The Blue Ridge Mountains are older than the Himalayas and the Alps, and the easiest way to see them is on 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Though it’s the most visited unit of the National Park Service, the Parkway has never had a major year-round visitor center. Until now.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Destination Center has quietly opened at milepost 384, two miles south of the Folk Art Center.
During a recent visit, Betty Friedrichsen, a Blue Ridge National Heritage Commission volunteer, sat in front of a wall with plaques for the Cherokee Trail, Craft Trail and Music Trail, among others. “The most frequent question I get is about the trails,” she reported. “I have to explain that these aren’t actual trails. They’re more like themes.”
Friedrichsen is a newcomer to Western North Carolina and a big history and geography buff. “I saw this as an opportunity to learn about the area,” she says of her work here.
The building was built to LEED green-building standards. The glass-and-concrete Trombe walls keep the heat in long after the sun has set in winter. In the summer, the building overhang blocks the sun and prevents the walls from heating up. A green roof with hardy plants will help cool the building and filter out dust and smog.
A 24-minute film at the center features scenes shot from helicopters, cars and mountain bikes, putting visitors right in the action. The story line follows a father and daughter who ride the Parkway on motorcycles. For them, it’s more than a road trip; it’s a way to connect with their heritage. They find the tunnel that her grandfather had worked on.
There are 168 bridges on the Parkway, and visitors can build a similar arch bridge out of wood blocks on a table in the center. (When done, you tilt the table and the arch should still hold.) Jaz and Dylan Doerr from Swannanoa, making their first Parkway visit, were busy crashing each other’s bridges while their parents looked over the history exhibits.
Right now, the Destination Center has a slow trickle of visitors. But by spring, there will likely be a line of children waiting their turn on the hands-on exhibits.
The displays include a mix of the familiar, such as the Biltmore Estate, and the esoteric, such as the Carolina Mountain Club’s contributions to protecting the mountains. Surprisingly, there’s no mention of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a long-distance hiking trail that traverses North Carolina, even though the trail follows the Parkway from the Tennessee border until the Parkway leaves the state. However, Martha Bogle, the Parkway’s deputy superintendent, says that there will be a connector trail from the center to the MST and that brochures are on the way. “We’re always encouraging visitors to stretch their legs on the trail,” she noted.
The soft opening last month is allowing the staff to test the facility and fix the inevitable start-up problems. At present, the movie projector needs to cool down between showings and can only be operated manually. Touch-screen kiosks, with more visitor information, are not yet operating. The plan is to have everything in working order in time for a big opening celebration in April.
When the Parkway held public-input sessions a few years ago, artists were concerned that the new building would take visitors away from the Folk Art Center. Time will tell if the two destinations create competition or synergy.
The Destination Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except for Christmas and New Year’s Day.