In northeast Ohio, of course, no matter what month it is, it’s hard to predict what kind of weather you’ll have for your family’s day out. That’s why the three nature centers below are always on my list of favorite places to visit with the family. Well, the fact that they’re weatherproof is one reason; that they’re free is another. The fact that they’re full of fun is undeniable.
What kid wouldn’t love to crawl through a 15-foot-long hollow tree? The one inside the main lobby at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center in Bay Village is impossible to ignore. I’ve seen quite a few grown-ups unable to squelch the urge to wiggle through it, as well. (Go ahead! It’s fun, not to mention a great photo opportunity.)
Once you can get past the very enticing tree trunk, there are live animals to learn about and usually visitors can touch them, too. The welcoming education staff hosts numerous programs throughout the week. Check the website for up-to-date programming information, as some craft classes and presentations require advance registration.
Also inside LENSC is the Walter R. Schuele Planetarium. Open year round, its stellar presentations delight toddlers, teens, and their families. While most planetarium programs cost $2-$3 per person, telescope viewing is usually free.
Go outside and enjoy the bird watching and nature observation areas immediately outside LENSC’s doors, which are serene. But less than a mile to the north you’re likely to hear shrieks, from happy kids (and gulls). Huntington Beach, featuring free public swim access, is close enough to walk to from LENSC.
One of the Metroparks Serving Summit County, the 104 acres of Nature Realm are open daily, providing a feast for the eyes no matter the season. But there’s almost as much to see and do inside the nature center.*
Because the eco-friendly green building is partially underground, it captures visitors’ interest before they open the door. Inside, there are live animal displays, a honeybee colony, and very popular observation window where dozens of different birds and small mammals visit. Several computerized activity desks offer kids a chance to learn about the natural world using the technology they crave. The enthusiastic staff offers a wide variety of puppet shows, craft activities, nature hikes and other programs – many of which are designed for family participation.
Go outside and enjoy the herb garden, two ponds, and arboretum. Most of the trails are stroller-friendly. An all-ages favorite: the bouncy, 110-foot-long suspension bridge on Fernwood Trail.
*Note: the visitor center is closed on Mondays
Several of the Cleveland Metroparks boast lovely nature centers. The one at Rocky River Reservation stands out for several reasons. An observation deck offers views of the ancient shale cliffs that tumble into the Rocky River, for one. Here’s another: deeper inside the center you can see one of the ancient creatures that used to swim through here. Dunkleosteus, better known as the Terrible Fish, lived in Ohio nearly 400 million years ago. A full skeleton was preserved in the shale above Rocky River, and a replica is on display in the nature center. It’s as fascinating as it is frightening. Families find many other displays here just as interesting, but not nearly as scary.
Go outside and enjoy the rest of Rocky River Reservation, starting with the steep climb up to the Fort Hill Earthworks. Although the earthworks themselves aren’t visually stunning, the history behind them is. If it’s a great view you’re after, just turn around and follow the trail a few more feet where you’ll find yourself looking way, way down at the park’s namesake river.
Family time is priceless, and let’s face it, there’s never enough. That’s why I love places like the nature centers in the parks above – because you can have a good time, regardless of the weather. And, did I mention they’re free?
Diane Stresing is the author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Cleveland. She lives in Kent with her husband and children, who have learned that no matter where they go, they’re probably going to stop at a park along the way.