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July 7, 2009

Jocassee Gorges Visitor Center opens at S.C. state park

The new Jocassee Gorges Visitor Center officially opened on Tuesday, July 7, at Keowee-Toxaway State Natural Area just off S.C. 11 (Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway) on Lake Keowee in Pickens County.

The center is a joint effort of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism (SCPRT) and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). New exhibits and other visitor information serve as the gateway to the Jocassee Gorges, roughly 50,000 acres of largely undisturbed, protected land where the Blue Ridge Mountains quickly fall 2,000 feet or more to the Piedmont below.

Part of the only temperate rain forest east of the Mississippi River, the Jocassee Gorges’ deeply forested mountain coves and surging streams, waterfalls and rivers - which cut the deep gorges that led to the area’s name and now help feed Lake Jocassee - are home to thousands of plants and animals, many considered scarce or rare.

The exhibits in the center tell the natural and cultural story of the area and themselves are housed in a building rich in its own history - the former Holly Springs Baptist Church. The building was donated to the state in the early 1970s after serving as a house of worship to a nearby community for more than 80 years.

The old church has been painstakingly restored and converted first into the state park’s office and now joined by the Jocassee Gorges Visitor Center. A trail behind the center also has been improved to give hikers a better understanding of the diverse habitat of the Gorges.

Chad Prosser, director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, and Don Winslow, DNR chief of staff, along with Rep. David Hiott of Pickens, conducted the official ribbon cutting ceremony.
"The new visitor center tells the story of this amazing natural landscape and of the people who have made it their home for hundreds of years," Prosser said. "It also represents an innovative partnership between SCPRT and DNR to interpret and provide easy access to one of South Carolina’s most cherished natural resources."

Plans for the center began after DNR acquired 33,000 acres of the Jocassee Gorges from Duke Energy. Funding for the center’s final completion came from various sources, including Duke Energy, the Harry Hampton Memorial Wildlife Fund, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service through DNR, SCPRT’s Recreational Trails Program and the S.C. State Park Service.

"Much of this area is wild and has limited access for the casual visitor," said DNR Director John Frampton. "We're pleased the partnership between DNR and S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism has produced greater accessibility to this special place."

The center is open daily from 11 a.m. to noon and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, contact the park at (864) 868-2605 or keoweetoxaway@scprt.com, or Greg Lucas of DNR at (864) 654-1671, ext. 22, or lucasg@dnr.sc.gov.

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