From Fort Payne to Dauphin Island, 29 places to learn about nature in Alabama


Birmingham Alabama
Ruffner Mountain’s “Tree House” visitor center (Bob Farley/Ruffner Mountain)

45 years ago, the Ruffner Mountain Nature Coalition, a grassroots neighborhood group, saved 28 acres on the side of a mountain in South East Lake in Birmingham. 

Larger than Central Park

Ruffner Mountain 6 From Fort Payne to Dauphin Island, 29 places to learn about nature in Alabama
(Ruffner Mountain)

Today, the  preserve on Ruffner Mountain covers 1,040 acres (larger than NYC’s Central Park)  in the heart of Birmingham’s east side of town and boasts an award-winning nature center.

“The Center’s primary focus was, and is today, environmental education and awareness of the natural history and treasures we can discover so close to home. We aim  to provide a gentle introduction to nature and inspire a relationship with nature.” 

—Carlee Sanford, Executive Director, Ruffner Mountain 

Nature education in Alabama

(Swinging bridge at Camp McDowell (McDowell Environmental Center)

In our first story about environmental education in Alabama, we examined how watching wildlife can be a life-changing way to learn and to experience our state’s natural wonders.

In this, our second installment, we connect you to Alabama’s Nature Centers. 

Join us.

Before Earth Day 1990

Ruffner Mountain in the early years (Ruffner Mountain)

Before 1990, there were only a handful of places in Alabama that taught environmental and nature education, including Ruffner, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Alabama Wildlife Center (formerly Alabama Wildlife Rescue Center) and the Jacksonville State University Little River Field Schools. Zoos, arboretums and botanical gardens also offered some nature programs. 

That all changed in 1990, thanks to the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, when over 200 million people from 141 countries participated in the global event. 

The moment was so significant there were prime time shows on national television.  People were looking for tangible things to do to “save the planet.” 

JSU Litt - Fort Payne, Alabamale River Canyon Center
(JSU Little River Canyon Center)

In short order, the state of Alabama created the Legacy, Partners in Environmental Education “Protect the Environment” car tag to raise monies for nature education.

The Environmental Education Association of Alabama, was created—the first organization in the state to gather environmental educators together annually to support and learn from each other.

The result? In Alabama, environmental education blossomed over the next three decades. 

Here is a guide with descriptions of 29  nature and environmental centers in the state. While you “tour” the state with us, note how most of them were established after 1990.

The List—Starting in North Alabama

Let’s visit North Alabama from Fort Payne to Metro Birmingham.

Canyon Center at Little River Canyon National Preserve: Built after the creation of the Little River Canyon National Preserve in 1992, the Jacksonville State University nature center is a stone’s throw from Little River Falls. It houses the National Park Service and holds educational events and field trips throughout the year. 

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge: Migratory point for a couple dozen whooping cranes, one of the rarest birds in the world, the refuge holds day camps and fishing rodeos for kids and nature festivals for the public. Can’t miss event: Festival of Cranes in mid-January.

McDowell Environmental Center at Camp McDowell:,“God’s backyard!” That is what folks call Camp McDowell, the Episcopal Church Camp in Winston County. Another nature education center that was established in the early 90s, the McDowell Environmental Center offers a three-day residential program for their environmental education programs and has expanded to include the McDowell Farm School.

Nearly 12,000 kids a year attend the program to learn about the science of water, geology and forests. At the Farm School, they learn about soils, how to prepare the fields and plant vegetables, milk goats and of course the art of harvesting. 

Birmingham Metro Area

Screen Shot 2019 09 21 at 12.19.16 PM From Fort Payne to Dauphin Island, 29 places to learn about nature in Alabama
Students at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve by their “Magic City School bus. (Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College)

Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College:  Attracting 20,000 students and visitors annually since the early ‘90s, the college repurposed a 1936 swimming pool into an environmental interactive museum, built ecoscape gardens throughout Birmingham, managed the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve and launched a STEMM (the extra M stands for music) program in Africatown near Mobile.

Alabama Wildlife Center: One of Alabama’s older nature centers, the wildlife center moved into Oak Mountain State Park in 1987. The wildlife center not only treats injured wildlife—there are educational exhibits and trails throughout the campus. 

Ebenezer Nature Center at University of Montevallo: Back in the 90s, there were proposals to permanently alter this wetland near the Montevallo campus. The community saved it, and today it is a popular nature center with a raised walkway.

4-H Center Science School in Columbiana: Established in the mid-90s, the 4-H Center welcomes thousands of young people annually. The group’s Raptor Trek Program is considered the state’s premiere bird of prey experience. 

Central and South Alabama—Montgomery Area to Dothan

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Alabama Nature Center and NaturePlex – Located in Millbrook, Alabama—just a few miles outside of Montgomery—the Alabama Nature Center and NaturePlex  covers a little bit of everything on its 350 acres. The forests, fields, streams, wetlands and ponds on the campus are traversed by five miles of boardwalks and trails.

Operated by the Alabama Wildlife Federation, the Alabama Nature Center includes a 23,000 square-foot NaturePlex, which offers:

  • 120-seat theater equipped with up to date technology
  • Hands-on Discovery Hall with wildlife
  • Nature-based displays
  • Educational classrooms

Established in 2001, the space is great for school field trips, teacher training workshops, seminars and other educational programs. 

Kreher Preserve and Nature Center: Celebrating its 30th year last month, the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center is 119 acres near Auburn University. Initially a preserve, the organization added nature programs and educators in the 2000s.

Landmark Park: Focused primarily on agriculture, Landmark Park in Dothan also offers environmental programming from reptiles to insects. There is also a wetland on the grounds.

IMG 0877 From Fort Payne to Dauphin Island, 29 places to learn about nature in Alabama
Five Rivers Exhibits (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

Wehle Nature Center: Located in Barbour County near Eufaula, this center is owned and operated by the Alabama Forever Wild Program, which resides with the Alabama State Lands Division.

Cahaba Biodiversity Center at University of West Alabama – Established in 2019, the Center will serve as an outdoor classroom and routine field trip destination for students at UWA as well as other universities and institutions. Still in development, over 2000 acres were donated to create the center and preserve.

Turtle Point Science Center: Founded in 1999, this environmental center is located in Flomaton, Alabama. The award-winning school offers hands-on nature education to students and the public.

Coastal Alabama

Nature Center
(Pat Byington/Bham Now)

Five Rivers Alabama Delta Resource Center: Located on the Causeway at Spanish Fort, this center is home to numerous coastal exhibits and a gopher tortoise burrow. A favorite gathering place for local conservation groups, the center is operated by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Dauphin Island Sea Lab: Established in 1971 as a research lab for Alabama colleges, the Sea Lab expanded its mission—adding nature education—through the leadership of Dr. George Crozier. The institution now runs a residential program for young students and hands-on coastal education demonstrations.

Environmental Studies Center in Mobile County – Established by the Mobile County Public School System, the center features 500 acres of woodlands.The center has numerous nature trails, covered pavilions live animal exhibits, a native plant garden, library, a saltwater aquarium and wildlife rehab facility. 

State Parks and Arboretums

Oak Mountain
Yes that is a tiny frog on her face! Lauren Muncher, Oak Mountain State Park Naturalist. (Oak Mountain State Park)

Alabama’s State Parks: Many of Alabama’s State Parks feature nature education programs throughout the year. The most active parks are: Oak Mountain State Park, Desoto State Park, Lake Guntersville State Park, Cheaha State Park, Joe Wheeler State Park, and Gulf State Park.

Arboretums at Universities: Several Alabama arboretums hold nature center-like programs throughout the year. They include:

Botanical Gardens: The Huntsville Botanical GardenBirmingham Botanical Gardens  and Mobile Botanical Gardens have offered nature programs for decades. They have also turned their gardens into hands-on classrooms, including a butterfly garden in Huntsville and areas within both the  Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Mobile Botanical Gardens that  educate the public about our Southern forests. Both also educate the visitors on the importance of native plants.

Why nature centers matter

Alabama is truly blessed with an abundance of places to learn about and enjoy nature. Maggie Johnston, director of McDowell Environmental Center for 17 years and now executive director of Wild Alabama, summed it up best. 

“These nature centers that are spread across our state teach place-based education. They are sharing knowledge about their local ecology with all who pass through their doors. We must connect with our place, gain knowledge and understanding of that place…before we can care enough to protect it. Knowledge is power!”

Next up

Wild Alabama
Getting outdoors with Wild Alabama. (Wild Alabama)

For our third and final story about environmental and nature education in Alabama we will introduce to you some of the best immersive, get-your-hands-and-feet-dirty nature programs in Alabama, and how they can help us become better stewards of our natural wonders.

Sponsored by:

Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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