With all due respect to the flying squirrel, three snakes and turtle who perished, the December 2014 fire that destroyed the nature center at Sanford’s San-Lee Park made the way for bigger and better things.

Construction is nearly half complete on a new nature center that, like its predecessor, will house small mammals, birds, reptiles and other orphaned or injured wildlife in addition to a larger multipurpose room and park offices. Weather permitting, the new facility could be complete as early as April, though recent snow and rain and future bad weather could push it back to May or even June. When it does open, the center — located where the RV campground once sat along Pumping Station Road — will be a noticeable improvement to a park considered by some to be a hidden gem in the Piedmont Region.

“Already, we’re getting a lot of calls about people ready to use the multipurpose room,” said Park Ranger Steve Godfrey. “It’ll be bigger than the one before, and the view will just be fantastic. It’ll have glass windows, and you’ll be able to look down with a total view of the lake, the boat dock and the surrounding area. It’ll feel like a whole different environment.”

The new center will also have additional parking for cars, RVs and school buses, and because of the new location, will be accessible from Pumping Station Road (the old center required entrance into the park and competed with the trails, lake and picnic areas for parking).

The new center comes at a time when San-Lee Park is gaining more attention statewide for its mountain bike trails. Reviews on, the REI-sponsored go-to website for mountain bikers, give San-Lee 4.5 out of 5 stars and rank it as the 11th-best trail in North Carolina (followed by several in the actual mountains).

Godfrey says within a year, mountain biking could become the top draw at San-Lee. The park boasts 12 miles of trail and is adding a “pump track” and obstacle course as well.

Visitors also have free access to fishing and paddle boats.