Hidden Gem in the River Region


Discovery Hall
Nature Center’s Discovery Hall (Tyler Harris, photographer)

A rustic, welcoming entrance greets visitors to the Alabama Nature Center. (courtesy Alabama Wildlife Federation)

When the Alabama Wildlife Federation Board made a conscious decision in the mid-1990s to prioritize connecting the next generation with the outdoors, none of the individuals involved could have anticipated what was to come. From the acquiring of the Lanark Estate – the 350-acre paradise the AWF now calls home — to the construction of the Alabama Nature Center in 2002, the organization’s impact on conservation efforts has expanded significantly in outdoors education and natural resource stewardship. But it’s the AWF’s latest endeavor — the grand opening of Ireland NaturePlex in October 2015 – that take’s the organization’s mission to a whole new level.

"The new NaturePlex facility has enabled the AWF to greatly increase the number of youth, school groups and adults that can experience the conservation education message,” Warren Marshall, whose company Marshall Design Build managed the design and construction of the NaturePlex, said. “This is a world-class outdoor education center, right here in the River Region!"

The second phase of the Alabama Nature Center at Lanark Estate, the Ireland NaturePlex does a fantastic job bringing the outdoors indoors. Named for the late Bill Ireland – an AWF Board member, president and generous contributor — the NaturePlex is a testament to his conservation legacy. It is a 23,000 square foot facility that serves as the indoor welcome and conservation education hub for the Alabama Nature Center, a planned use outdoor education facility which is a joint project of the AWF and benefactors Isabel and Wiley Hill. The entire Alabama Nature Center including the NaturePlex – both located just off I-65 and Cobbs Ford Road in Prattville – are open to the public and further the AWF’s mission.

Before the completion of the NaturePlex, the popular but strictly outdoor offerings of the Alabama Nature Center served more than 20,000 attendees annually. Through the addition of this new interactive indoor learning facility however, the AWF expects to increase that number by at least 50 percent because visits will no longer be so fair-weather dependent.

lanark map

 “As a result [of these additions], we have expanded our activity options for youth, school-based, and general public programs,” AWF Executive Director Tim Gothard said, “while giving us the ability to meet our customer needs whether hot or cold, rain or shine."

StudentsBetween the Nature Center and NaturePlex building, there’s a little something for everyone, from toddlers to seniors. The NaturePlex structure houses classrooms for school groups and meeting areas available for rent, a gift shop, a large theater showing daily nature flicks and Discovery Hall, where patrons can view live displays of frogs, fish, turtles and snakes as well as pelts and skulls from various indigenous animals.

On the floors and walls are interactive exhibits about the many natural wonders that make up Alabama, from the Delta in the South to the Appalachian foothills in the North and every region in between. Even for those who think they know a great deal about Alabama’s natural history and geography there are certainly things that can be learned with even a short stroll through Discovery Hall.

When school children visit, AWF staff put on an “animal encounter” within Discovery Hall with live snake and turtle demonstrations, which staff says the kids always love. For these same groups, campfire story time is always a highlight, where children gather around an “indoor campfire” (no fire involved) inside a tent and are read a nature-themed story.

Bee HiveA truly unique way the NaturePlex allows interaction with Alabama wildlife is the bee hive display, where through a glass case one can see directly into the busy life of a hive as bees move around within and fly in and out a special passage to the woods and open areas of the property to gather pollen for making honey.

The EBSCO Theater, a 120-seat state-of-the-art media room in the NaturePlex, runs daily nature and conservation focused programs during the week starting at the top of every hour. Films on owls, other birds, snakes and other amphibians as well as crafts like basket weaving are featured.

Nature BoysField trips for public, private and home school groups are a primary focus of both the Alabama Nature Center and the NaturePlex and pre-designed or customized programs can be developed by the AWF staff to meet the needs of a specific group with classroom and luncheon space also available. Senior group outings can also be arranged. But the fun isn’t limited to the indoors. The Alabama Nature Center itself is made up of more than five miles of walking trails. Each of the three individual trails – Turkey Ridge, Still Creek Run and Hilltop Pass – have manmade features that enhance the outdoor experience, from boardwalk to bridges that allow spectacular views of the landscape and the wild creatures that call the Alabama Nature Center and Lanark Estate home.

Nature WalksOff of each main trail are a variety of loops allowing hikers to choose the length and character of their journey through the hills, swamps and bottoms of the property. Each trail is easily accessible for young children, their parents and grandparents, encouraging a great outdoor experience and exercise for the whole family with picture perfect spots for a picnic lunch also available. Those interested in regularly getting a nature walk done early in the morning may purchase an annual pass allowing trail access as early as 6 a.m.

“For seniors who want to include exercise in their outing, our extensive system of trails and boardwalks can be an integral part of their experience — whether self-guided or led by one of our staff members,” Gothard said, adding that programs can be tailored “to meet both the age and mobility desires and limitations of our guests.”

New for 2016 will be a *Spring Break Camp March 21-25 for children ages 6-12. Campers will learn about water, plants, wildlife and geology through fishing, hiking, outdoor games, crafts and swimming. A summer day camp beginning this year is also planned for children as young as 5 and as old as 15.

The Alabama Nature Center and NaturePlex are open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as well as for special Thursday night programs. Admission is $5 per person with no charge for children under age 3. Admission allows access to the NaturePlex’s Discovery Hall, the EBSCO theater, the gift shop and any regular public programming taking place as well as the Alabama Nature Center’s five miles of trails. Season passes and other specials are available.

Visitors“The Alabama Nature Center and the new NaturePlex facility is something I am tremendously proud of and support because I know it will have a dramatic positive impact on bringing along the next generation of wildlife conservationists in this state — and at the same time, we will be helping students improve academic performance and enhance their communication and social skills,” Dr. David R. Thrasher of Montgomery, an AWF supporter and conservation champion for three decades, said.

With opportunities for wildlife-themed adventure in a fun filled atmosphere and outdoor possibilities like hiking, catch and release fishing, bird watching and photography, the Alabama Nature Center and NaturePlex have something for the child in all of us.

Prime For more information and directions, visit www.alabamawildlife.org.

*Cost of the Mar. 21-25 Spring Break Camp is $125/week. Hours for the day camp are 9 a.m. - 2 p.m., with before and after care available for an additional fee. Call 334-285-4550 for details.

Article by Niko Corley, courtesy of Prime Montgomery.