At Ozark Highlands Nature Center in Springdale, an outdoor archery range lets visitors channel their inner Robin Hood by firing arrows at a set of targets designed to look like wildlife.
At Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center on the outskirts of Jonesboro, a two-story diorama demonstrates rainfall runoff and the strength of constant erosion in reshaping that prominent Delta land mass.
At Arkansas River Valley Nature Center near Fort Smith, rods and reels can be checked out free of charge to tackle catch-and-release fishing for several species on 12-acre Wells Lake.
At Delta Rivers Nature Center in Pine Bluff, a 20,000-gallon aquarium puts visitors eye to eye with native fish and reptiles — a viewpoint even more fascinating during feeding times.
At Central Arkansas Nature Center in Little Rock, a replica of an old-time trapper’s cabin gives families a glimpse of the rustic life faced by 19th century settlers who tracked fur-bearing species.
Keith Stephens, chief spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), says, “Entry to all these facilities is free,” pointing out Arkansans continue to finance the centers in minuscule amounts each time they make a purchase. That’s because voters in 1996 approved Amendment 75, establishing a Conservation Sales Tax of 1/8th of 1 percent.
AGFC operates the five main centers as well as four smaller and more specialized properties called Conservation Education Centers in Columbus, Ponca, Yellville and Casscoe. Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended normal life in 2020, the sites attracted about 300,000 visitors yearly.
“Overall visits were lower than normal the past two years,” Stephens says. “But outdoor trails continue to get lots of use as safe areas to enjoy nature away from crowds of people. We are seeing some new visitors getting out to enjoy the trails and rediscover the joys of the outdoors after maybe losing touch with the natural world.”
While hunting and fishing continue to be major topics of the centers, Stephens cites an increasing focus on conservation: “So many of our visitors come just to get out and have a good time. But when they talk one-on-one with our educators about the amazing wildlife right here in our own backyard while seeing it up close — or when they learn how hunters are actually leading the way in conservation action — you can see their eyes open wide to new ideas.
“When I’ve taken school groups on trail tours, I’ve even been asked where the monkeys are, because the kids’ only exposure to wildlife has been on TV. By the time our tour ends, they’ve learned that Arkansas has alligators, elk, deer and other wild species. They’ve found out about fish bigger than they are, about birds that migrate here from the distant Arctic, about animals and plants found nowhere in the world but our state.”
Birds, butterflies, BB guns
The Ozark Highlands center, which opened near the end of 2020, was honored recently along with designer Split Rock Studios by a silver award from the National Association of Interpretation. The accolade praised the mix of overt and subtle educational features along with the blending of technologies throughout the newest AGFC location.
Would-be William Tells can fire their arrows at Ozark Highlands’ indoor Marksmanship Center as well as its outdoor range. The indoor facility, usually open only on Saturday afternoons, also is set up for BB-gun shooting.
At the Crowley’s Ridge center, special effects get visitors’ attention when lightning flashes and thunder roars to herald the exhibit about rainfall’s impact on erosion. Hands-on displays highlight duck hunting and turkey calling. The third-floor Crow’s Nest Observatory provides sweeping wilderness views.
There is easy hiking on two Crowley’s Ridge trails. A quarter-mile walk circling Willow Pond moves through four distinct habitats — upland, pond, prairie and wetland. Even shorter is Habitats Overlook Trails, extending one-fifth of a mile. A Butterfly Garden and a Native Plant Garden add to the variety.
A novel display at the Arkansas River Valley location, on former Fort Chaffee land southeast of Fort Smith, is a giant bluebird house tall enough for a man to stand inside and spacious enough to fit a family of four. Its aim, explains the center’s brochure, “is for kids and adults to experience the inside of a bird’s digs.”
More than 140 avian species have been spotted on the Arkansas River Valley center’s trails and boardwalks. Birdwatching is possible indoors from a wildlife viewing corner, where wraparound windows overlook a feeding area.
The Delta Rivers center was designed to resemble a high-style lodge for duck hunting. Exhibits make the point that lowly swamps are valuable ecosystems. A model of the Arkansas River shows how oxbow lakes are formed. Fun for youngsters includes a simulated crop duster that buzzes digital fields.
For hikers, Delta Rivers’ loop trails and boardwalks extend to bayous and ponds with blinds and other viewing locations. A quarter-mile walk is labeled as the Armadillo Trail. Native plants and wildflowers abound.
Among the five centers, Central Arkansas is distinctive for its fully urban location. Set behind the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock’s bustling River Market District, the center has a walkway overlooking the Arkansas River.
A huge aquarium stretches along one wall. Flowing water passes through five habitats stocked with fish common to each — mountain spring, main river channel, cypress swamp, delta marsh, bottomland forest. Posted is a list of the largest Arkansas catches. Among the lunkers are a 40-pound, 4-ounce brown trout, a 64-pound, 8-ounce striped bass and an 80-pound flathead catfish.
For Arkansans who have visited one nature center and figure that does it, Stephens makes this pitch: “Each center was designed differently from the others, with a distinctive focus and distinctive exhibits. So just because you’ve seen one of them doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy checking out the rest.”
Hours for the five AGFC nature centers
Tuesday-Saturday: 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Admission is free. Online information for all locations is available at:
Addresses and telephone numbers
J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center, 3400 N. 40th St., Springdale, 877-486-9870
Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center, 600 E. Lawson Road, Jonesboro, 870-933-6787
Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center, 8300 Wells Lake Road, Fort Smith, 479-452-3993
Gov. Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center, 1400 Black Dog Road, Pine Bluff, 870-534-0011
Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center, 602 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock, 501-907-0636