Posts Categorized: Driftless Trails

Houston Nature Center


Houston Nature Center
215 West Plum Street
Houston, Minnesota, 55943

Hours: Vary by season; check website for current hours
Admission: Free, but donations always welcome

The realistic taxidermy displays – have you ever looked a fox or an otter in the eye? – are impressive. The timber rattlesnake exhibit is fierce. But the real star of the Houston Nature Center is its natural playground, opened in 2013.

“Kids just love it,” says Connie Verse, center manager. “Actually, so do adults.”

Take a look at photos of the center’s latest addition and it’s easy to see why.

No swings or jungle gyms dot the decidedly untraditional play scape. Instead, pedestal pipes create opportunities for music. A sand pit (with hidden fossils!) invites digging. Stone tunnels and caves promote old-fashioned games of hide-and-seek. A wooden wall facilitates climbing. Straw bales invite stacking. And a slide provides plain, old-fashioned fun.

“The oldest person who has gone down our slide was over 80, and the youngest was riding in a parent’s arm,” says Verse. “The playground is just one of the ways we help people of all ages unplug from technology and get out and experience nature.”


Built in 2001, the center sits on 18 scenic, peaceful acres at Trailhead Park and functions as the eastern trailhead of the 60-mile Root River Trail System. In addition to its natural play scape, the park offers a native prairie and primitive walk-in camping facilities – nine tent-only sites, available on a first-come, first-serve basis – along with shower and restroom facilities that Verse proudly describes as “the best along the entire Root River Trail.”

For almost 15 years, the center was also synonymous with Alice, the great horned owl that now “works” at the International Owl Center in downtown Houston. And while the owl-based programming that was once a Houston Nature Center staple is now offered a stone’s throw away at the International Owl Center, there are plenty of other programs planned for the spring and summer sure to interest nature enthusiasts of all ages.


In June the center will begin offering its popular children’s summer programs – which include hands-on educational activities, play time, and (of course!) snacks – two Wednesdays a week. Family–friendly programs are offered every Saturday through the year and focus on a single topic each month. Wetlands will be spotlighted in May, pollination in June, biking and bike safety in July, and arts and nature in August.

“Our mission is to educate people – children in particular – regarding nature and its benefits and to help people experience the outdoors,” says Verse. “Between our natural playground, our camping facilities, and our programming, everyone is bound to find something of interest here.”

What not to miss: A guided walking tour to the Houston sign on the bluff will take place at the center during the Houston Hoedown, July 29–31.

See more Driftless Nature Center profiles here!

– By Sara Friedl-Putnam

Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center

Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
28097 Goodview Drive
Lanesboro, Minnesota 55949

Hours (for visitor center): Monday­-Friday, 8 am-4:30 pm, with weekends varying by season
Admission: Free for grounds; most programs and the ropes course have a fee

“Eagle Bluff rocks!!” proclaims one enthusiastic Tripadvisor reviewer. “Faaantastic!!” gushes another. “Great fun!!” exclaims a third.

Make the time to visit the sprawling 80-acre Eagle Bluff campus – located near Lanesboro in the beautiful bluff country along the Root River – and it quickly becomes clear why superlatives accentuated by multiple exclamation points seem to be the norm when describing this unique environmental learning center.

“The natural beauty really is unmatched,” says Stephanie Davidson, public programs coordinator. “It’s the perfect place to explore and learn about the outdoors – whether you’re two or 92, you’ll find something of interest here.”

That includes the center’s popular high ropes course, open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from June through August. (Reservations required, cost $25 per person.) A breathtaking view of southeast Minnesota – not to mention a healthy boost in self-confidence – awaits those brave enough to hitch on a harness and negotiate cables, logs, and planks 30 feet above ground.


Those who prefer to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground will find a geocaching course –cell phone or GPS required! – and nine miles of hiking trails that stretch from river’s bottom through tallgrass prairie to bluff’s top. “You might see deer, chipmunks, rabbits, and perhaps a river otter, but it’s the birds that we’re really known for,” says Davidson. “This area has bald eagles, hawks, turkey vultures, feeder songbirds, and forest and prairie birds – it’s worth the trip just to go birding.”

The center also offers a broad array of public programming throughout the year, with the spring and summer boasting a particularly rich schedule. Its “Becoming an Outdoor Family” weekends help family members reconnect in the great outdoors while learning about topics ranging from archery and fishing to geocaching and target shooting. Its “Dinner on the Bluff” series features engaging presentations on hot-topic issues and (of course!) a tasty gourmet meal. And its Skills School provides opportunities for individuals over 16 to learn new skills for more sustainable living. Ever wanted to bake bread, Amish-style? Interested in taking great wilderness photos? Curious about Saami bracelet-making? More than 60 classes covering those topics and more are on tap this spring and summer courtesy of Eagle Bluff’s Skills School.


Of course, youth summer camps have been a staple at Eagle Bluff since its founding, and that remains true to this day. “This year’s summer camps explore canoeing, biking, rock climbing, even raptor handling,” says Davidson. “You name it, and it’s probably on our schedule.”

What not to miss: Dinner on the Bluff series – a tasty opportunity to check out the facilities, learn, and enjoy great food.

See more Driftless Nature Center profiles here!

– By Sara Friedl-Putnam

Driftless Region Nature Centers


by Sara Friedl-Putnam • Photos courtesy Driftless nature centers unless noted

Not feeling too spring-y just yet? Dream of the warmer months coming, then grab your calendars and plan ahead for classes and fun at the Driftless Region’s coolest nature centers!

Did you know there’s a place near Elkader, Iowa, where you can peer into the steely blue eyes of a live wolf? Were you aware that Lanesboro, Minnesota, is home to one of the best high-ropes courses in the region? Had you heard that tiny Houston, Minnesota, boasts the only center in all of North America devoted to owls?

Few places can rival the Driftless Region when it comes to offering exciting, fun, and educational nature-based experiences. And (lucky you!) there’s a wealth of nature centers and parks throughout the area chomping at the bit to help you tap in to your inner explorer.

So grab a cup of piping-hot tea or coffee, snuggle up in your comfiest chair, and learn a bit more about what some of the finest nature centers and parks in the region have in store for you in the (warmer) months ahead. Click on any of the links below to learn more!

Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center

Houston Nature Center

International Owl Center

Lake Meyer Park and Campground

Myrick Park Center

Osborne Visitor/Nature Center

Also worth the trip!

Driftless Area Wetlands Centre

Photo by Kat Busse

Driftless Area Wetlands Centre
509 Hwy 18
Marquette, Iowa 52158

Hours: Tuesday­–Saturday, 11 am to 4 pm (beginning March 16)
Admission: Free

Feeling the urge to “unplug” and learn more about the nature of the Driftless Region? Then be sure to visit the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, opened in August 2013 to connect people to the natural world and empower them to positively impact their local environments.

Hartman Reserve Nature Center
657 Reserve Drive
Cedar Falls, Iowa 50613

Hours: Monday–Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday 1 pm to 5 pm
Admission: Free

This 340-acre wooded isle located in the heart of Black Hawk County boasts hiking trails through forest, wetland, and prairie, as well as activities for visitors of all ages. Upcoming events include the Maple Syrup Festival March 5–6 – enjoy all-you-can-eat pancakes topped with real maple syrup (tickets required!) – and the Outdoor Adventure Fest on April 2.

Prairie’s Edge Nature Center
11562 Valley Avenue

Cresco, IA 52136

The Prairie’s Edge Nature Center gets its name from the native prairie planted next to the building. A visitor can see a tiger salamander meandering through the aquarium, native fish swimming through a 180-gallon tank, and a live honeybee display. Book early to get a spot at the campground, and be sure to check out the state’s first rock dam, Vernon Springs Ladder Dam, right across the road!


Bio: Sara Friedl-Putnam is eagerly anticipating the advent of spring so she can explore the Driftless Region’s many natural playgrounds with her two-year-old granddaughter and treat herself to a Skills School class or two (Amish bread-making, anyone?) at Eagle Bluff.