Kansas’ Nature Centers Enhance Outdoor Experiences
The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) operates five nature centers across the state, each offering great outdoor education experiences for visitors of all ages. On your next outdoor outing, take advantage of one of these or other nature centers. Information on KDWPT nature centers may be found online at ksoutdoors.com, and those operated by other entities may be found at naturalkansas.org, including center details, events, and other wildlife links.
Learn more about the wildlife and ecology of outdoor Kansas, and enjoy the next camping, hunting, fishing, or birdwatching trip all the more, buy visiting a KDWPT nature center this spring or summer.
Great Plains Nature Center — 6232 E 29th Street North, Wichita, KS 67220, phone 316-683-5499
The Great Plains Nature Center (GPNC) is operated and maintained jointly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism; and the Wichita Department of Park and Recreation. All three entities share the common goal of providing recreational, interpretive, and environmental education opportunities to the public. This nature center is an exciting place to learn about natural resources, especially the wildlife and habitats of the Great Plains.
Nature-related programs are offered quarterly. These are advertised on the nature center’s website, www.gpnc.org, and in the newsletter Prairie Reflections.
GPNC’s biggest event of the year takes place the second Saturday in June. Walk With Wildlife, entering its third decade, provides a glimpse of native Kansas wildlife to approximately 1,500 visitors annually and includes a fishing clinic for kids 12 and younger.
Other opportunities include wildlife programs, field trips, discovery boxes, adult workshops, junior naturalist classes, scout programs, and nature hikes.
Kansas Wetlands Education Center — 592 NE K-156 Highway, Great Bend, KS 67530, phone 620-786-7456 or 1-877-243-9268
Operated by Fort Hays State University as an annex of the college’s Sternberg Museum on KDWPT land, the Kansas Wetlands Education Center (KWEC) includes a 2,000 square-foot exhibit gallery, classroom, auditorium, and gift store. A handicapped-accessible ½-mile nature trail displays grasslands, marshes, and woodlands. A vast expanse of windows allows visitors to comfortably view wildlife on the wetland.
From a spiny soft-shell turtle to grasshopper mice, visitors can view some of the lesser known inhabitants of Cheyenne Bottoms in the KWEC classroom. Children can discover the feel of animal furs, snake skins, and feathers; match animals to their tracks; and make their own track stencil or rubbing.
Combine a visit with a drive through the 19,857-acre Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and The Nature Conservancy’s 7,600-acre reserve. The largest interior wetland in the United States, Cheyenne Bottoms is one of only 22 U.S. “Wetlands of International Importance,” where more than 330 bird species have been observed.
Milford Nature Center — 3415 Hatchery Dr., Junction City, KS 66441, phone 785-238-5323
Located near beautiful Milford Reservoir in the Flint Hills, the Milford Nature Center offers visitors a better understanding of the natural communities of Kansas. Visitors can see and touch native animal furs, print their own animals tracks, and use their sense of touch to identify natural mystery items. Dioramas line the halls, depicting an aquatic system with more than 300 life-like fish, turtles, snakes, and insects and a terrestrial system showcasing wildlife from the prairies, marshes, and woods.
Live animal exhibits feature snakes, amphibians, turtles, lizards, prairie dogs, and more. A large bird of prey exhibit outside the building features many native raptors, including both bald eagle and golden eagle. Adjacent to the raptor cages is the bobcat display. Nature trails, a birdwatching wall, and a backyard habitat area can also be enjoyed on the center’s grounds. The educational sites housed in these areas demonstrate how to attract birds, butterflies, and other animals to your backyard. The Butterfly House Exhibit is open from late May through early October (weather and butterflies permitting).
The Nature Playground has quickly become a favorite among visitors. This playground gives kids a chance to slide through the belly of a snake or jump on the back of a spider. A picnic shelter can be found next to the playground area and is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Milford Fish Hatchery is adjacent to the nature center, and visitors are welcome to walk around the outside raceways during their visit. Hatchery tours are offered on weekends at 1 p.m. or by appointment.
Prairie Center — 26235 West 135th Street, Olathe, KS 66061, phone 913-856-7669
Just five minutes from downtown Olathe, the Prairie Center is a 300-acre tallgrass preserve and education site with trails winding through remnant and reestablished prairie and riparian woodlands. Most of the eight ponds on the property serve as intermittent wetlands for wildlife. There is a small lake for fishing and water studies. Visitors can explore a bedrock creek provides for aquatic life and a look back in time through the fossil remains embedded in the limestone creek bed. In mid-summer, native grasses grow taller than a living room ceiling.
The primary goal of the Prairie Center is to serve as a preserve for local flora and fauna. There are no public buildings, and public access is restricted to trails and a few gathering areas. No horses, bicycles, or motorized vehicles are allowed, and dogs must be on leashes. Pit toilets and an archery range are available. The Prairie Center is open to the public from dawn to dusk seven days a week for trail walking or fishing in the lake.
The center also provides educational opportunities for the public. Most of the programs are educator-led, with supplies provided by the Prairie Center. One such opportunity is Stations Programming, where students rotate through 10 stations with specific studies such as mammals, soil, water quality, macro-invertebrate exploration, birds, and reptiles and amphibians. Other educational programming is also available. The center will help tailor a program to fit your needs.
Pratt Education Center — 512 SE 25th Ave., Pratt, KS 67124, phone 620-672-5911
Numerous displays, dioramas, and exhibits provide close encounters with the native birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles of Kansas. The center’s winter diorama provides a glimpse at how wildlife deals with the snow and cold of Kansas winters. The grassland display depicts the three grasslands (short, mixed, and tall) of Kansas and wildlife common to each region, as well as a rare black-footed ferret mount. The raptor exhibit features owls, hawks, falcons, and kite mounts. The wetland wall depicts Cheyenne Bottoms, one of the five most important wetlands in North America.
The Aquarium Room contains 12 aquaria, ranging from 400 to 600 gallons and displaying fish species native to Kansas or that have been successfully introduced into Kansas. Wall panels feature the early history of the Pratt Hatchery and the catfish rearing program, along with a working model of the hatchery’s innovative incubating trough. More than 128 species of birds and their eggs are displayed in the Bird Room. Across from this room, visitors can enjoy duplicating the tracks of Kansas animals using the vinyl replica tracks. Numerous interactive exhibits test knowledge of Kansas wildlife.