Looking to get out into nature with your kids, but not sure where to start? Or perhaps you want to explore different territory from what you’re used to. There’s no need to travel far from the city to enjoy the serenity of nature with your little outdoor explorer, or some environmental education programs. Check out our guide to the best nature centers around Milwaukee:
1. Forest Exploration Center
1800 Forest Exploration Dr., Wauwatosa, WI 53226
Nestled in the heart of an urban landscape, this 60-acre, mature hardwood forest offers a true escape from the city bustle. There’s a unique mix of large oak, maple, ash and basswood trees, and the forest provides a diverse habitat for wildlife, including more than 158 species of birds.
A one-mile self-guided trail offers shaded exploration and discovery under the woodland canopy. The accessible loop was designed and built specifically for wheelchair, foot traffic and strollers.
Keep your eyes peeled for the double-sided signs with rotating panel themes, media interactives and explorations along the trail. You can read one side of the sign when you follow the trail clockwise, then double back and read the other side as you move in a counterclockwise direction.
2. Havenwoods State Forest
6141 N. Hopkins St., Milwaukee, WI 53209
Did you know that Havenwoods State Forest is the only state forest in the city of Milwaukee? And that it is Wisconsin’s only urban state forest? It offers over 200 acres of grasslands, woods, and wetland. There are four ponds, and one is just a short hike from the Environmental Center. There is also a 120-foot bridge to enjoy, and several geocaches to hunt for.
3. Hawthorn Glen Outdoor Education Center
1130 N. 60th St., Milwaukee, WI 53208
Hawthorn Glen spans 23 acres and offers a Little Nature Museum with animals, kid-friendly paths, a playground, and more. It is a popular spot for school field trips, but the self-guided nature trail and nature center are open to the public in the evenings or on weekends. Hawthorn Glen is also one of the featured hikes in “7 Stroller-Friendly Hikes Around Milwaukee“.
4. Mequon Nature Preserve
8200 W. County Line Rd., Mequon, WI 53097
Mequon Nature Preserve is home to an epic natural playground, as well as one square mile of natural wetlands, prairie, and emerging forest.
To climb the observation tower, park in the parking lot on Swan Rd. and follow the trail around Pat’s Pond.
For good wildlife watching, park near the Pieper Power Education Center, and find the Observation Platform along the Streich Family Wetlands.
5. Retzer Nature Center
S14 W28167 Madison St., Waukesha, WI 53188
Explore a small nature center with fish, small animals, and educational materials, plus many beginner level nature trails perfect for hiking with kids.
Retzer Nature Center Discovery Trail was added as part of a multi-phase project to revitalize the old Adventure Trail, expanding accessibility into nature for all ages and abilities. The trail includes a variety of “Exploration Stations” for outdoor education, sensory-based play experiences, and STEM activities for families and school groups.
Other additions include a gateway feature, a stone seat wall gathering space, a habitat free-play area, boulder scramble, and native plant observation areas.
You can also explore “Vista Trail,” where you’ll get a good view of Waukesha, and the “Nature Trail,” where there are boardwalks and babbling brooks. On the Orange Trail (approx. .75 mile with woodchipped and mowed grass, some sloped terrain), you’ll find a self-guided Story Hike.
While you’re there, explore the nature center with fish, small animals, and educational materials, plus many beginner level nature trails perfect for hiking with kids. Outside of the nature center is a charming Children’s Garden.
Retzer Nature Center is also home to the Horwitz-Deremer Planetarium, which was recently selected to be one of the few sites in Wisconsin to view the first images from the Webb Telescope.
Retzer Nature Center is also one of the featured hikes in “7 Stroller-Friendly Hikes Around Milwaukee“.
6. Riveredge Nature Center
4458 County Hwy Y, Saukville, WI 53080
One of the most beautifully restored natural sanctuaries in southeastern Wisconsin, Riveredge features 402 acres of forest and prairie, tranquil ponds, and more than a mile of Milwaukee River frontage. There are also ten total miles of trails that meander through the wilderness. More than 15,000 lake sturgeon have been raised and released at Riveredge too!
7. Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
1111 E. Brown Deer Rd., Bayside, WI 53217
The Center offers six miles of trails through 185 acres of habitats such as forests, wetlands, prairies, and Lake Michigan shoreline.
Hike on the stroller- and wheelchair friendly-boardwalk through Mystery Lake. Climb a 60-foot Observation Tower. Take the paved trail down to the shores of Lake Michigan. Stop in the visitor center and see Emerson, a resident snapping turtle, and other animal ambassadors.
Enjoy family programming for people of all ages, starting at 6 months. Visit on weekend afternoons to see a raptor up close, or go on a guided hike. Schlitz Audubon also offers a preschool, summer camps, birthday parties, and scouting programs.
NOTE: Some programs and activities may be limited due to COVID-19. Please call ahead!
8. Stigler Nature Preserve
17400 W. Liberty Ln., New Berlin, WI 53146
Nestled in the middle of a business park, this nature preserve is surprisingly secluded and peaceful once you’re inside. The nature trail loop is just over a mile long and not too strenuous. A shallow creek flows through the preserve, and there are two fun bridges to cross over. The path is mostly covered in cedar wood chips, but it can get a little muddy and buggy after a rain, so be sure to pack galoshes and bug spray.
9. Urban Ecology Center
Three branch locations (see below)
The Urban Ecology Center is an innovative environmental education organization with three branches, all adjacent to Milwaukee County Parks. Check the website or call for the most up-to-date hours.
1500 E. Park Pl., Milwaukee, WI 53211
You can spend a whole afternoon discovering all that the sun-soaked, plant-filled lodge has to offer, including games, instruments, puzzles, and blue slides with a secret door! There’s also a tower with a 40-foot climbing wall, and a pond with a people-powered fountain. Don’t miss the Native Wisconsin Animal Room, where you can greet turtles, snakes, fish, and frogs.
1859 N. 40th St., Milwaukee, WI 53208
The Washington Park branch has thriving gardens throughout the park and a Young Scientists club for kids who want to participate in hands-on nature activities. They also have a Native Wisconsin Animal room with a 560-gallon fish tank. You’ll get to see turtles, snakes, frogs, and fish. In the summer, you can canoe on the freshwater lagoon, and in the winter, it turns into an ice skating rink.
3700 W. Pierce St., Milwaukee, WI 53215
This branch is part of an exciting partnership that aims to revitalize the Menomonee Valley. They offer a Young Scientists club, nature playgroups, family hikes, nature crafts programs, and more throughout the year.
10. Wehr Nature Center
9701 W. College Ave., Franklin, WI 53132
Parking fee: $4
This 220-acre nature preserve features more than 4 miles of hiking trails that wind through five distinct plant communities, including a mature forest, 15-acre lake, wetland, prairie, and oak savanna. Enjoy a bird blind, observation deck and an ADA-accessible boardwalk. The visitor center has nature displays and exhibits. A dedicated staff offers programming for everyone from pre-K to adults, year-round.
Cost: $4 per car. Seasonal pass available for $35.
Wehr Nature Center is also one of the featured hikes in “7 Stroller-Friendly Hikes Around Milwaukee“.
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