- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

he Rock Creek Park Nature Center is a mix of nature trivia, take-care-of-the-environment messages, educational exhibits of flora and fauna, planetarium offerings, and the Nature Discovery Room, where very young visitors can play with animal hand puppets, identify animal tracks and leaf through books such as “The Lorax” and “Where Does the Moon Go?”

But first things first. When visitors enter the center, they see a large table covered with antlers, hides and stumps. Each item — there are 45 — is labeled, and visitors are invited to guess the origin of each and then check on a chart to see how their answers match up.

“The touch table is a great educational interpretive tool. The more senses you use, the more effective it is for learning,” says Dwight Madison, supervising ranger for Rock Creek Park.

The lobby also is home to Houdina, a red corn snake, and a box turtle, which are brought out on occasion for visitors to hold and pet.

“We get a lot of repeat visitors, people from around here. So our challenge is to keep it interesting for everyone,” Mr. Madison says. That’s why the center offers near-daily programs, including planetarium shows and talks, as well as animal petting. This fall, the center also will offer ranger-led trail tours on horseback for participants age 12 and older. (The Rock Creek Park Horse Center is right next door.) The one-hour tour will be offered at noon and 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

“Fall is my favorite season, and walking through Rock Creek Park at this time of year is like walking through a painting. Imagine riding through the painting,” Mr. Madison says.

The center gets about 35,000 visitors a year; the total visitation for all Rock Creek Park sites is about 100,000.

“Some people say it’s hard to find us,” Mr. Madison says. “In some ways, that’s the idea. We’re tucked away, giving people a chance to get away from the city without leaving the city.”

The center’s main exhibit space showcases animals — mostly of the taxidermied kind — and plants that can be found in Rock Creek Park. The animals include a bald eagle, whose wingspan is up to 8 feet; a red-tailed hawk; a woodchuck; a gray fox; a coyote, a relative newcomer; and the pileated woodpecker, whose existence and actions are important for its surroundings. This type of woodpecker makes 6-inch holes in old trees, which then provide nesting space for owls, flying squirrels and other forest animals. Among the plants is poison ivy, a good plant to know how to recognize.

The main exhibit hall also features a honeybee exhibit, including a glass-enclosed, see-through beehive. There’s also an entertaining trivia section about the life of a honeybee: How fast does a bee fly? 15 mph. How many eggs does a queen bee lay in one day? 800 to 1,500. How many bees are in a beehive during a honey-gathering season? 40,000 to 60,000. How far do honeybees in a hive fly for 1 pound of honey? 55,000 miles.

A sandbox with various animal-track blocks provides an interactive component. Children can smooth out the sand, make an imprint with the blocks and then try to identify which animals made them.

“I know this isn’t exactly cutting edge, and it’s pretty worn-out,” Mr. Madison says, “but that’s good. That means it’s getting used.”

The main exhibit ends with a large floor-to-ceiling window, a window into the Rock Creek Park home of all the animals and trees featured in the exhibit.

“We see it as an invitation to go out there and explore,” Mr. Madison says.

Yet the mission of the center — and the whole National Park Service — goes beyond inviting people to enjoy the parks. The idea is to help people understand the importance of protecting and preserving the parks and nature as a whole, Mr. Madison says.

“We try to help people make a personal connection with natural resources, and if we’re successful, they will try to make the way they live more in tune with nature,” he says. “They will treat their surroundings differently. If they see a snake, for example, they won’t kill it. They’ll move it, or even better, let it be.”

When you go:

Location: The Rock Creek Park Nature Center, 5200 Glover Road NW, Washington.

Directions: The nature center is in the western part of Rock Creek Park. Take Connecticut Avenue to Military Road. Go east on Military Road for about a mile. Make a right onto Glover Road and follow signs to the nature center.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, closed Monday, Tuesday and major holidays.

Parking: Free. The nature center is not on a Metro line, but it is possible to take the Red Line to the Friendship Heights station and transfer to a bus for the last stretch of the trip. Metro information: 202/637-7000.

Admission: Free.

Information: 202/895-6070 or www.nps.gov/archive/rocr/nature center/index.html.


• The Rock Creek Park Nature Center does not have any food service, but it provides outdoor picnic tables.

• The nature center offers various children’s activities each week, including a planetarium program, “The Night Sky,” for children age 4 to 7, at 4 p.m. Wednesdays, and an animal program, “Creature Feature,” open to all ages, at 4 p.m. Fridays.

• New for the season is a ranger-led horseback tour that will be offered at noon and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays. The one-hour tour leaves from the Rock Creek Park Horse Center. Participants must be age 12 or older. The fee is $30; reservations must be made at least 24 hours in advance. Information: 202/362-1156.

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