Go Wild! San Diego’s Coolest Nature Centers

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What makes a nature center kid-friendly anyway? Aren’t mounted eagles, foxes, and bobcats on display enough to get the little ones giddy with delight? Of course not! Kids want to touch, feel, and experience nature. That’s why these nature centers are our top picks. They range from small, volunteer-run ventures to buildings with state park status, but no matter the size and scope, there is something for everyone in the family to enjoy.

bvas oceanside

Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation Discovery Center
Outside the beautifully constructed center, built in the Spanish mission style, folks can take a look at another native plant demonstration garden, but don’t dawdle because by now the kids have run inside and found the Critter Corner with quite a few native and non-native reptiles on display. If a volunteer isn’t already handing your child a tree frog, you can always ask nicely. Another favorite section at this center is the children’s area with stations for coloring, playing paleontologist, and “combing” the beach. For bird-watching, be sure to bring binoculars. (Free admission, but donations are always welcome.)

Must Do: Stay for lunch! Outside the center you’ll find Caffe Vacanza, where you can enjoy your favorite coffee beverage or a complete meal. The menu features organic green salads, sandwiches, and more.

1580 Cannon Rd.
Carlsbad, Ca
Online: lagoon.aguahedionda.org

north mccoy trail

Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center
Unless you’ve got a future ornithologist on your hands waking you up at 7 a.m. to go bird watching, feel free to roll into this volunteer-run nature center after 10 am. Let the little ones come face to face with a mounted pelican and explore a hands-on section with pelts, feathers, and more. When they’ve had enough, the kiddos can relax in the children’s area, reading books, playing with puppets, or working on puzzles. Bonus: The fourth Monday of each month, the center hosts Preschool Nature Story Time at 10 a.m. Moms and dads can also take classes and tours on native plants and learn how to create drought-tolerant gardens at home. (Free admission, but donations are always welcome.)

Must Do: Take a jaunt along the short nature trail outside the center. It’s flat and easy enough for toddlers to manage. What’s great about this trail is that at one point you’re completely surrounded by tall, thick reeds and rashes, and all you hear is the rustle of native creatures and the calls of local birds.

2202 S. Coast Highway
Oceanside, Ca
Online: bvaudubon.org

agua hedionda

Tecolote Canyon Natural Park and Nature Center
This city-run center is the smallest of our top picks, but it’s certainly worth mentioning. The main room houses several species of mounted native animals as well as educational displays, but what makes this center fun for kids is a small outdoor garden area with an amphitheater and a hut the little ones will love to explore. (Free admission, but donations are always welcome.)

Must Do: After visiting the nature center, hit the trail. You can do as much or as little of the trail as you want, but the access road part of the trail is nice and wide – plenty of room for the kids to run around and burn off some energy.

5180 Tecolote Rd.
San Diego, Ca
Online: sandiego.gov

tecolote (2)

Living Coast Discovery Center
If you still haven’t had your fill of native flora and fauna, then bring the family down to this nature center located on the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a zoo, aquarium, and botanic garden in one. Activities throughout the day will keep the whole family busy, like watching keepers feed the eagles, sharks, and sea turtles. Be sure to check out their family sleepover and summer camp programs. (Admission: $14/adults, $9/kids 4-17, and kids 0-3 are free.)

Must Do: Participate in any of the free tours, especially the native plant tour. You’ll get insider information about the local birds found in the enclosures as well as the plants found throughout the center grounds.

1000 Gunpowder Point Dr.
Chula Vista, Ca
Online: thelivingcoast.org

living coast

Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center
This state-run center (on federal land) focuses on local bird life, featuring mounted coastal birds and beautiful, interactive educational displays. Because it’s part of the California State Parks system, the center offers a Junior Ranger program for ages 7-12 every Thursday from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m., free of charge.

Must Do: Take a stroll on the North McCoy nature trail. Not only the shortest trail, it’s also the only trail in the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve that’s accessible from the Visitor Center. If you have time, check out any of the other trails in the reserve.

301 Caspian Way
Imperial Beach, Ca
Online: trnerr.org

San Elijo Lagoon Nature CenterPhoto: Tonya Staab

San Elijo Nature Lagoon Nature Center
The 5,600-square-foot certified “green” nature center and interactive museum is a great spot to learn about the plants and wildlife in the area. There are several different activities available, from hiking to indoor fun to special events. We recommend the Nature Treasure Hunt where explorers are given a board and crayons, and encouraged to track how many things can they can see, hear, smell and touch on the trail. The rangers keep the laminated cards behind the counter, so be  sure to ask for one when you go in. Kiddos can expect to see snakes, lizards, butterflies, spiders and herons (along with other birds). Story Time is also a great way to relax after a hike. Story time is offered on the third Tuesday and Thursday each month at 11 a.m.

Must Do: Check the calendar for special events. We highly recommend the Not-So-Scary Estuary event at Halloween. It’s one of the best trick-or-treat trails in town.

2710 Manchester Ave.
Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Ca
Online: sanelijo.org

What’s your favorite San Diego nature center? Let us know in the comments below.

— Amanda Freerksen (photos too, unless otherwise noted)

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