There’s nothing like a walk in the woods, prairies, or wetlands to drink in the natural beauty of Indiana. But when my kids and I want to dive deep into learning more about these amazing ecosystems, I turn to a nature center near me. These free, Indy-area treasures are packed full of amazing resources and experiences to help build your kids’ appreciation for the natural world surrounding them right here in Indiana.
Think of nature centers as mini-museums full of exhibits that give visitors a window into the wonders of Indiana wildlife. Most include live animals to meet up close, interactive and informative learning stations, and opportunities to join enriching park programs and events. You’ll also frequently discover bird-watching rooms and children’s play areas.
Perfect destinations for rainy days or as additions to an already glorious trip to the park or playground, choose one of these nature centers near you for an upcoming outing.
Earth Discovery Center
5901 Delong Rd, Indianapolis
The Earth Discovery Center at Eagle Creek is housed in a beautiful building overlooking Eagle Creek Reservoir. Turn to your left as you enter the building to meet some friendly Indiana wildlife. The large, muralled room where several tanks and aquariums are found is used for events and programs. However, throughout the week, you can stop by to meet turtles, bluegill, and a rat snake. Check the program schedule to see when you can drop by for the animals’ feeding time.
If you are visiting with small children, you’ll want to continue downstairs! You’ll find more animal friends, including fish and an adorable (non-native) smiling axolotl, as well as a cozy nook full of nature-themed books and toys to explore. Put on a puppet show, do some coloring, or snuggle up with a story. Throughout the upstairs and downstairs areas, including the staircases, are interpretive displays teaching about Indiana geology, history, native species, and more.
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Eagle Creek Park is Indy’s largest city park, so there’s no shortage of activities and natural areas to explore here. If you’re looking for adventure, book a zipline tour at Go Ape Treetop Adventure, located directly next to the Earth Discovery Center. You can also head to the water to rent kayaks or hit the beach. The park also boasts multiple playgrounds, a dog park, a golf course, and miles of trails including a fitness trail.
Eagle Creek Ornithology Center
6515 Delong Rd, Indianapolis
Eagle Creek Park is a two-for-one deal when it comes to nature centers! Besides the Earth Discovery Center, the park also hosts a beautiful Ornithology Center. That means birds, birds, and more birds!
A highlight of the center, located in what used to be J.K. Lilly’s private library, is the observation room of expansive windows overlooking a peaceful bird sanctuary. While most of Eagle Creek Reservoir is busy with boaters and swimmers, especially in the summer months, human activity is restricted in the northern section to create a peaceful environment for a spectacular bird population. Plan to relax for a while here, keeping your eyes peeled for rare or interesting species. A pair of bald eagles is even known to reside at the north end of the reservoir!
The Ornithology Center also has an exhibit hall full of dozens of taxidermied bird specimens. Get to know all the amazing feathered creatures that call Indiana home, displayed in replicas of their natural environments. In a room behind this exhibit hall is a birdwatching station with windows looking out on a collection of bird feeders. Beginning bird watchers can get a great start on their checklist here. These feeders are popular with local birds — and squirrels — so you’re likely to spot a dozen or more species in just a short visit.
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Got a scout, school, or homeschool group interested in birds? Schedule a time to try out the Migration Game in the education area right outside the Ornithology Center’s doors. A variety of obstacles and activities in this self-guided area will help students experience the challenges birds face as they migrate each year. This area is primarily used for private groups and programs but is open to the public at some designated times. Call ahead to see when your family can visit!
Habitat Hall at Holliday Park
6363 Spring Mill Rd, Indianapolis
Habitat Hall at Holliday Park’s nature center is a dreamy playdate destination for younger kids and toddlers. Children can’t resist the miniature model of the White River that serves as a water play station. It will likely be the first thing they rush for when you walk in, so be prepared to grab one of the waterproof smocks hanging near the entrance or by the “creek.” Never fear if the splashing still gets a little out of hand. A dryer is provided!
Other kid-friendly features include low-to-the-ground fish tanks where even the tiniest visitors can get an up-close view of the fish and turtles on display. A crawl-through log tunnel beckons little explorers but is also covered in interactives teaching about animal sounds and wetland habitats.
Plenty of nature-themed toys, books, and learning centers are spread throughout the space. Use magnifying glasses to inspect all the intricate details of fungi, pinecones, leaves, and other specimens from the park. Dress up like a bird or bumblebee. Visit real bees in their clear-front educational hive. Relax in the treehouse balcony overlooking the hall indoors and the bird feeders outside. You just might find you can spend a whole morning or afternoon here.
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Holliday Park is a favorite with Indianapolis families for a reason. The park’s centerpiece, The Ruins, serves as a beautiful garden and art display, as well as a splash pad beloved by kids of all ages. Even babies and toddlers can join the fun! The playground is extensive, with multiple climbing structures, a spider web feature, a toddler zone, and plenty of shady picnic table seating. Guests can also follow various trails down to the White River for some prime creek stomping.
Visiting during the winter months? Holliday Park offers seasonal ice skating on a real ice rink outside the nature center.
Cool Creek Nature Center
2000 E 151st St, Carmel
At Cool Creek Park’s nature center, curious kids can pick up loads of new natural science facts and information. The walls and various displays are packed full of educational materials to read. The building’s centerpiece is a life-size faux tree, “Oliver the Oak.” Grab a scavenger hunt list from the front desk and search through the branches, roots, and even inside the tree’s trunk to discover all the creatures that call Oliver the Oak home.
Several tanks and aquariums throughout the visitor center host fish, turtles, snakes, and salamanders. A bird observation room features big windows looking out onto a variety of bird feeders, along with display cases full of bird, nest, and egg specimens. Small children will enjoy the library in a room near the bird observation area, separate from the main space. The library not only offers shelves of nature-themed books and stories, but also animal puppets, dress-up pieces like butterfly wings, and a small selection of toys.
Don’t forget to step outside the main nature center building to visit Chumley the Sulcata Tortoise! On warm days, he can be found in his outdoor corral. When the weather isn’t so pleasant, follow the path to his residence inside the heated greenhouse.
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Cool Creek is an ideal park for creek stomping! You’ll also want to spend some time at the massive playground, which includes a separate section designed for kids age 2-5 as well as fitness equipment for adults. Follow signs to the northwest side of the park to discover a hidden gem: the Nature Play Area. This space tucked away in the woods uses only logs, branches, and other natural elements to create an imaginative playscape for kids.
McCloud Nature Park Nature Center
8518 Hughes Rd, North Salem
The nature center at McCloud Nature Park contains beautiful, informative displays on the variety of landscapes and ecosystems found in the park. Learn about the wildlife that calls the park home — then meet some of these creatures in person! Several animal exhibits showcase live reptiles and dozens of Indiana avian species can be spotted easily from the bird-viewing room.
Educational activities are also available on computer stations. Older kids and adults looking for more in-depth information are welcome to use the resource library for research. Before you head outside for a hike, consider checking out an adventure backpack from the front desk. These brightly-colored bags are packed full of guides on plants and animals, scavenger hunt lists, maps, compasses, and some nature-themed toys for little ones. Take your outdoor adventure to the next level when you borrow these fun materials!
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McCloud Nature Park covers a total of 232-acres, so you can really immerse yourself in nature here. Hike 6.5 miles of trails to cross a historic truss bridge, get spectacular views of Big Walnut Creek, or enjoy peaceful walks through the prairies, wetlands, and forests. Check out the working beehives at the honeybee observation house. Big Walnut Creek provides opportunities for swimming and fishing, as well as access for personal canoes and kayaks.
Taylor Center of Natural History at Strawtown Koteewi Park
12302 E Strawtown Avenue, Noblesville
Strawtown Koteewi Park has a rich history, both natural and human, and you can learn all about it at the Taylor Center for Natural History. The sites now encompassed by the park were once home to several indigenous tribes and extensive archaeological work has been done over the years in an effort to learn more about these people’s ways of life. The central exhibit space at the Taylor Center is dedicated to artifacts excavated from the park.
The Taylor Center is also home to a science lab and a classroom used for the park’s many nature, science, and history programs. Get a good look at the fascinating displays of animal bones in the science lab windows as you make your way down the hall!
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Strawtown Koteewi Park is packed full of adventure! Step right outside the Taylor Center of Natural History to visit Koteewi Trace. This outdoor exhibit showcases historical recreations of a home and community structure that would have been used by the Native American tribes who once inhabited the site. You can also step into a permanent, concrete representation of the archaeological dig that took place here. Looking for excitement? Test your aim at Koteewi Range, zip through the sky at Koteewi Aerial Trail Adventures, ride horseback at K-Trails, or enjoy seasonal snow tubing at Koteewi Run.
Zionsville Nature Center
250 N 5th Street, Zionsville
The Zionsville Nature Center can be found inside the Hoffman Room at the Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Library. This one-room wonder is home to 12 native species of fish, reptiles, and amphibians, so your animal-loving kids will be thrilled. In addition to the living creatures, your crew can learn more about Indiana wildlife through vibrant exhibits and interactives.
Be sure to check the nature center’s calendar as you plan your trip. The Zionsville Parks Department offers a range of educational programming for all ages. You’ll definitely want to join the fun.
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Since this nature center is inside the local library, consider planning your visit to include a scheduled storytime.
Pecar Park Nature Center
5203 E County Rd 150 N, Avon
Meet turtles, tortoises, and maybe even some other surprise friends inside this lovely local nature center. Open-top corrals and tanks for the animals allow visitors to get an unobstructed view. Browse the informative exhibits and displays to learn more about the ecosystems found at Pecar Park.
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Plan to soak up some sunshine outdoors after your visit to the nature center! Right out back is a modern playground that includes slides, adaptive and standard swings, rock climbing, and nature-themed elements. Take a leisurely stroll through the prairie and wetland landscapes, and try to spot some local wildlife at the pond. Young explorers can hunt for geocaches throughout the park, and families looking for an overnight getaway can even camp at one of ten primitive campsites.
Marian University EcoLab and Nature Center
3200 Cold Spring Rd, Indianapolis
Marian University has a beautiful piece of property that is designated as an eco-lab or nature park. There’s a nature center on campus that provides field trips and educational opportunities. This programming isn’t typically open to the public, but local groups can organize a time to visit. The Ecolab is open to the public.
A little knowledge can go a long way when it comes to building your children’s appreciation for the natural world around them. Stopping in a local nature center is an easy way to soak up some new information and create memorable experiences that will surely enhance future hiking, park visits, and time in your own backyard.
The amazing communities of central Indiana have provided us with invaluable resources in these nature centers that are as fun as they are informative. Plan a visit soon and teach your kids how to wonder at the world around them!