The number of Arkansas Nature Centers has jumped this year from five to nine. That's mostly a matter of nomenclature, but the upgraded renaming of four locations formerly called "education centers" highlights their allure for visitors young and old.
Our proudly styled Natural State is endowed with the Nature Center network thanks to the 1/8-cent Conservation Sales Tax passed by voters 26 years ago. Each center, managed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, focuses on the ecosystems found in its region. Information on all nine is available by clicking here.
The four renamed sites are Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Nature Center, near Columbus in Hempstead County; Potlatch Cook's Lake Nature Center, near Casscoe in Arkansas County; Fred Berry Crooked Creek Nature Center, near Yellville in Marion County; and Ponca Nature Center, in Newton County;
They differ from the original five nature centers, located in or near Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Little Rock, Pine Bluff and Springdale. Each of those five is anchored by a sizable visitor center with an array of exhibits related to wildlife, conservation and recreation.
The four renamed centers have much smaller indoor exhibit spaces. They focus on trails for walkers, along with other outdoor possibilities. Here are highlights, plus telephone numbers to check opening times, which can vary:
◼️ Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Nature Center — (800) 983-4219: Tall grasses and colorful wildflowers are visual highlights of a leisurely drive or bracing hike in this preserve 14 miles northwest of Hope. Restoration of the prairie terrain damaged by earlier farming and ranching is the focus of the center's educational message.
On the site's blackland prairie, displays of tall grasses and colorful wildflowers are alluring for songbirds, butterflies and small mammals. A shotgun range is equipped with courses for trap, skeet and sporting clays. One informational marker explains the prehistoric presence of the Caddo nation.
◼️ Potlatch Cook's Lake Nature Center — (870) 241-3373: In a remote setting on an oxbow lake just west of the White River, Arkansas' outdoors heritage is preserved in the Lion Oil Company Duck Hunting Lodge. Now used for conservation-minded events, the lodge is built of local timber and jointly managed by the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The visitor center is well equipped for teaching school groups. Three hiking trails offer a mix of animal viewing. The half-mile Range Trail, open to archers, winds through an upland forest where hummingbirds are often seen. Half-mile Three Hollows Trail has a number of deer crossings. Boundary Trail, a 2.7-mile round trip, offers top-flight birding all year long.
◼️ Fred Berry Crooked Creek Nature Center — (870) 449-3484: A former dairy farm is the bucolic setting on the western outskirts of Yellville for this preserve. Indoor displays use taxidermy to show examples of Natural State wildlife, including a black bear.
Abundant outdoor activities include an archery shooting range and fishing from a stocked pond. Five hiking trails traverse a variety of landscapes. The longest path is Creek Bottom Trail, a 2-mile loop along a stream. Wildlife sightings are likely along the 1-mile Woodland Edge Trail. The center is also on the 22-mile Crooked Creek Water Trail, which starts in Yellville City Park.
◼️ Ponca Nature Center — (870) 861-2432: Elk are the prime theme of this nature center, which overlooks Ponca Creek near the western end of Buffalo National River. Log rockers and benches on a wraparound deck provide perches for observing wildlife and wildflowers. A trail skirts the creek.
Exhibits tell the history of the eastern elk, which was a native of Arkansas that disappeared after 1840 as human population grew. In the early 1980s, elk were reintroduced along the Buffalo River. That successful program is now shadowed by chronic wasting disease. But elk can sometimes be seen, most likely around dawn and dusk, in their habitat along Arkansas 43 and 21.