Trailside Nature Center
I have loved Trailside Nature Center ever since my friend introduced me to it about 9 years ago. Every time someone on the Madison Area Parents & Community Facebook page asks for recommendations for a nice day trip for kids, I suggest Trailside. I've taken my kids and their friends dozens of times, in all seasons. My son even had his dinosaur-themed 5th birthday party there!
So, this past week, when my daughter and I had a free day, I asked her where she wanted to go. Trailside was her answer. With a friend, of course! So, off we went!
Trailside Nature Center is in Watchung Reservation in Mountainside, New Jersey, about a 20-25 minute drive from Madison. It is FREE (honestly, once you see it, you will be amazed that it's free!) and open to the public 7 days a week, from 12pm-5pm. We usually spend about 1.5-2 hours there (including gift shop time). To make a longer day of it, just down the trail from the center is an awesome playground. When the kids were younger, I'd pack a picnic lunch, have playground time, then head up to the center. There are also tons of beautiful trails, so you can turn the trip there into a full day out.
As you walk in, you are greeted by an enormous fake tree that goes through the center of the building from the basement level up to the second floor. Within the tree, you will spot all sorts of wildlife (taxidermy animals)--woodpeckers, raccoons, hawks feeding their chicks in a nest, insects, foxes, salamanders, etc. Each time you think you have spotted them all, you will find another one.
You'll then move around the main floor to various sections. There are more nature scenes where kids can lift secret doors in logs to see a sleeping skunk or a giant pill bug. There is an area with a real box turtle, and rocks kids can climb on. Along the back right side, there are viewers and drawers kids can pull out to see various butterfly specimens, or the stages of crickets from egg to adult. There are also flaps in the wall kids can lift to learn about animals that live in fields, or how monarchs eat and lay their eggs on milkweed.
Continuing around the main floor, you'll come to a room called "Into the Night." You press the button on the wall, then enter the dark room. There is a dimly-lit scene in front of you that shows the shadows of a house in the country at dusk. Then the soundtrack begins--crickets, cicadas, then a voiceover describing how different animals come out at night. A small light turns on, revealing a raccoon going through trash cans. Then, in a similar way, lights reveal other night creatures--owl, flying squirrel, mouse, opossum, etc. and fireflies light up the night sky in the back.
Next to the night room is a Lenape wigwam, and informational displays on tools they used. My favorite has kids look at the Lenape artifact and determine what the modern-day equivalent is--knives, hair ornaments, etc. Continue around for a display on recycling and ecology. Finally, a giant tree slice from a 516-year-old tree shows a timeline of major world events that happened during the tree's lifetime.
You can head upstairs to get a good look at the nests in the center tree's canopy. There are also a few displays on rocks and a stuffed snowy owl, but besides that, the upstairs only contains classrooms and a library.
The lower floor has a few tanks with local river fish and turtles. There is also a real pond at the base of the giant tree with more real fish and turtles. Everyone we have taken to Trailside (adults included) enjoys crawling through the log to peer in at the pond from below the water level. Along the sides of the bottom floor, you can watch birds in the birdfeeders, see a display on the sizes of bird eggs, and learn about volcanoes.
The back room has some great hands-on displays and games. Kids can dig in sand to find "dinosaur bones." complete wall puzzles, and match animals with their footprints. There are also some tanks with a beautiful yellow snake and a corn snake. On the side, there is a curtained room with a display of fluorescent rocks.
Our last stop at Trailside is always the gift shop, where there are plenty of inexpensive items kids can buy--rock samples, tiny plastic animals, books, jewelry--in addition to some higher-priced products--stuffed animals and things made by local crafters. One time, my kids each took a friend, and I bought them each a grab bag of rocks for a dollar each. They spent the whole ride home trading rocks with each other.
As we left this time, Becca was satisfied with another fun day at Trailside, and her friend said, "That was a great museum! I'm going to come back with my whole family!" Sounds like Trailside has new fan!
Trailside Nature Center is located at 452 New Providence Road, Mountainside, NJ, in Watchung Reservation, part of the Union County parks. It is open 12pm-5pm, 7 days a week, closed major holidays (see Web site for specific days). For more information, call 908-789-3670 or visit ucnj.org/parks-recreation/trailside-nature-science-center/family-programs/