Five Fantastic Indoor Nature Centers in Maryland

National Wildlife Visitor Center displayLooking for a nature center in Maryland that has great indoor activities for kids? Cold, rainy or extra-hot weather may have you looking for indoor activities for kids—and nature centers with indoor activities can help with that.

A number of local nature preserves and parks have indoor activities just right for families.

The National Wildlife Visitor Center at the Patuxent Research Refuge (10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop, Laurel; 301-497-5580; fws.gov/refuge/Patuxent/visit/NWVC.html) is the largest science and environmental education center run by the Department of the Interior. Interactive exhibits explore global environmental issues, migratory bird routes, and endangered species recovery efforts. Learn about the life cycles of gray wolves, whooping cranes, sea otters and other creatures, and observe wildlife on the viewing pond. It’s surrounded by over 12,000 acres of refuge land, including hiking trails and lakes.

The Howard County Conservancy (10520 Old Frederick Rd., Woodstock. 410-465-8877; hcconservancy.org.) takes its commitment to nature very seriously—so seriously, in fact, that it was the first Maryland Green Center in Howard County, recognizing it as a model for conservation and environmental best management practices and a provider of high-quality environmental education. Large windows provide daytime lighting, and the roofing materials were selected to limit heating and cooling costs. Everything from the driveway to the floors were selected with sustainability in mind.

The Gudelsky Environmental Education Center sits on over 200 acres and offers educational programs, a children's corner and live animals. Other areas to explore include historic farm outbuildings, a butterfly garden and 4 miles of trails. Learn about animals and farm life on a walking tour or go geocaching along the trails.

Clearwater Nature Center (11000 Thrift Road, Clinton; 301-297-4575; pgparks.com) offers exhibits, displays, programs and special events. The nature center has an indoor pond and live animal exhibits, including a bald eagle who lives at the center. There are a variety of special programs for all ages, or you can take a self-guided tour. The center is located on Cosca Regional Park, which encompasses nearly 700 acres and includes a playground and other recreational areas, as well as undeveloped land.

Watkins Regional Nature Center snake exhibitWatkins Nature Center (301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro; 301-218-6702; pgparks.com) has live animal displays that include insects, amphibians, reptiles and birds of prey as well as indoor and outoor ponds and a "squirrel gym." There are nature and animal programs for different ages, with some programs especially geared toward homeschoolers.

Outdoors, explore more than 6 miles of trails, a nest box, butterfly/hummingbird garden and Old Maryland Farm, located within Watkins Regional Park.

The Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary and Visitor’s CenterMerkle Wildlife Sanctuary and Visitor’s Center (Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary 11704 Fenno Rd., Upper Marlboro; 301-888-1410; http://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/southern/merkle.aspx) is the winter home to several thousand Canadian geese, who hang around from October until early March. The Frank Oslislo Visitor Center offers great views of ponds, fields and woods and has exhibits on Canadian geese and the area’s wildlife.

The children’s discovery room has live snakes, toads, turtles and screech owls. A coloring table, book nook, animal tracks and sand box, historical dress-up clothes and pirate ship also keep kids interested. A history corner highlights the War of 1812 on the Patuxent, pirates of the Chesapeake and local American Indian heritage.

If you want to get outside but avoid adverse weather, drive along the 4-mile, self-guided Critical Area Driving Tour, open Sundays 10 a.m.-3 p.m. The trail is open for hiking, biking and horseback riding daily Feb. 1-Sept. 30.

Other nature centers

The Robinson Nature Center (6692 Cedar Lane, Columbia; 410-313-0400; https://www.howardcountymd.gov/RNC) also offers an afternoon's worth of fun things to do inside with a planetarium and dome-style theater, programs and hdans-on exhibits. If the weather is nice, check out the trails throughout the property to cross a stream, enjoy views of the Middle Patuxent River and see an old mill.

Check out the seven nature centers listed here for more nature centers and trails to explore in the greater Annapolis-Baltimore area.

This post was originally published December 2009 and was updated February 2018.