Gorges State Park, North Carolina

While taking a week in the mountains of western North Carolina Fran and I had a chance to get down to one of the states newest parks; Gorges State Park down near the Georgia state line in the town of Sapphire. This is a large park along the edge of the east-west running escarpment that catches the moist air coming north from the Gulf. The southern edge of the park usually receives about 100 inches of rain where the north side get 40 inches or less. In between these two circumstances are waterfalls, rolling mountains, diverse forests, and lovely vistas.

We went there because when in North Carolina I always head for a road south of Cashiers (cashers not cash-ears) to pause along rhododendron lined streams where Swainson’s Warblers (SWWA) breed. As Fran wanted the SWWA for a life bird and as I like the habitat and bird, we went looking for them and then traveled on to the nearly 7,500 acre park.

Many nature centers around the countryside are modest show and tell set-ups; some very educational, some merely entertaining. The nature center at Gorges brings education and a local natural history experience to a new level. It starts with the geology as I think all natural history education must. There is a discussion of the mountains, the escarpment, the rocks and their patterning, the water and runoff and the habitat type that follows on the heels of those circumstances. The slow changes that have been wrought by the passage deep and ancient time create the short moment during which our lives occur. Understanding the immensity of this time provides us with the educational foundation for all of science and most of our cultural activities as well.

The picture above and the one below show one of the trail heads and picnic areas. At each parking lot is a bathroom (top) picnic pavilion (below) and interpretive trail information. Most of the trails ares short enough for family hiking but there are longer trails for people who may choose to stay in the well-designed and located camping site. 

The visitor center is shown in these last images. It is a LEED Building (Leadership in Energy and Design) and will likely be a benefit to the citizens of the state. These buildings are built of previously used materials and deigned to require minimum energy to operate. 
The entrance takes you through a modest gift shop that sells appropriate books, pamphlets, maps, and trinkets; it is not a junk shop. This part of North Carolina is largely an upscale retreat and escape location for Floridians. Mountain getaway homes are what the Floridians do to escape the summer’s heat and humidity(or so I was told several times). There are dozens of gated communities and golf courses in the area. So that means two things; the mountain locals have a hard time finding a place to live nowadays and there are plenty of trinket and useless-souvenir shops in the area. It is nice that the State Park hasn’t developed another.
The educational information is well designed and displayed. A flow of lights and copper wire, displays of waterfalls, and rock formations and depictions of floral communities are done well enough to hold the attention of fourth graders – a difficult target audience. 

By the way; a 2014 fourth grader’s abilities probably overlap (or maybe exceed) ours in the areas of geology and Appalachian forest diversity; at least that may be true with many of us who went to school thirty, forty or fifty years ago. Don’t think I am disparaging those of us who are older than fourth graders – its just that we are often in the same boat as far as science education goes.

Tall ceilings, full windows, tables and chairs, a fireplace, a theatre (75 people) and education room (40 people) are all part of the inside of the building.
The interpretive displays are all new and crisp. There are Park Service staffers who can lead outings on the trails for visiting school groups. The staff mentioned that there is a “Friends” group that can provide small grants to help fund drivers and school buses to bring children and teachers to the site. This is a nice classroom away from the school building and teachers will learn that it may not be a great place for simply a day off as the kids live in these mountains. It is a science lab and classroom waiting to be used. 
The paths, decks, and travel ways encroach on only a small portion of the park. Gorges State Park is well done and thorough yet leaves most of the property to the whims and whiles of nature. I was impressed and pleased with the facility and the planning involved.
Here we see an average tourist from out-of-state looking at her images taken while on one of the trails.

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