Long Island has an abundance of natural parklands and beautiful waterways to explore. We are spoiled by the many beaches to enjoy in the summer and hiking trails bursting with fall colors. These experiences are enhanced by museums and nature centers that help us learn and appreciate what we have here. Many of these destinations offer indoor and outdoor nature-based activities for children and caregivers.
When it's time to unplug and spend some quality time together, there's nothing like taking in some fresh air and connecting with nature and each other. So we've compiled this directory of nature centers with all the information you'll need for a fun family outing celebrating the great outdoors in Nassau, Suffolk, and the East End.
Looking for more ways to experience nature? Take a look at our list of family-friendly hiking trails and great bike trails for Long Island families. If you have a budding naturalist, check out the different ways Long Island kids can have fun and learn in outdoor classrooms.
Say hello to the "residents" at the Center For Science Teaching & Learning.
Center For Science Teaching & Learning — Rockville Centre
See baby alligators, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. In fact, this is an ideal place to visit animals in indoor and outdoor environments. Most are rescues that can't be reintroduced into the wild. CSTL staff take animals out of their living areas, giving visitors a closer look. The center is located at Tanglewood, a beautiful 17-acre nature preserve.
Garvies Point Museum and Preserve — Glen Cove
Garvies Point illustrates for visitors the cultural and natural history of Long Island's North Shore through interactive exhibits and dioramas of the daily life of the Native Americans who lived there. There are exhibits on plate tectonics, and Long Island's geology with samples of local rocks and minerals. The museum is also a research facility, and there is a large-scale model of archaeological excavations from the area.
Hoffman Center Nature Preserve — East Norwich
This site, saved from housing development, offers 155 acres of woodlands, open meadows, vernal and man-made ponds, and is a haven for butterflies, migratory birds, and more than 150 native plant species. The center also consists of historic buildings that once made up the estate of the Brewster family, including a 1914 Georgian-style mansion. Explore the preserve on your own or take a guided nature walk or lecture series.
Tackapausha Museum and Preserve — Seaford
Enjoy a nature hike along five miles of well-marked trails through a forest of oak trees, swamps, streams, and dry plains. Try to spot the more than 170 species of birds and small mammals that call Tackapausha Preserve home. The museum contains displays of the ecology of Long Island as well as live animals that visitors can interact with through the museum's programs. The museum also hosts children's birthday parties, where kids can get up close to the animals.
RELATED: Visit the Marine Nature Study Area, Nassau's outdoor family lab.
See if you can blend in with the environment at the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary & Audubon Center.
Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary & Audubon Center — Oyster Bay
The center was established in 1923 as the first Audubon songbird sanctuary in the nation. The sanctuary’s original purpose was to provide a protected environment for these birds, whose populations were declining due to habitat loss. It is a vibrant resource offering a variety of activities, including environmental education, wildlife research, and conservation advocacy.
Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery & Aquarium – Cold Spring Harbor
Founded in 1883, the hatchery is a nonprofit dedicated to providing effective, relevant education about aquatic resources in New York. This unique facility houses New York State's largest collection of native freshwater fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Thousands of trout hatch here each year, and visitors see the process through six outdoor rearing pools that hold the fish in various stages of development.
Holtsville Ecology Site and Animal Preserve – Holtsville
This Town of Brookhaven facility houses more than 100 nonreleasable animals, including "Holtsville Hal," Long Island's winter forecasting groundhog. Kids can interact (at a safe distance) with buffalo, black bears, wild mustangs, and more. The facility also includes a greenhouse, picnic area, playground, jogging path, and three outdoor pools. Parking fees apply May through October but the ecology site and animal preserve are FREE to enter.
Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve — Commack
The Hoyt Farm Nature Center is as exciting as it is educational. There are live animals, including snakes, frogs, salamanders, turtles, and fish, and the educational displays describe life on Long Island from the beaches to the trees. Take a short walk up to the Hoyt Playhouse (behind the nature center) and see where the Hoyt children played in the 1920s. Note: Nonresidents of the Town of Smithtown can only park on site when they are guests of a resident and are charged a $12 parking fee.
South Shore Nature Center – East Islip
This little-known center allows visitors to experience nature in a secluded setting. It also means visitors have a better chance of spotting wildlife, including deer, birds, and even snakes. Operated by the Seatuck Environmental Association, the center has a butterfly garden, a boardwalk that meanders through marshlands, and a Native American teepee. The center offers programs for adults and children year round.
RELATED: Botanical gardens on LI for a family day trip
Make friends with animals small and large at the Suffolk County Farm and Education Center.
Suffolk County Farm and Education Center – Yaphank
The Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County is a valuable resource for residents on matters of health and wellness. It also runs the Suffolk County farm. This working farm offers programs in agriculture, animal sciences, STEM, and healthy living for adults and children year round. Visitors can experience the butterfly house and children’s garden, and its outdoor classroom. Its seasonal events are a big draw, including annual Pumpkin Fest and Pumpkin Fling.
Sweetbriar Nature Center — Smithtown
Sweetbriar is a nonprofit that provides natural science education for Long Island residents of all ages, and also engages in native wildlife rehabilitation. Sweetbriar is situated on 54 acres of gardens, woodlands, fields, and wetland habitats on the Nissequogue River. Hundreds of species of plants and animals make homes here. Best known for its butterfly house, Sweetbriar also has an interpretive rainforest exhibit that includes an iguana, red-tail boa constrictor, and parrots.
Quogue Wildlife Refuge — Quogue
Open all year, this nature center and animal refuge offers a variety of activities for visitors of all ages. Take a hike through the pine barrens, wetlands, and bogs; the main trail is wheelchair- and stroller-friendly. Visitors can observe nature through large windows that overlook the Old Ice Pond, just leave some time to visit the rescued animals in the outdoor wildlife complex.
RELATED: The Sensory Garden in Shoreham is an immersive, kid-friendly outdoor experience.
See what you can identify at the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center.
South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center — Bridgehampton
This state-of-the-art museum offers more than 250 educational programs and events each year. Visitors can experience the museum’s interactive nature exhibits enhanced with hidden doors, peepholes, and live animals. The marine touch tank is a favorite of kids and adults alike. Visitors also can enjoy the gardens and six miles of walking trails along the Long Pond Greenbelt system.
A version of this article was first published in 2010. It was updated in September 2018.
Photos courtesy of the venues