A new Hocking Hills State Park Visitor Center was officially opened on Monday afternoon by Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Mary Mertz.
The two-story, $6 million facility at the park in southeastern Ohio has 8,500 square feet plus an additional 5,000 square feet of space on the upper and lower outdoor verandas. It is more than double the size of the old center, which was demolished.
“The new visitor center is a place where people can come to learn, explore and plan their time in the region,” DeWine said. He added that the park is one of the most scenic in the state — if not the country— and is a big tourist attraction with more than 4 million visitors annually.
“There are more things to interact with and see,” said Addison Decot, an excited 16-year-old who lives nearby and visits the park frequently.
The new center was built because, based on the volume of visitors, the infrastructure needed to be enlarged, said Karen Raymore, executive director of the Hocking Hills Tourism Association.
“It was an opportunity to put in a state-of-the-art interpretive center that would not only give people a really good introduction to the Hocking Hills but (also) make it very clear how important it is to protect it and preserve it,” Raymore said.
The exhibits educate visitors and help them be prepared for the hike, said James Stucker, a geologist for ODNR’s Division of Geological Survey who worked on the interpretive geological exhibits.
In addition to the educational displays showcasing the history of the park, its flora, fauna and geography, the first floor of the building also hosts an interactive cave display, mimicking the park’s main feature, the Old Man’s Cave.
Upstairs features a unique, simulated trail where visitors can get a taste of the outdoor hiking experience. The interactive screen on the second floor shows visitors information from accessible trails to trails to hike with dogs and popular spots to safely take scenic photos. The gift shop, updated restrooms and the water filling station are also located on the same floor.
“This was one of the best hikes,” said Sean Bowen, father of a family of six visiting from Houston, Texas. They stopped at Hocking Hills as a part of their three-week road trip.
“This one is top notch compared to the other ones we’ve been to,” Bowen said of the new center. “This was very informative. Some state parks don’t even have much to a visitors center.”
The simulated trail in the visitor center is “pretty accurate,” added his 15-year-old son, Ben Bowen, holding his thumbs up.
The visitor center will also have information about the many programs conducted at the park, featuring birds, reptiles, and activities like canoeing and kayaking, said McKenna Cimperman, one of the five naturalists who work at the park.
There will be at least one naturalist present at the visitor center at all times, she said.