Into the Woods

This past Saturday we decided to branch out and “get into nature” as the paleontologist from PBS Kids would instruct. The children had traded various maladies for the past few weeks, and we had been cooped up for the better part of a week. This was their father’s first weekend home since a recent deployment. The pressure was on to do something fun or interesting.

I am a frequent reader of TripAdvisor reviews and love seeing all the available options for a Saturday afternoon. We often stick to our usual routine, but I will mentally catalog the local things to do and tuck the information away for another time.

On several occasions I had read about a local natural preserve called the Tree Hill Nature Center. Most people gave it high marks for being a natural oasis hidden in the middle of the city. Unlike previous weekends, this Saturday was clear, cool and bright, a perfect early fall day. We decided to venture off of our tiny island and head to a new destination.

We noticed the nature center was on Lone Star Road, so its location was a good omen (a shout out to our Texas roots). We followed the GPS’s directions and found ourselves in a part of Jacksonville we had never ventured into. This doesn’t look like nature, I thought. I was concerned that OnStar was now playing a bad joke on us. We stayed the course and soon found the parking lot off of a city street.

Once we entered the parking lot, the scene changed. Trees covered us in the dirt-covered parking lot, and the temperature dropped a few more degrees. We easily parked and saw one other car with some teenagers enjoying a picnic lunch on the tailgate of their SUV. We gathered up the jogging stroller (in case of rockier terrain) and provisions and followed the quaint path into Tree Hill. We passed a compost pile allowing visitors to take some compost home and directions for making your own compost pile. The path turned more picturesque as we approached the main visitors’ center, with flowers overhanging the trail and multi-colored butterflies flittering through the air.

A kind and helpful lady greeted us inside where we immediately noticed a stuffed bear and the entrance to the inside museum, containing artifacts and live creatures. We decided to save the museum portion for later when everyone was tired and ready to stop walking. We paid less than ten dollars with a military discount and free admission for our two youngest. We headed back outside and noticed only one other family in our immediate vicinity.

We decided to check out the butterfly house first. We entered the little wooden cottage and observed an abundance of milkweed and other butterfly friendly flowers. Large and vibrant butterflies danced around us in the space, and my husband laughed as I instantly held out my hands, like showing off a manicure, trying to entice a butterfly to land on me (none did). We had the whole cottage to ourselves, and we followed the front desk lady’s instructions to just “not kill any.” We took some photos and headed out to the nature trail.

We chose an easy, paved loop, ideal for strollers or wheelchairs. We walked around the trail under the impressive canopy of trees and heard the wind lightly rustling the leaves. We saw a few huge spiders guarding their impressive webs, a shed snakeskin and passed a community garden as well as an amphitheater.

Along the way we did encounter a few hiccups. My youngest son began exuberantly running down the trail and promptly fell down, hard. He came up with a bloody knee and scratched up nose, but everything was intact. Halfway through the walk, my almost four-year-old son said his “whole body hurt” and wanted me to carry him at the end (I refused). My daughter worried about hyenas. Perhaps we needed to get into nature more often.

After the walk, we headed back to the main area and checked out a drowsy owl and a few smelly roosters. We returned to the building and saw old fossils, life-like replicas of animals that roamed the area millions of years ago, as well as live specimens such as poisonous dart frogs, native snakes and two baby alligators. The highlight of the indoor tour was the upstairs touch tank, where the kids could put their hands in a wet touch tank and feel all sizes of turtles.

We left the nature center feeling peaceful and content. Unlike a zoo with tons of animals (and people), Tree Hill had few visitors that afternoon and a small collection of animals. The green space alone could be its own draw, as a peaceful refuge from a large city. I look forward to returning to Tree Hill, even if just to walk around under the canopy of ancient swaying trees and sit on a wooden bench to reflect.