Nature Centers in the Midwest
Iowa has some amazing nature centers, from Jester Park Nature Center to Grimes Farm and Conservation Center. Many nature centers include interactive displays, special events, environmental education, summer camps, miles of walking trails, and more. Nature centers are a great place to encourage unstructured free play. The states surrounding Iowa also have beautiful nature and wildlife for families to enjoy. Check out some of the best nature centers in the Midwest.
Severson Dells Nature Center
Address: 8786 Montague Rd, Rockford, IL 61102
Severson Dells Nature Center is located in Rockford, IL. The center itself is a converted deer lodge. The Grove Nature Playscape will be a must-stop. The screened-in porch area will keep the bugs away while you observe the birds. There are 5+ miles of hiking paths and they can even provide a golf cart tour on the trails to those who need assistance.
Indiana Dunes Nature Center
Address: 1215 N State Rd 49, Porter, IN 46304
Located just off of beautiful Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes Nature Center is a perfect starting point to learn all about the Indiana Dunes National Park. Learn about the history of the sand dunes and find out about the best trails to take. Take a look at the exhibit room to learn more about the wildlife that can be found in the area.
Annett Nature Center
Address: 15565 118th Ave, Indianola, IA 50125
Annett Nature Center is a must-stop. They recently opened a new educational exhibit featuring an oak tree for children to climb. The beautiful butterfly garden is a perfect spot for a picture. Warren County Conservation Board Naturalists hold special programs throughout the year. Right next door is Lake Ahquabi State Park.
Calkins Nature Center
Address: 18335 135th St, Iowa Falls, IA 50126
Calkins Nature Center contains a Native American and National History Museum. It is one of Iowa’s largest collections of Native American Artifacts.
Dickinson County Nature Center
Address: 22785 Nature Center Rd, Okoboji, IA 51355
Gilbertson Conservation Education Area
Address: 22580 A Ave, Elgin, IA 52141
An outdoor playscape, a summertime petting zone, and a live beehive are just a few reasons to check out Gilbertson Conservation Education Area.
Grimes Farm and Conservation Center
Address: 2349 233rd St, Marshalltown, IA 50158
With a fascinating history of rejuvenation, Grimes Farm and Conservation Center is a place waiting to be explored. Enjoy the exhibits with fossils, turtle shells, and animal fur. Then venture outside to the natural playscape and wander through miles of nature trails or climb Mildred’s Observation Tower for some beautiful Iowa views. We have enjoyed the nature literature trail or what many may call a “story walk”. A fun thing to do for nature lovers and young visitors.
Indian Creek Nature Center
Address: 5300 Otis Rd SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52403
Indian Creek Nature Center features exhibits built into the ground to show the different seasons of Iowa. Be on the lookout for their new addition called Etzel Sugar Grove Farm. The farm was donated in 2016 and will be used to show a restorative agriculture farm. We personally love the outdoor nature-themed play area full of hands-on activities. Your kids will have hours of fun playing! Take a look at when we made our visit during their peak maple syrup time.
Jester Park Nature Center
Address: 12130 NW 128th St, Granger, IA 50109
Jester Park Nature Center is a beautiful woodsy lodge just 20 minutes north of Des Moines and a popular destination. The upstairs has a beautiful fireplace waiting for you to enjoy while viewing the wilderness from the large windows. Wander downstairs and you will find interactive exhibits waiting to teach you about the wetlands, the woodlands, and the prairie. A new exhibit coming in the fall of 2022, features Iowa’s Indigenous people. For our little visitors, there is a habitat wall featuring magnetic animals for children to manipulate and a puppet theater to act out animals. Jester Park Nature Center has a variety of nature programs for children to adults.
The Prairie Learning and Visitor Center at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
Address: 9981 Pacific St, Prairie City, IA 50228
Before touring Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge to see the bison and elk, stop by The Prairie Learning and Visitor Center to learn more about the area. There is a 15-minute educational video to teach you about what you will find as you explore the refuge. After the video, check out the nature and wildlife exhibits. Then go find the bison and elk!
Great Plains Nature Center
Address: 6232 East 29th St N UNIT 2200, Wichita, KS 67220
Inside Great Plains Nature Center, you’ll find Koch Habitat Hall which features prairies, wetlands, rivers, and woodlands exhibits. Learn about the Great Plain’s climate and the effects of European settlement. There is a hands-on area for interactive learning as well as a 2,200-gallon aquarium. Finally, check out the live animal exhibits.
Outdoor Discovery Center
Address: 4214 56th St, Holland, MI 49423
Located in quaint Holland, MI, Outdoor Discovery Center has so much to explore. Begin with a stop at the Visitor Center to explore the inside exhibits that feature touch tables of natural artifacts, live animals on display, and taxidermy exhibits of North American wildlife. Outside you will find Wade & Kris Eldean Wildlife Exhibit that features five native animals to Michigan. Check out the Cultural History Center to learn more about the indigenous people of the area. Finally, let your children play at the Eldean Family Nature Play Park.
Como Park Zoo and Conservatory
Address: 1225 Estabrook Dr, St Paul, MN 55103
Located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory is waiting for you to explore. The zoo features a seal island, a large cat exhibit, a variety of aquatic life, primates, birds, a polar bear exhibit, and more. The conservatory has two acres under glass featuring a variety of plants that will make you feel as if you are in a tropical paradise. There are outdoor gardens to meander through as well. Admission is free but donations are encouraged.
Jay C. Hornet Nature Center
Address: 1304 21st St NE, Austin, MN 55912
Jay C. Hornet Nature Center is located about 30 minutes east of Albert Lea, MN. Inside the center, you will see live animals, touch tables, animal fur, and more. There are 9+ miles of trails to explore.
Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center
Address: 11715 Cragwold Rd, Kirkwood, MO 63122
Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center is located inside 112 acres of oak-hickory forest. Start inside the center to see the aquarium and living bee hive. Then check out the treehouse, trails, garden, and more outside.
Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary
Address: 407 N La Frenz Road, Liberty, Missouri
Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary is a beautiful, hidden spot in Liberty, Missouri. I was not sure what to expect, but the trails, beautiful flowers, butterflies, and nature museum made it worthwhile.
Burr Oak Woods Conservation Area
Address: 1401 NW Park Rd, Blue Springs, MO 64015
Just outside of Kansas City, MO, Burr Oak Woods Conservation Area, is a chance to explore nature without going too far from the city. The nature center has a wildlife-viewing room featuring animals from Missouri. Outside the center, there is a Nature Explore Classroom and six different trails to try. On the trails, you’ll see a variety of natural features including limestone cliffs.
Address: 1111 Bellevue Blvd N, Bellevue, NE 68005
Located just outside Omaha, Fontenelle Forest, is filled with fun activities for you and your family. Check out the Raptor Woodland Refuge, thirty feet above the forest floor, you will get to see how rescued birds live in their natural habitat. Next, head to Habitat Hollow, a nature-based indoor play area for children to discover nature. Then stroll the boardwalk with a view of the Missouri River and finish with one of their hiking trails.
Icelandic State Park
Address: 13571 ND-5, Cavalier, ND 58220
Icelandic State Park is located on the shores of Lake Renwick. The Pioneer Heritage Center will fill you in on North Dakota’s early settlers and their homesteading years. Check out the library filled with books about local family histories. Head outside to check out the 200-acre Gunlogson Nature Preserve. There are three cabins and plenty of campsites to choose from for spending the night at the park.
Rocky River Nature Center
Address: 24000 Valley Parkway North Olmsted, OH 44070
Located just outside of Cleveland, OH, Rocky River Nature Center has a spectacular view of a 360 million-year-old shale cliff. The center will teach you about the early habitats of the Rocky River Valley Area and about ancient species including Dunkleosteus, an extinct genus of large armored, jawed fish. Children will love Hideaway Hollow, an indoor discovery tree.
Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve
Address: 272 Westshore Dr, North Sioux City, SD 57049
Located on 1,500 acres of the Missouri River, Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve is a place to enjoy the land and learn more about the natural world surrounding us. Several restored historical buildings are available for tour by placing a reservation. There is no entrance fee for the park. They are currently remodeling their visitor center to include more exhibits for visitors to learn about the area.
Devil’s Lake Nature Center
Address: S5975 Park Rd, Baraboo, WI 53913
Just an hour north of Madison, WI, Devil’s Lake Nature Center, sits in an adorable town called Baraboo. The nature center will teach you about the history of Devil’s Lake and the wildlife that is found around the area. There are bones, furs, shells, and rocks for you to learn about. If visiting during the summer or fall, borrow a fishing pole or if you happen to visit in the winter, borrow a pair of snowshoes free of charge. There are backpacks filled with activities for children to borrow for the day as well. To recharge, stop by Broadway Diner in the town of Baraboo.
Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center
Address: N455 O Ophus Rd, Coon Valley, WI 54623
Norskedalen, which means Norwegian Valley, was originally an outdoor laboratory and arboretum. It has since become a place to learn about the natural environment and cultural heritage of the area. On the property, you will discover Bekkum Homestead, a farm seeking to recreate a typical Norwegian immigrant family farm. In the Thrune Visitor’s Center, you can learn about the Norwegian immigrant experience.