Posts Categorized: Driftless Trails

Osborne Visitor / Nature Center


Osborne Visitor / Nature Center
29862 Osborne Road
Elkader, Iowa 52043

Hours (April to October): Monday–Saturday, 8 am–4 pm; Sunday, 12 pm–4 pm
Admission: Free, but donations always welcome

A fascinating game of sorts is taking place between the wolf and coyote housed at the Osborne Nature Center on a recent winter afternoon. Seemingly oblivious to a group of vociferous human visitors, the two animals lock eyes through a sturdy chain link fence before suddenly taking off to chase one another along the length of their respective snow-blanketed pens. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, they run until, nearly 15 minutes later, the wolf finally calls it quits.


Photo by Sara Friedl-Putnam

The energetic (and entertaining!) canines are just two of the animals visitors will find at the nature center, a favorite of adults and kids alike. Its native wildlife exhibit, which is nestled amid five acres of pine forest and dates back to the early 1970s, also boasts two red foxes, a black bear (good luck spotting it!), wild turkeys, a bobcat, deer, owls, and a raccoon. “All of the animals have been injured or raised in captivity and would not survive in the wild,” says Joyce Schoulte, a longtime member of the center’s staff. “They are by far the biggest draw of the center.”

Even if live animals aren’t your thing, there’s plenty more to experience at the center, located on 300 acres of land about five miles outside of Elkader. An arboretum includes almost 50 different trees, many native to Iowa and each with a description containing interesting facts about the species. (Did you know white pine trees can live up to 400 years?)

There’s also a natural play scape, a butterfly garden, a simple pioneer village (site of the popular Heritage Days celebration each October), and three outdoor trails, each with a specific theme (nature, conifer, and exercise). The exercise trail – more than a mile in length – has 20 exercise stations for those who prefer to burn their calories in the great outdoors.


The center itself – opened in 1988 as a joint nature center and Iowa welcome center – contains myriad hands-on exhibits; mounted animal displays; and a collection of live snakes, turtles, and amphibians. It’s the centerpiece of an extensive park system operated by Clayton County Conservation that also includes Bloody Run Park (Marquette), Joy Springs Park (Strawberry Point), Motor Mill Park and Frieden Park (Elkader), Buck Creek Park (Garnavillo), and Frenchtown Park (Guttenberg). Programs will be held throughout the parks over the course of the spring and summer, including an Earth Day saunter April 22 at Buck Creek Park and a Mercury transit program May 9 at Osborne.

“Our mission is to give people a place to learn about the environment and to immerse themselves in the outdoors,” says Schoulte when asked what shapes the center’s programming. “It’s also our hope that they also have a lot of fun no matter what they choose to explore here.”

What not to miss: The Mystery Mingle, Munch, Mob program meets April 21, May 19, June 16, and July 21 at Osborne Nature Center. Participants will tour the “mystery” community of the month during an outing that includes an educational program, lunch, and shopping opportunities.

See more Driftless Nature Center profiles here!

– By Sara Friedl-Putnam

Lake Meyer Park and Campground


Lake Meyer Park and Campground
2546 Lake Meyer Road
Fort Atkinson, Iowa 52144

Hours: Daily, 6 am – 10:30 pm (year-round)

Admission: Park, free, though some programming may have materials fees. Campground (open from April through October, depending on weather): $15 a night for an electricity-equipped site and $10 a night for a site without electricity; no reservations taken. Nature center currently closed for renovation.

Binoculars…check! Hiking boots…check! Pocket field guides…check! Wristwatch…yep, better strap that on too!

So brilliant are the wildflowers, so captivating the birds during spring at Lake Meyer that odds are good you’ll forget “little” details like, say, what time it is should you venture to this 160-acre gem of a park, located off Highway 24 between Calmar and Fort Atkinson, Iowa.


“Years of restoration work have transformed Lake Meyer into a wonderful place for viewing spring wildflowers – come April and May, you’ll see the whole spectrum of native ephemerals,” says Lilly Jensen, Winneshiek County Conservation Board (WCCB) education and outreach coordinator. “It’s also a bird-watching hotspot, especially for small songbirds like warblers.”

More than three miles of scenic trails winding through a variety of habitats and terrain await park visitors. Prairie, wetlands, and woodlands – you’ll find all three native Iowa habitats here, as well as the turtles, snakes, deer, turkey, and other critters that call them home.

You’ll also find a 38-acre lake teeming with northern pike, bluegill, black crappie, largemouth bass, and channel catfish. A handicap-accessible dock and 60-foot fishing jetty offer easy access to the lake for fishing (or just viewing!), and fishing by boat (electric motors only!) is also allowed. Lake Meyer, in fact, offers the only public option to fish by boat in all of Winneshiek County. And while non-motorized boats are not allowed for fishing, canoeing and kayaking are permitted – though you’ll have to bring your own vessel as rentals are not available.


Those looking to unplug for longer than a day can take advantage of some of the most scenic and relaxing camping in all the Driftless Region. The campground boasts 27 electric and eight primitive (non-electric) sites – all are first-come, first-served – as well as restroom facilities with showers and flush toilets. Picnic shelters, a ball diamond, and a playground and natural play scape round out Lake Meyer’s amenities.

The park also plays host to a variety of outdoors-based public programs offered by the WCCB throughout the year. On tap for March are hands-on workshops on building Leopold benches, bluebird houses, and even rain barrels as well as a waterfowl viewing excursion. April will bring an Earth Day geocache hunt, May a workshop on making bird feeders from recycled tires, and June a canoeing and kayaking adventure. (For specific dates and other information, visit the WCCB website or Facebook page.)

“Lake Meyer is a very unique, very family-friendly spot offering a variety of activities and native ecosystems,” says Jensen. “It really is the perfect place to get away from it all and enjoy the outdoors.”

What not to miss: A two-part workshop on leaf casting August 6 and August 11. Start with large leaves and concrete and end with a stepping stone or bird bath!

See more Driftless Nature Center profiles here!

– By Sara Friedl-Putnam

International Owl Center


Photos by Sara Friedl-Putnam

International Owl Center
126 East Cedar Street
Houston, Minnesota 55943

Hours (year-round): Friday through Monday, 10 am to 4 pm; educational programs with an owl flight at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily; owl enrichment (fun activities for owls) at 3:30 p.m. Admission: Adults: $5; children 4–17, $3; members and children under 3, free
Can’t make it to the center anytime soon? Check out the 24/7 live owl cam on its website.

There was a whole lot of hooting going on at the International Owl Center on one recent Saturday morning. The sounds, however, aren’t emanating from Ruby, the imposing great horned owl perched on the forearm of educator Sue Fletcher, or any of the other education owls currently at “work” at the center. Instead, two young boys and their mothers were attempting – with varying degrees of success – to imitate the distinctive “hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo” call of the great horned species.

“I love owls!” proclaims one of the boys during a lull in the action. The other quickly agrees.

“That’s the reaction we always strive to get from our visitors,” says Karla Bloem, executive director. “Our goal is educate and inspire people – and invite them to make changes in their lives that will benefit the owl community.”


In addition to its educational programs – which are customized according to the makeup of each audience – the center boasts more than a dozen highly realistic owl mounts representing owls engaging in different behaviors as well as an array of hands-on exhibits to give visitors a better idea of how owl wings, feet, and tails look and feel. (Touching the live birds is not allowed.) Those who want more of an outdoor adventure can take a self-guided tour of 10 pieces of owl art scattered throughout downtown Houston.

“If you want people to care, you have to show them that there’s so much more to owls than they ever realized,” says Bloem. “We want visitors to leave our centers having learned that owls are real creatures with real personalities.”

The seed for establishing an owl center was planted in 1998, when Bloem acquired an injured great horned owl, Alice – currently on maternity leave – to use in educational programs at the nearby Houston Nature Center. To celebrate Alice’s “hatch day,” she created the celebratory International Festival of Owls in 2001. The success of that three-day festival – which last year drew nearly 2,000 people from as far away as Norway, South Africa, and Nepal – sparked interest in establishing a center devoted exclusively to owls.

“This is the only facility in North America dedicated to teaching people about owls,” says Bloem. “It really is a must-see.”

What not to miss: The annual International Festival of Owls features activities for owl enthusiasts of all ages, including live-owl programs, an owl-themed pancake breakfast, an owl photography contest, nest-box building, and a kids hooting contest.

See more Driftless Nature Center profiles here!

– By Sara Friedl-Putnam