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CARDWELL – The old visitor center at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park was pretty easy to miss.

“Parking was across the road and it wasn’t too accessible,” Linda Howard, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Monday. “A lot of people just drove by.”

Now they’ll have a reason to stop.

The state has finished a new, $1.3 million visitor center with interpretive displays, a classroom and staff offices that sits just a few feet from the site of the old A-frame center. The project also includes a new maintenance facility, new parking lot and other improvements.

Built to blend with the landscape, the 2,881-square-foot facility has exposed beams inside its high ceilings and interpretive signs that highlight the 3,000-acre park’s geology, wildlife and plant species, as well as the unique characteristics of the caverns that are the park’s main draw.

But in recent years, the park’s gorgeous setting has also become more popular with hikers and mountain bikers, said Lynette Kemp, park manager. They come to take advantage of the 10 miles of trails set in the hills above the Jefferson River.

Kemp said the park gets used year round because the slopes face south and are at a lower elevation than many mountainous areas of southwest Montana.

“It’s a place that you can get into while other places are snowed in,” she said.

The park has worked to build loop trails that allow the public to take a different route back, said Jerry Walker, FWP regional park manager. The new visitor center will serve as a trailhead where people can park and begin different hikes.

As for the educational advantage, the park hosts 3,000 school kids annually who come for programs, but at times they get rained out.

Walker said with the new classroom that has seating for 40, they can still hold those events and use the state-of-the-art equipment for the programs. It will also be used for the popular interpretive programs.

In the long run, the center will save the state money because it’s ultra energy efficient. It has in-floor, ground source heating and cooling, high efficiency lighting and a wood-burning stove.

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