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Easy Outing: Red Oak Nature Center in North Aurora

It was a dreary, frigid day: My daughter’s nap was too short, and the afternoon ahead of us loomed very long.

You can stay cozy indoors and watch birds refuel at the feeders outside a huge window in the Red Oak Nature Center. Photos by Tara Burghart.So we bundled up in our coats and boots and hopped in the car for a short drive to a place I’ve been meaning to visit for months: The Red Oak Nature Center.

Red Oak is part of the Fox Valley Park District, and it’s located on Route 25, either in North Aurora or Batavia, depending on who you ask. It’s open year-round, seven days a week, and admission is always free. After our very enjoyable visit, it’s definitely on my go-to list for those days when you just Have To Get Out Of The House!

Once you’re on Route 25, you’ll have to keep a close eye for the sign letting you know you’ve reached the Nature Center – it would be easy to zoom right past it. (It’s located one mile north of Route 56/Butterfield Road.)

The parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived. It’s then a few minutes’ walk over some railroad tracks and down a walkway to the Nature Center, where we were indeed the only visitors.

A very nice park district employee greeted us and gave us a brief orientation to the building, making sure we knew there was a rabbit in the “Discovery Room” and lots of other animals in the “Wildlife Room.” I decided we’d skip the nine-minute orientation video, since my main goal for visiting was to let my daughter just walk/run off some energy!

A collection of bee hives on a fireplace mantle.The Nature Center has been around for more than 30 years, and it definitely reminded me of the kinds of places I’d visit on field trips as a kid. Rather than computers or touch screens you’ll find old-school interactive exhibits – like a wall puzzle of a flower’s parts, or a “Touch Table” featuring fur pelts, feathers, turtle shells, pine cones and fossils.

My favorite feature was in the “Bee Room” where a giant picture window looks down upon the Fox River. More than a half-dozen different types of bird feeders have been set up outside the window, and my daughter sat on one of the tiny foldable chairs and watched the birds come and go. Resting on a ledge in front of the window are a number of illustrated books to help you identify the birds you are seeing. On a day when it really was too cold to spend much time outside, the windows brought the beauty of the outdoors inside to us.

My daughter became fast friends with the big rabbit hanging out in a cage on the floor of the “Discovery Room.” At the end of our visit, this is where she stalled by asking to read just one more book – there are drawers full of nature books, divided by subject, that you can page through at your leisure.

But unfortunately for me, probably her favorite spot was the “Wildlife Room,” which houses turtles, fish, snakes, salamanders and frogs from this part of Illinois. I really, really dislike snakes – and it was very hard for me to answer all of her questions about them while fixing my eyes high enough on the wall to not look at them directly but keeping a close enough watch to make sure she wasn’t trying to break into one of their aquariums.

Elsewhere in the building, there are also some cool exhibits that give you an idea of what it would be like to be inside a leaf or a tree, along with lots of exhibits on the wall where your kids can learn more about animal tracks, nature’s inventions, etc.

A table full of shells, feathers, furs, etc., that kids can touch.We spent about 90 minutes at the Nature Center, and we really had a wonderful time. It certainly accomplished what I hoped -- both of us were happier when we left. I think next time, it would be a great spot to meet a friend and her kids for a casual playdate.

Because it was so cold, we didn’t explore the area around the Nature Center at all.  But I’m looking forward to going back.

From the bird-watching window, we could see the center’s observation deck, which offers panoramic views of the Fox River. Devil’s Cave is one of the few caves in the Chicago area and is a short walk from the Nature Center.

There are also three hiking trails that run parallel to the river – all less than ½ mile in length, and one – the Big Turtle Trail – especially recommended for families with small children.

Before heading out on a hike, consider borrowing one of the center’s “Trail Bags,” special backpacks that will help your family learn about nature topics.

The Nature Center also can be used to access the 67-mile Fox River Bicycle Trail system, which runs north to McHenry County and south to Oswego.

Finally, if you decide to picnic, there is a shelter equipped with a limestone fireplace and tables.

The Red Oak Nature Center offers a number of free, seasonal events – Maple Fest is coming up in March – and in addition to the Fox Valley Park District’s calendar, I place the events that don’t need advance registration on the Go West calendar as well.

The Red Oak Nature Center is open on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and weekends to 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free. The Nature Center can be reached at 630-897-1808.

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