Great New Jersey nature destinations

By Michele S. Byers

New Jersey has an amazing diversity of landscapes and every region has a unique assemblage of native plants and animals, geological features and history.

Want to explore this incredible natural diversity? Nothing tells the stories better than New Jersey’s environmental centers and science museums.

These centers are gems for nature lovers of all ages. They have fascinating interpretive exhibits, fun programs for children and adults, and sometimes live animals. Most are open year-round and are great rainy day destinations.

Here’s a sampling:

• Liberty Science Center – Liberty State Park, Jersey City – The center is full of exhibits to satisfy the curiosity of anyone interested in natural sciences. And visitors are only steps away from Liberty State Park’s incredible views of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline.

• Trailside Nature and Science Center – Mountainside – Located in Union County’s Watchung Reservation, the center includes a three-story-tall American beech tree, live animals, a life-size wigwam, exhibits about wildlife habitats, and a gem and mineral exhibit.  As the name implies, there are trails just outside the center, including a sensory trail accessible to all visitors.

• Essex County Environmental Center – Roseland – Children can enjoy outdoor exploration and hands-on activities at this busy environmental center in West Essex Park. Events include nature-themed crafts, children’s gardening, guided bird walks and strolls through the wooded wetland, frog pond science, and classes in wilderness skills and nature identification.

• Merrill Creek Reservoir – Harmony – Nestled in the mountains of Warren County, this visitor center contains wildlife, historical and cultural exhibits. There is also a weather station, wildlife viewing area, spotting scope, an interactive “kids corner” and a butterfly and hummingbird garden in summer. To top it off, visitors enjoy stunning views of the reservoir and beautiful trails.

• Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center – Chatham – Situated on the eastern end of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the center includes live reptiles and insects, interactive displays, a replica bear den and a model Lenape Indian wigwam. Outside are 2 miles of flat trails and boardwalk with spectacular views of swamp, marsh, meadow, pond and forest habitats, and wildlife.

• Environmental Education Center at Lord Stirling Park – Basking Ridge – At the western end of the Great Swamp, this center is run by Somerset County and focuses on the ecology and archaeology of the Great Swamp. One cool feature is a model beaver’s dam that children can crawl through before heading outside to look for the real thing.

• The Watershed Center – Pennington – The center is the hub for the Watershed Institute’s advocacy, science and education programs. It includes exhibit halls with live animal displays and interactive exhibits, a laboratory and an art gallery. The Kate Gorrie Butterfly House is open seasonally.

• Huber Woods Environmental Center – Middletown – Visitors can explore interactive exhibits, view a colorful array of birds, and make friend with live turtles and snakes. A surrounding Monmouth County park features walking trails and picnic areas. Families can even borrow safari-themed backpacks to help with self-guided nature walks through the woods.

• Cooper Environmental Center –Toms River – Located in an Ocean County’s Cattus Island Park, the newly renovated center includes hands-on educational displays such as a live view osprey cam, habitat tree and tunnel, bird viewing area, children’s activity corner and a spectacular collection of live reptiles and fish. The park also contains a seasonal butterfly garden and a 1,000-foot accessible boardwalk.

• Island Beach State Park – Seaside Park – The Nature Center at Island Beach teaches visitors about the unique ecosystem of this barrier island. Highlights include live animal exhibits, educational displays and 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay. The Interpretive Center also contains the Emily DeCamp Herbarium plant collection and the Osprey Cam.

• Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge – Medford – The refuge sits on 171 wooded acres on the edge of the Pine Barrens and includes many hands-on exhibits. There is also an outdoor animal area with more than 60 native animals and a wildlife rehabilitation hospital.

• Rancocas Nature Center – Rancocas State Park, Westampton – This center features a wildlife viewing area, historical displays, live reptiles and lots of programs for young naturalists. In addition to the 19th century farmhouse that has been converted into a nature center, there are 3 miles of trails throughout various habitats along the Rancocas Creek, and a picnic area and pond.

• Wetlands Institute – Stone Harbor – Open daily during the summer and on weekends in the off-season, the institute features exhibits about the life cycle of diamondback terrapins, an aquarium, an elevated walkway through a salt marsh, indoor displays, an osprey cam and an expansive view of the marsh.

• New Jersey Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May – This nature center includes indoor and outdoor observation areas, a nature trail, art and nature exhibits, themed gardens and a store. Children will love the “nature nook” with live animals including turtles and snakes, and the seasonal “touch tank” with marine critters.

Get out and explore New Jersey’s nature, science and environmental centers. They are great stand-alone destinations and even better when paired with a walk.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org