WNC Nature Center adds gem mine, other enhancements coming

Want to be a rock star to your kid? We’re not talking about music, but real rocks. The WNC Nature Center added a gem mine attraction in mid-March with an eye toward education, specifically geology.

“We installed it with the intent of using it to talk about the geology of the region, which is an important aspect people are interested in when they come to the WNC Nature Center,” said Director Chris Gentile. “It just so happens when we sell the roughage it’s got its own educational message built right in. You might get any one of gems found around Western North Carolina and the eastern part of the United States.”

Children get a postcard that identifies rocks they may find when panning in the sluice, set up outside the cabin. It’s part of the center’s “Nature Play” initiative.

While panning for gems is a fun thing to do as a family, it also serves as a way to connect children to the natural world. As if the otters, wolves and bobcats weren’t enough. After all, the park contains about 100 species of animals, everything from cougars to hellbenders.

“Foremost, we’re a zoological facility, but we’re also trying to add more hands-on opportunities,” Gentile explained. “The idea is to teach children how to interact with the natural world. Nature play is something we try to model here so when you’re outside in nature parents understand how you can play with your child and utilize the natural world to teach lessons.”

The new gem mine attraction has proved popular so far, generating additional revenue for the WNC Nature Center. A grand opening will be held for the mining sluice May 7. Find details here.


Appalachian Station updates

Another initiative should be ready to open to the public in coming weeks. Appalachian Station is under renovation, with one side done and the other under way. This indoor exhibit features a variety of reptiles (including rattlesnakes and copperheads), amphibians and small mammals. It’s being revamped and divided into two rooms: one simulating daytime and the other nighttime. The nighttime side is already open. The settings are enhanced with dappled light and a nature soundtrack for an immersive experience. Gentile credits funding assistance from Disney and the Asheville Rotary Club with helping to make the exhibits more compelling.


Feed your inner pirate

Hungry from all the walking around the 42-acre zoological park? Swing by Captain Dave’s Pirate Dogs for a quick and easy lunch. It opened last summer, also near an existing cabin on the grounds, which has been transformed to a gift shop.


New entrance to come

Another major transformation is coming to the WNC Nature Center in 2017 with the addition of a new entrance, paid for by the Friends of the WNC Nature Center through a grant from the Tourism Development Association. A new special entrance will be at the lower part of the center, where the petting barn currently is will create a more accessible entrance plaza for all guests. Additional parking (always tight at the center) will be incorporated into the new entrance.

Parking will be greatly expanded as will guest facilities such as restrooms, merchandise opportunities and concessions sales. In October, the Tourism Product Development Fund Committee approved a $313,000 grant requested by the Friends of the Nature Center to help fund the new entrance.


new nature center entrance rendering
This rendering of the new WNC Nature Center entrance shows a larger, more accessible entrance that will accommodate school groups without backups.


Gentile is quick to credit the Friends of the WNC Nature Center for their support, as well as the City. “Growth and expansion of programs have been a team effort with support from City Council and city staff,” he said.

With close to 125,000 visitors per year, it’s a high-use facility.

If that’s not enough, here’s one more tidbit to keep an eye out for: red wolf pups may be on the way this spring. There’s every hope a breeding pair introduced to the park will start a little family. Stay tuned.


Want to visit?

The WNC Nature Center, 75 Gashes Creek Road, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission costs $10.95 adults (Asheville City residents, $7.95); $9.95 ages 65 and over (Asheville City residents, $6.95); $6.95 ages 3 to 15 (Asheville City residents – $5.95); free for ages 2 and younger.

For more information, call 828-259-8080 or visit wildwnc.org.