11 Free Nature Centers Near DC for Kids and Families

Kids of all ages will love Croydon Creek Nature Center.
Kids of all ages will love Croydon Creek Nature Center.

With so many free museums, amazing parks and playgrounds, and more free things to do in the Washington, DC area, families don't need to spend money to have fun. Those free activities also include a variety of great nature centers in Northern Virginia, Maryland, and DC. These nature centers allow kids to get up close to animals, learn about the natural world, and develop a love for the great outdoors.

Here are 11 free nature centers near DC to explore with kids. Many of them offer fun extras such as planetariums, playgrounds, gardens, and hiking trails. 

Free Nature Centers in Northern Virginia

1. Gulf Branch Nature Center — Arlington

Inside Gulf Branch Nature Center your family will find natural and cultural history exhibits and live animals. Outside there are wooded trails, a pollinator garden, a vernal pond, and a restored 19th-century log cabin. The nature center is open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Related: 10 Great Animal Farms and Petting Zoos Near Washington, DC

Make new animal friends—both living and otherwise—at Jerome Buddie Ford Nature Center.

2. Jerome Buddie Ford Nature Center — Alexandria

This nature center features live animals, great exhibits, and a fun setting for kids. It's also right next to Dora Kelley Nature Park, a 50-acre wildlife sanctuary with trails, streams, wooded hills, and freshwater marshland. On Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, the nature center has free mini interactive sessions at 11am. On Wednesdays, come for a story in the nature library. Enjoy watching the animals eat their lunch on Thursdays, and on Fridays, meet and greet a nature center animal. Jerome Buddie Ford Nature Center is open Wednesdays through Saturdays.

Related: 12 Great Places to Explore the Natural World in the Washington, DC Area

Long Branch Nature Center has many outdoor areas to explore. Photo courtesy of onlyinyourstate.com

3. Long Branch Nature Center — Arlington

Long Branch Nature Center features seasonal exhibits, a children's Discovery Room, live animals, gardens, a pond, and an outdoor Nature Discovery Area. There are also paved trails and nature trails that offer a glimpse of the Long Branch stream flowing through the woods and past two ponds with frogs and turtles. The nature center is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.

4. Hidden Oaks Nature Center — Annandale

The indoor area of Hidden Oaks Nature Center features a small play structure, a reading nook, dress-up costumes, several live animals, and plenty of hands-on activities for kids. Outdoor areas include a natural play area called Nature Playce with climbable logs and rocks and things to build; ponds with frogs, turtles, and tadpoles; and a recently updated playground that is great for both young and older kids. Woodland trails wind through scenic paths with native plants and a cool tree carving. 

5. Potomac Overlook Regional Park Nature Center — Arlington

Come to this popular park and explore its family-friendly trails and nature center. The nature center includes interactive exhibits that highlight the connections between the human and animal worlds. Kids can also view live animals including raptors. You'll also find a demonstration vegetable garden and a native plant garden. The nature center is closed on Mondays.

6. Hidden Pond Nature Center — Springfield

Hidden Pond Nature Center is a free nature center with a new large playground, a large pond, and an indoor nature center. Inside the nature center families will find a welcoming area to view fish, turtles, snakes, frogs and other small animals. The biggest animal resident is a large snapping turtle sure to interest any kid. Take a walk around the pond and see turtles sunning on logs from several different dock areas. There are also hiking trails that lead through the surrounding park area. Admission is free and the nature center is closed on Tuesdays.

Free Nature Centers in Maryland

Croyden Creek Nature Center features three miles of hiking trails.

7. Croydon Creek Nature Center — Rockville

This nature center is a short distance from downtown Rockville. Kid-friendly exhibits and three miles of hiking trails allow children to explore an urban forest with open meadows, woods, and a curving creek. Inside the nature center, kids can greet reptiles, amphibians, and an owl and find games and puzzles to enjoy. The nature center is open every day except Monday.

8. Clearwater Nature Center — Clinton

Clearwater Nature Center is located inside the popular Cosca Regional Park in Maryland. Its wide variety of live animals to view up close includes mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds of prey, including a bald eagle. There are also seasonal gardens, a small pond, and hiking trails. The nature center is closed Mondays.

9. Watkins Nature Center — Upper Marlboro

This nature center is located inside Watkins Regional Park, where you'll also find great playgrounds and a farm zoo. At Watkins Nature Center, live animal displays include insects, amphibians, reptiles, and birds of prey. There are also indoor and outdoor ponds, an area to view songbirds at bird feeders, a butterfly/hummingbird garden, and an outdoor nest box exhibit with nesting-box guides available inside the nature center. Watkins Nature Center is open Tuesdays through Sundays.

10. Meadowside Nature Center — Rockville

Rock Creek Regional Park's Meadowside Nature Center is closed until late 2022 due to renovations. Once reopened, it will include a brand-new space of over 2,400 square feet with immersive exhibits that will be universally accessible to kids ages 2 and up. Exhibits will incorporate all of the senses and include journeys through habitats common in our area such as ponds, forests, and meadows. Families will also be able to view birds of prey including owls, hawks, and an eagle at the Raptor Deck, and kids can play in the outdoor Nature Play Space.

Free Nature Center in DC

Be sure to check out the planetarium at Rock Creek Park Nature Center.

11. Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium

While the planetarium remains temporarily closed due to COVID, the rest of Rock Creek Park Nature Center is fabulous and worth a visit. There's a bookstore, a Children's Discovery Room, exhibits on local plants and animals, live animals, a bird observation deck, and a "water-wise" garden. A wheelchair-accessible trail and a half-mile Woodland Trail start outside the nature center.

All photos courtesy of the nature centers unless otherwise indicated

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