such as “topnotch” and “top quality” in describing the visitor center.
The Friends group chipped in $550,000 toward the exhibits and visitor orientation. The Great Smoky Mountains Association paid for the building and adjacent 1,700-square-foot “comfort station,” the euphemistically designated public restrooms.
“I think this signifies the role private funding can play,” Demuth said. “This has been part of the park’s plan for all those years, but the funding just wasn’t there.”
Demuth added that she believes the visitor center goes a long ways toward underscoring the increasingly important role the national park plays in North Carolina.
Relations between N.C. residents and the park haven’t always been smooth sailing. There’s lingering bitterness over the forced evacuation of farms and rural communities to make way for the park’s creation, and long-festering rancor over a road through the park that was promised to Swain County but never built.
The North Carolina entrance to the park saw three million visitors last year, less than half the number on the Tennessee-side of the park. Having a real visitor center might help attract people to this side of the park.
“We are proud to be a part of this process, of bringing a visitor center that is appropriate for bringing people into the park here in North Carolina,” Demuth said.
Shawn Byrd, a visitor from Michigan who was on his first visit to the Smokies, was suitably impressed, describing his impressions of the exhibits as “informative” and helpful to him in understanding Southern Appalachian culture and development.
Kent Cave, the park’s interpretive branch chief, would have been delighted to hear Byrd.
In a brainstorming meeting held in October 2008, Cave remembers discussing possible “themes” for the future visitor center. The folks gathered that day talked quite a bit, he said, about the need to dispel myths about mountain culture.
“We seized on an idea to show how land was used over time,” Cave said. “And we were very careful to integrate the Cherokee story throughout.”
In other words, the park story is the Cherokees’ story, too, the ranger said in explanation. Careful and meticulous attention was devoted to working with Cherokee experts on how they should tell this intertwined story, and that of the white Southern Appalachians who came to these mountains.
“I think we hit it pretty well,” Cave said.
Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, believes so, too.
“Anytime there is an opportunity for visitors to receive information about an area they discover something that they most likely never knew,” Pegg said. “If the visitors stop at the new visitor center and discover a new attraction or hike or fishing opportunity they are likely to extend their stay and in turn put more money into our economy — and that is a very good thing.”
“Pooh” Cooper Lancaster, owner of Madison’s on Main in Bryson City, and in Cherokee, Great Smoky Fine Arts and The Native American Craft Shop, said the visitor center was “desperately needed.”
“And it’s about time they’ve put a little money and building on this side of the park,” the Swain County native said. “I’m tired of Tennessee getting everything. North Carolina, as a state, has not done a good job of promoting the park.”
But with the coming of the new visitor center, Lancaster said she believes that now is truly changing.
A ribbon cutting and celebration for the new visitor center at the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday.