Grandfather Mountain is widely known for its lofty heights, offering guests a breathtaking vantage point to the natural world.
But with the forthcoming opening of the park’s brand new Wilson Center for Nature Discovery, guests’ experience on the mountain will soar above and beyond the Mile High Swinging Bridge.
The new facility is officially “under roof” and is expected to open in spring 2022.
Under construction since fall 2019, the Wilson Center — part of an all new Conservation Campus — will nearly double the size of the park’s current Nature Museum with 10,000 square feet of education space, including state-of-the-art museum exhibits, three classrooms, restoration of the ADA-accessible auditorium, enhanced food service facilities to allow for catering and serving educational groups, and expanded capacity for hosting conferences, seminars, receptions and community events.
Outside the center, guests will enjoy new outdoor learning spaces, including an amphitheater with terraced seating and a pavilion, as well as a new botanical garden.
In turn, the park will be able to offer an expanded, mile-high slate of programming opportunities for audiences and participants of all ages.
“It’s been a long time in the making,” said Jesse Pope, president and executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Linville, N.C., nature park. “To see this come to fruition is a dream come true for me, and it’s something that will be a wonderful enhancement to a visit to Grandfather Mountain.”
“Nobody can look up at Grandfather Mountain and not realize that this mountain is exceptional,” said Catherine Morton, GMSF board secretary and daughter of the park’s late founder, Hugh Morton. “But because Grandfather was advertised as a tourist attraction for decades, visitors came with the expectation of walking across a bridge, seeing some pretty views and maybe taking a picture of a bear or two.”
Since 2009, when the attraction became a nonprofit nature park with a mission of inspiring conservation, “guests have had their eyes opened to the significance of Grandfather as a sanctuary for an amazing web of life,” Morton said.
This includes unique combinations of elevation, terrain and climate that accommodate 16 distinct biological communities, providing habitat for 73 rare and endangered species.
“The Wilson Center for Nature Discovery will allow the stewardship foundation to tell the story of Grandfather Mountain’s biological significance,” Morton said. “New interactive exhibits and interpretive programs will give guests insights into the natural world, and while we know the experience will be ‘educational,’ our guests will describe it as ‘entertaining.’”
While the original Grandfather Mountain Nature Museum was Hugh Morton’s vision, the Wilson Center represents the passion and creativity of his children, the foundation’s board of directors and the project’s generous collaborators.
This includes Bob and Susan Wilson, after whom the center is named.
“Grandfather Mountain is a unique mountain, a unique ecological center … and this is about taking our young kids and letting them learn about it,” Bob Wilson said during the Wilson Center’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2019. “It’s something that I think we need … more now than ever.”
The Wilson Center is designed to weave fun with education, offering experiential learning opportunities for guests young and old. New exhibits include a 3-D interactive map of the mountain, showcasing Grandfather’s ecological and geological history like never before; flora and fauna walls, which shine a spotlight on the mountain’s unique biodiversity; a weather and climate section designed to dynamically explain the science behind Grandfather’s extreme weather; and much more.
The design of the space itself also plays a part.
“The original design for this building was about bringing the natural world inside,” Pope said, “and allowing the learning and education that happens inside that space to symbolically spill out into the world. From the outside, it’s an extension of the historic architecture with some new flairs and modern takes on the original design, and it’s going to feel and look like it belongs on Grandfather Mountain, which was very much the intent.”
Designers, architects and landscapers went to great lengths to ensure the facility wouldn’t be visible from any other vantage points and that the view-shed would be preserved. “And we’ve tried to make it as energy-efficient and sustainable as possible,” Pope added.
Morton cited “the energy and inspiration” inherent in the new space, specifically “soaring ceilings, expansive windows, the aesthetics of manmade concrete blended with mountain-made boulders and trees.”
“The space makes you feel alive and invites you in to participate in a program or interact with an exhibit,” she said. “It’s a space that celebrates life.”
Creating the Wilson Center took mountains of effort — and a true community.
Grandfather Mountain’s Fulfilling Promises capital campaign has raised more than $6.8 million through donations of all sizes, from benefactors like the Wilsons to everyday guests rounding up their bill at Mildred’s Grill.
Park employees and volunteers contributed, too, pooling together to present a check of more than $4,000 toward the cause.
“It’s a dream come true, being part of something so special,” GMSF vice president Lesley Platek said. “So many amazing donors stepped up to invest in this project and in expanding our educational mission — so many of whom already loved Grandfather Mountain. They really wanted to be a part of the Conservation Campus and new Wilson Center for Nature Discovery.”
Platek thanked every donor for their vision and commitment and said the project would not have been possible without the leadership of the foundation’s board of directors.
In particular, Pope recognized former board president and Hugh Morton’s son, Jim Morton, who passed away in 2017.
“Jim was a big part of that vision,” Pope said. “There were some real educational goals he wanted to see come to light on Grandfather Mountain.”
With the Wilson Center, Pope feels that vision is being fulfilled.
“I’m sure I’ll get emotional walking through the doors on the first day it’s open,” he said. “Again, it’s just a dream come true to see this happen. When you walk around, most people will see different exhibits, classrooms, new features. But when I walk through that space, I’ll see every person who helped make it happen.”
For updates and more information, visit www.grandfather.com/fulfillingpromises.
The nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call 800-468-7325, or visit www.grandfather.com to book a trip.