ysterious marshes dripping with Spanish moss.
Across the United States, Nature Conservancy preserves provide natural ingredients for education and adventure. These 10 preserves are open to the public and offer terrific opportunities to learn about the Conservancy’s work firsthand and get children excited about the natural world. As you explore together, the wonder and curiosity of children will run wild.
So squeeze in some last-minute summer fun, plan ahead for school breaks or summer 2012, or scope out a day trip or weekend getaway near you.
For directions, maps, hours and additional resources to help you take the first step on your outdoor adventure, navigate to my.nature.org/preserves.
1. Migration Appreciation
Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, Utah
Your wings are worn. You’ve flown thousands of miles over oceans and deserts. Finally, you see an oasis beneath you—a vast lake fringed with wetlands. Time to stop and recharge.
Kids will appreciate this bird’s-eye view of life when they visit the Shorelands preserve, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Visitors are welcomed by an airy interpretive pavilion and a 30-foot-high observation tower. “We want visitors to be able to see what birds see when they come in,” says Heidi Nedreberg, the Conservancy’s marketing and outreach manager in Utah.
Visitors can explore the wetlands on a mile-long boardwalk that provides great perches from which to watch birds. Along the way, signs offer “wow” facts about selected bird species, some of which migrate from 5,000 miles away. Did you know that Franklin’s gulls fly so far they wear out their feathers and grow new sets twice a year?
Among the many species landing at the Great Salt Lake are ibis, Wilson’s phalaropes, American avocets and the world’s largest concentration of snowy plovers. Wow.
2. Blackwater and Trees with Knees
Nassawango Creek Preserve, Maryland
The Nassawango Creek Preserve, near the Pocomoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is an unusual habitat: It is the most northern of the great southern swamps.
Canoes, which can be rented nearby, are a wonderful way for families to explore the area. Don’t tip your boat as you weave among the “knees” of the bald cypress trees—the roots protrude from under the tea-colored “blackwater” of Nassawango Creek.
A boardwalk also leads deep into the dark, tranquil swamp. Nassawango Creek preserve manager Joe Fehrer says that either way—by foot or canoe—kids will take away a sense of being far from civilization.
Fehrer works closely with the adjacent Furnace Town Living Heritage Museum, where kids can watch demonstrations of 19th-century artisans and learn about old ironworks.
The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve, Florida
The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve near Orlando, Florida, is not a Disney attraction. But it is well worth the visit. In fact, this mosaic of lakes, savannas and wetlands is a hidden gem, offering an experience distinct from the famous attractions nearby. “We’re embedded in touristville,” says program assistant Christa Evans. “This is one of the few chances to escape the sound of traffic.”
Kids will appreciate the “wall of carnage” at the preserve’s Adventure Center, which is adorned with skulls, rattlesnake skins and other gory—and not-so-gory—treasures found on the property. “It always gets conversations going,” says Evans.
The preserve’s scenic centerpiece is Lake Russell. Along the way—the hiking trail is three-quarters of a mile long—kids can play detective with an animal track sheet, testing their skills in identifying the prints of coyote, deer, wild hogs, raccoons and other species.
4. Mountain Delights
Sam’s Point Preserve, New York
In the 1920s, a few families began spending summers at Sam’s Point, a flat-top mountain in New York’s Shawangunk Mountains, picking and selling huckleberries. In video footage featuring interviews with the berry pickers, Virginia Ferguson, who came as a child, recalls Sam’s Point as “absolutely so peaceful and wonderful.” It still is.
Even hard-to-please teens will find something to like at Sam’s Point. Trails lead to a goblin’s delight: a whole forest of dwarf pitch pines shorter than most sixth-graders. There’s also a mountaintop lake, a spectacular waterfall, cliff-edge vistas and, of course, huckleberries to pick.
But the coolest attraction of all is the preserve’s maze of ice caves, which on a hot summer’s day will blast you with naturally refrigerated air. Displays in the conservation center help put the preserve’s ecology and history into focus. And each year, a few lucky kids get to come here for summer camp.
5. Home on the Range
Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Oklahoma
Who wouldn’t clamor to see real bison, grazing on a real prairie? The experience, says Harvey Payne, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve’s conservation coordinator, can be “almost spiritual.” But the preserve is more than just a beautiful place; its 2,700-head bison herd is integral to restoring the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, which once spanned 142 million acres. “The bison shaped the prairie, along with fire and climate,” says Payne.
The visitor center, built as the ranch headquarters in the 1920s, provides interpretive information and placards on prairie ecology. Hiking trails lead across the prairie. Come in spring, when wildflowers peak and bison calves cavort, or summer, when the bison clump into herds for the summer rut. Or try fall, when children can hike through a forest of prairie grasses taller than their parents and maybe hear wild turkeys gobbling. On the way home, you’re likely to hear a different sound: happy hums of “Home on the Range.”
Hassayampa River Preserve, Arizona
The Hassayampa River in Arizona flows mostly underground, through layers of sand. But at the Hassayampa River Preserve near the town of Wickenburg, it gushes to the surface, bringing the desert to life. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit. That’s when the lush enclave attracts more than 280 species of birds. From the visitors center, you can explore Palm Lake, walk to the cool river (no swimming allowed, though), and watch for lizards, gray foxes and javelinas.
The preserve’s well-developed Nature Ranger program offers youngsters the chance to stretch their naturalists’ wings by learning how to gently tag monarch butterflies and carefully band migrating birds. There’s also a summer camp for ages 7 through 12 and a program in which citizens gather data for scientific studies. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself longing to follow along with the kids. “The excitement bubbles up to parents,” says conservation coordinator Bernadine McCollum.
7. Raucous Rookery
Cypress Island Preserve, Louisiana
If you want to see your children grin or squirm—no question about it—take them to see alligators in the wild. But alligators are just part of the story at Cypress Island Preserve. In spring, this cypress-tupelo swamp is among the best places in the United States to see and hear wading birds.
Located just two hours west of New Orleans, the island’s vast rookery hosts thousands of pairs of nesting herons, roseate spoonbills, white ibises and more.
“In May, the rookery turns into a noisy, squawking madhouse,” says preserve manager Kacy Kobrin. “It’s really wild.”
The levee surrounding the preserve’s Lake Martin offers views of the incredible rookery. In addition, a boardwalk penetrates the heart of the swamp, thick with mystery, where Spanish moss drips from trees and, yes, alligators lurk in the dark water. If you’re worried, just keep your toddlers close. “We haven’t lost a child yet,” says Kobrin.
8. Riverside Rhapsody
River Fork Ranch, Carson River Project, Nevada
What does sustainable living mean?
At the River Fork Ranch, if the cows can’t show you, the ranch house can.
The 800-acre ranch provides rare public access to Nevada’s Carson River, says Duane Petite, director of the Conservancy’s Carson River Project. Hike or bike the preserve’s two-mile river trail and explore the confluence of the river’s east and west forks. Watch for northern leopard frogs and dozens of bird species, including nesting sandhill cranes, bald eagles and white-faced ibises.
Along with protecting meadows near the Carson River, the Conservancy has teamed up with a working cattle ranch that uses sustainable practices to produce grass-fed beef. After a face-to-face with the cows (across a fence), get the scoop on green building practices posted around the Whit Hall Interpretative Center, once an old ranch house and now a showcase for energy-efficient, sustainable building. Standing on the deck—made from recycled timbers—you can enjoy views of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada.
Silver Creek Preserve, Idaho
The diamondlike clarity of Silver Creek, which winds its way through south-central Idaho, is legendary. The clear waters make it easy to see the huge trout that taunt fly fishermen. Like Ernest Hemingway, who lived nearby and frequently visited this property, most people come here to fish. But the trout—fat from the creek’s big insect hatches—are notoriously tough to catch.
Silver Creek is a rich resource for more than just the fish: A hundred-plus species of birds can be seen around the preserve, including owls, harriers, herons and eagles.
A kid-friendly nature trail leads along the creek. From bridges kids can spot big trout lounging in pools below. From late May to September, guided nature walks geared toward families take place on Saturday mornings. Along the way, linger at a monument to Hemingway and look up at the sun-dappled valley toward Ketchum.
10. Floodplain Revival
Emiquon Project, Illinois
Can diked and drained farm fields be returned to a natural, functioning floodplain? That question drove the creation of this 6,700-acre preserve along the Illinois River.
“Emiquon is a proof of concept,” says Jason Beverlin, the Conservancy’s Illinois River program director.
When kids visit, they’ll learn what a floodplain does—from soaking up the swollen waters of flooding rivers to providing important habitat for aquatic species—and how the Conservancy is restoring this one.
Starting from the Lakeside Observatory on Thompson Lake, families can ascend to a two-story lookout with spotting scopes, hike two miles of trails, paddle a canoe on the lake or fish for bass.
How has Emiquon changed as it has been restored to a natural floodplain? Come on out and see.
Most visitors also linger at the adjacent Dickson Mounds Museum, a major archaeological museum that explores the area’s 12,000 years of human habitation. In fact, about 150 archaeological sites have been unearthed at Emiquon.
Don’t Stop Here! More Nature Conservancy Preserves to Visit:
- Mashomack Preserve, Long Island, New York: Explore the birdlife and natural history of Long Island through hikes and guided programs. Families will enjoy walking through meadows and exploring interactive exhibits at the visitors center.
- McCartney Creek Preserve, Washington: How will the health of the creek change as the land recovers from past grazing? Watch restoration in action by viewing the photos taken periodically from fixed camera stands and then visit the preserve and add your own photographs.
- Coachella Valley Preserve, California: The Nature Conservancy owns part of this desert preserve, which features 25 miles of trails and a visitors center made of palm logs.