Into the Woods

Appears in the September 2022 issue.

Looking to get in touch with nature and spy some cool creatures? These nearby nature centers cater to little learners with hands-on activities and thoughtful exhibits indoors, plus plenty of room to wander outdoors.

Lyman Woods Nature Center

901 31st St., Downers Grove

Admission: Free

Indoors: Check out an adventure pack with bug boxes and identification guides from the interpretive center, which has native prairie plants growing on
the rooftop. 

Outdoors: Visit the butterfly garden and wander trails that wind through prairie, oak woods, and marsh habitats. 

Critters to see: The wetlands here are home to a family of beavers, so keep an eye out for their lodge as you walk along the trail and boardwalk. 

Fullersburg Nature Education Center

3609 Spring Rd., Oak Brook

Admission: Free

Indoors: Kiddos can climb into a 7.5-foot-tallmodel bird’s nest, build a giant wooden ant puzzle, and view the skeleton of a 13,000-year-old woolly mammoth discovered in 1977 at Blackwell Forest Preserve. 

Outdoors: The surrounding Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve has picnic shelters, hiking trails, and fishing along Salt Creek.  

Critters to see: A plains garter snake, ornate box turtle, American bullfrog, devil crayfish, and redear sunfish are all on exhibit indoors.

Knoch Knolls Nature Center

320 Knoch Knolls Rd., Naperville

Admission: Free

Indoors: Get hands-on with seasonal displays at the science table and admire the living wall of plants. 

Outdoors: Play on the nature-themed playground and take one of three mobile-phone tours around the grounds, including the seven-step Nature Scavenger Hunt designed for young families. 

Critters to see: A fox snake, eastern box turtle, and tiger salamander are all on exhibit inside. 

Red Oak Nature Center

2343 S. River St., Batavia 

Admission: Free; $2 per person for groups of 10 or more

Indoors: Interactive exhibits teach visitors how to observe the changing seasons, make patterns like a firefly, and dance like a bee. 

Outdoors: Gaze at the Fox River from the observation deck and stroll a number of short wood-chipped hiking trails. Head down the Fox River Trail about a quarter of a mile to explore the Red Oak Cave, a natural geological wonder made from Niagara dolomite, a type of limestone. 

Critters to see: Aquatic turtles in a 500-gallon tank, snakes, tarantula, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, bees in an observation hive, and a variety of amphibians.

Hickory Knolls Discovery Center

3795 Campton Hills Rd., St. Charles

Admission: Free

Indoors: Check out the Blanding’s turtle exhibit—part of a local recovery effort to help the species, which is endangered in Illinois—and a taxidermied musk ox in an Ice Age scene. 

Outdoors: Balance on boulders, logs, and tree stumps at Hickory Hideout, a nature-inspired play area, or explore trails through hills and pothole wetlands formed by glacial ice. 

Critters to see: A red-knee tarantula, lionhead rabbit, various snakes, honey bees, and a bearded dragon named Grandma.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center

419 Trout Farm Rd., Bolingbook

Admission: Free

Indoors: The Forest Preserve District of Will County recently took over operations and will keep the center open as it renovates the building and revamps exhibits over time. In October, take the Eat a Bug Challenge and learn about insects as a sustainable food source. Yum!

Outdoors: Climb on tree stumps, logs, and ropes in the nature play area or walk to Hidden Lake Trout Farm, which has four fishable ponds.

Critters to see: A red-footed tortoise, corn snake, salamander, box turtles, and aquatic turtles are all on display indoors.

Willowbrook Wildlife Center

525 S. Park Blvd., Glen Ellyn 

Admission: $1 suggested donation 

Indoors: The visitors’ center is closed until a new building opens in 2024.

Outdoors: Stroll through the sensory and butterfly gardens and then walk the two nature trails—a half-mile outer loop and shorter inner loop—through prairie, savanna, woodlands, and wetlands. 

Critters to see: A bobcat, a turkey vulture, a woodchuck, a sandhill crane, hawks, owls, groundhogs, and raccoons all have permanent disabilities and live here in outdoor habitats.

Creek Bend Nature Center

37W700 Dean St., St. Charles

Admission: Free

Indoors: Learn about local ecosystems with exhibits such as A Clam’s Eye View of the Underwater World and a native prairie display featuring taxidermied bison that date back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Outdoors: Go creek-walking in Ferson Creek or hike nine miles of prairie and bike trails in the surrounding LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve.

Critters to see: Spot painted turtles, northern water snakes, and bullfrogs at the pond behind the center. 

Photos courtesy of The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County (Willowbrook Wildlife Center raccoons), Downers Grove Park District (Lyman Woods Nature Center), Naperville Park District (Knoch Knolls Nature Center), Jen Banowetz (turtle hatchling), and Getty File Images, Anthony Schalk (Hidden Oaks Nature Center), Creek Bend Nature Center, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County (Willowbrook Wildlife Center), Fox Valley Park District (Red Oak Nature Center), and Getty File Images