6 Front Range Nature Centers to Visit This Summer

By Kyrie Collins, Highlands Ranch-Parker-Castle Rock-Lone Tree Publisher May 13, 2015

Children who regularly spend time outside play more creatively, have lower stress levels, develop stronger immune systems, and have greater respect for themselves, for others, and for the environment. Many of our local nature centers seem to have been designed specifically with kids in mind. Best of all, they're free!

Carson Nature Center and South Platte Park
3000 W. Carson Dr., Littleton | (303) 730-1022
Nature Center: 12:00-4:30 PM Tuesday-Friday; 9:30 AM-4:30 PM Saturday-Sunday
South Platte Park: Daily from sunrise to sunset

The Nature Center has aquariums and terrariums with live plants and animals, prepared microscope slides, books, puppets, and lots of nature items (pelts, snakeskin) available for touching.

Perhaps the most special feature is the River Room containing a 12-foot long sloped table with flower water, sand, and a variety of props to give your child the change to create a town or a forest, build dams, or flood different area, modeling the actions of a real river.

South Platte Park offers several kid-friendly trails, including the East Trail and the Northern Wildlife Trail. Pick up a Trailside Guide form the Nature Center, which points out special features of the trails along the way.

Morrison Nature Center at Star K Ranch
16002 E. Smith Rd., Aurora | (303) 326-8445
Nature Center: 9:00 AM - 4:30 PM Wednesday-Sunday
Trail System: Daily from sunrise to sunset

The Morrison Nature Center has puppets, a coloring table, wildlife puzzles, costumes, educational displays, and plenty of books for children to read. The Star K Kids program is specifically for the 5 and under set; a variety of other family events occur throughout the month.

The Nature Center is the portal to the 200-acre Star K Ranch, home to mule deer, turtles, beavers, song birds, great-horned owls, red-tailed hawks, and many other animals.

The Wetland Loop Trail is fairly flat and under one mile. A nice deck overlooking a pond provides a comfortable spot to watch for wildlife.

Lookout Mountain Nature Center
900 Colorow Rd., Golden | (720) 497-7600
Nature Center: 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM daily
Nature Preserve: 7:00 AM till dusk daily

Located on a 134-acre preserve, Lookout Mountain Nature Center is the head of two kid-friendly trails, Meadow Loop and Forest Loop. Each is only about a half-mile, but they connect to create a hike that allows you to experience both environments.

Inside the building, the Discovery Room has a large "nest" with egg-shaped pillows, making it the perfect spot to cuddle with your child while reading one of the many books available. An Observation Room has binoculars, headphones with a variety of recorded forest sounds, and more books.

If you have little ones, be sure to ask about the Toddler Nature Nuts and Preschool Nature Nuts programs. A wide variety of programming is available for older kids, teens, and adults.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge
6550 Gateway Rd., Commerce City | (303) 289-0930
Nature Center: 9:00 AM - 4:00 PM Wednesday-Sunday
Wildlife Refuge: Daily from sunrise to sunset

The 17,000 acres that make up this national wildlife refuge is home to more than 330 species of animals, about 200 of which are birds.

The Nature Center features a Discovery Room with interactive table top displays, learning stations, and an area to make seasonal crafts. In the Exhibit Hall, a dress-up station provides an experience of prairie life along with other hands-on activities. The back patio is home to a butterfly and bird garden, as well as an area where children can "Measure Up" to the wildlife on the refuge.

The Refuge has more than nine miles of easy trails, including a half-mile hike around Lake Mary. Visitors can also take the Refuge's self-guided auto tour.

Barr Lake State Park
13401 Picadilly Rd., Brighton | (303) 659-6005
Nature Center: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM Monday-Friday; 9:00 AM-5:00 PM Saturday-Sunday
State Park: 5:00 AM - 10:00 PM daily

More than 350 species of birds have been spotted in Barr Lake's wildlife refuge. Raccoons, beaver, and skunks may occasionally be seen as well. The Nature Center has a Family Room with comfy couches, displays about the park's wildlife, aquariums and terrariums, puzzles, and a learning center. Kids Corner has books, drawings, and animal costumes.

Near the Nature Center is the start of Niedrach Nature Trail, a walking loop that is less than a mile long. If you want a longer walk, the path around the lake is 8.8 miles and has several wildlife viewing stations along the way.

Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center
1805 30th St., Colorado Springs | (719) 634-6666
Visitor Center: 8:00 AM-8:00 PM Memorial Day through Labor Day
Park: 5:00 AM-11:00 PM May through October

If you've never been to the Garden of the Gods, do not let another summer slip away without a visit. Within minutes, you will understand why Native Americans gathered to worship here.

The Visitor Center has 30 interactive nature exhibits as well as a video about the formation of the park (fee applies to the video). Pick up a map of the roads and trails and then head into the park. The Ridge Trail is only a half-mile round trip with less than a 150-foot climb. The Siamese Twins Trail is one mile round trip, with less than a 150-foot climb. Of course, there are plenty of longer and more difficult trails too.

Don't forget your camera! As you walk, bike, or drive through the park, you'll find scores of photo opportunities. Some of the most popular spots are near the Scotsman and under Balanced Rock.