My two boys and I have been to the National Wildlife Visitor Center for programs before, but decided to make a visit to the Patuxent Research Refuge recently just to explore inside and out. This is one of those places that makes me appreciate how much there is to do in the D.C. area — and for free. The visitor center is quite large with a lot to offer, and the refuge encompasses more than 12,000 acres of land.
Just a 30 minute drive from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area, the Patuxent Research Refuge focuses on wildlife research and is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The property is divided into three sections: The South Tract (includes the National Wildlife Visitor Center and hiking trails); the Central Tract (includes offices and scientific research, so is closed to the public); and the North Tract (includes hiking trails and a paved 8-mile loop to drive or bike). We haven’t made it to the North Tract yet, but the South Tract is kid-friendly and well maintained.
Off Powder Mill Road, down a long curvy one-way street, we arrived at the visitor center building. My boys loved climbing on statues of wolves on the plaza out front. Our first stop inside was at the information desk. The knowledgeable staff helped me figure out which hike would be ideal with my 3- and 7-year-old. Meanwhile my boys found a display of a taxidermy beaver (please touch) and a computer with an easy program to learn about the wildlife that lives at Patuxent.
They were also impressed by a display with a real polar bear and arctic fox (both recovered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife from smugglers and now in taxidermy). A nearby table houses a dozen or so animal furs with identification for visitors to handle (the young rabbit’s fur was softest, my boys determined).
Next we headed into the Wisdom of Wildness, the main exhibit area. The first room includes a raised relief model of the refuge and a short intro film. The next few rooms are quite dark and include a lot to read. The exhibits focus on global warming, deforestation, habitat loss, and other environmental concerns. The following several rooms offer more interactivity — press a button and watch cut-outs of animals move, or slide a plastic handle to reveal the answer to a question.
The Chesapeake Bay, prairie portholes, the lower Mississippi Valley, the Central Valley, and the Hawaiian Forest are all covered, with a focus on the importance of wildlife research in each habitat. A few stools are throughout, but without a stool, my 3-year-old couldn’t see over the signage to glimpse the displays.
Walking into the On the Brink section, we immediately noticed the audio of animal sounds piped in. This exhibit area is quite large and dark, and its setup makes it hard to keep track of children who dart off. But there is a lot to explore, and the room reminds me of the Hall of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History. Cases with etched glass (some a little too etched in my opinion as it’s hard to see what’s inside) contain endangered species in taxidermy, from a California condor to a black footed ferret to an American crocodile.
Four larger displays focus on how the animals — gray wolves, whopping cranes, canvasback ducks, and sea otters — eat and behave and how scientists are trying to save them and their habitat. The exhibits are very realistic — my boys didn’t flinch at the gray wolf carrying a rabbit meal in its mouth, but some kids might.
Within the On the Brink room, we checked out the four telescopes at windows overlooking Lake Redington. Stools made it easy for the kids to check out some geese in the lake. Signage under the telescopes lists wildlife to keep an eye out for. Nearby, a hands-on display focuses on protecting wildlife from illegal trade and includes a section of polar bear fur and a purse made of alligator skin.
Restrooms and a small shop with wildlife themed gifts are just off the light-filled lobby. Art exhibits are often on display in the spacious building too.
For our hike, we chose to follow the 1.7-mile trail that passes a pond and a lake. Once we were on the trail, it was easy to follow and well marked, but I did have a little trouble locating the trail entrance at first.
We carried a small booklet from the Visitor Center, the Forests of Patuxent Discovery Hike, which gives a paragraph of information for 18 wooden markers along the route. My kids loved racing to find the next post. The info I read from the booklet was more on my 7-year-old’s level than my 3-year-old’s — the importance of decomposing wood, how beavers make lodges, the components of soil. We stayed on the wide dirt path throughout our hike as directed by signs at the park, not only to protect plants and wildlife but also because there is hunting in the area. While this hike was fairly flat with a couple hills, it is not stroller accessible. There is a separate .3-mile loop that’s paved.
On a previous visit, we took a guided, half-hour tram tour (small fee). I remember the guide being very knowledgeable and pointing out a beaver dam and other signs of wildlife along the way. Check the web site for the tram schedule.
On our recent visit, we spent about an hour inside the visitor center and an hour on our hike. On this visit as well as those in the past, I’ve found there to be very few other visitors. It’s the kind of place that feels like a secret gem.
The National Wildlife Visitor Center is open 9am to 4:30pm (closed on federal holidays) and is free. Trails are open sunrise to 4:30pm.
- Programs, including many for kids, are free. Mini summer and spring break camps are also free but fill up very quickly. Subscribe to Patuxent’s email newsletter to get info on programs and camps.
- Dogs on leashes are allowed on the trails.
- Bikes are not permitted on South Tract trails, but the paved road in the North Tract is popular with bikers.
- There is no cafe on site, and picnicking is not allowed. Chipotle or Silver Diner in Greenbelt, about 15 minutes away, may be the best option for grabbing a bite.
- Both the North Tract and South Tract allow fishing, but check the web site for details on dates and locations. My husband and son attended an event, Kids Fishing Day, one year and had a great experience.
Photos by Kathleen Seiler Neary