11 free Georgia nature centers you need to visit

Lesli Peterson
for The AJC

Chattahoochee Nature Center: Butterfly EncounterNature centers and preserves offer peaceful respites for exploring the forest, cooling off in streams, watching wildlife and participating in educational adventures.

While every nature center around Atlanta harbors secret treasures and abundant wonders, exploring is made all the better when admission is free! Here are 11 nature centers around Atlanta – and a bit beyond – that beckon you to visit.

Dunwoody Nature Center. Saunter the boardwalk, hit the playground, play hide-and-seek in the tree house or hike the trails. Humongous rocks line the creek bed, making it a fun place to cool off in the summer. Be sure not to miss the Butterfly Festival in August.

Reynolds Nature Preserve. 146 acres in Morrow hold six ponds, 3.5 miles of trails and a barn dating back to 1867. A keen eye will also find turtles galore in the pond. Contact the center to schedule guided hikes or canoeing.

Sandy Creek Nature Center. Hike 4+ miles of trails across woodland and wetlands in Athens, then stop in the visitor center to see animals, fish and interactive exhibits. Nature story time, naturalist’s walks and quarterly open house programs are free and open to the public.

Autrey Mill Nature Preserve. Spend an entire day viewing nine historic buildings within Heritage Village, including a church, farmhouse country store and barn; exploring a Native American hunting lodge, tepee and artifact collection; or hiking 2 miles of trails through a hardwood and pine forest.

Cascade Springs Nature Center. Enjoy the natural spring and creek, said to give healing powers to those who sip the water. Along the 2-mile balloon trail you’ll see Civil War earthen mounds, a quaint spring house and ruins from the exclusive resort that utilized the mineral springs.

Blue Heron Nature Preserve. This little-known haven is located in Buckhead. A short hike takes you past a community garden, a beehive collection, Nancy Creek and the Atlanta Audubon Society. Keep an eye out for wildlife as you follow the creek – the local interns regularly study resident beavers Beau and Belle.

Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve. Outdoor enthusiasts adore the 2,550 acres that include Arabia Mountain. Hike and bike over large granite outcroppings, through wetlands and pine forests, across streams and along the edge of two lakes. Spring’s diamorpha and fall’s yellow daisies highlight the biodiversity of the area.

Mill Creek Nature Center. 88 acres sit near the Mall of Georgia and were donated to the Georgia Wildlife Federation by the mall’s partners. Natural and boardwalk paths cross Ivy Creek, with stops at an observation tower, amphitheater and several benches.

Phinizy Swamp & Nature Center. Wildlife and marsh flora highlight multiple ponds, boardwalks and nature trails. The natural wetlands are the perfect backdrop for hiking or biking. Make a stop at the observation decks to catch an occasional glimpse of alligators or beavers.

Sawnee Mountain Preserve. Kids will love the Waldorf-esque playground, fairy gardens and gigantic tree house, but the can’t-miss draw to this preserve is the view from the Indian Seats high above Cumming. With a vantage from 1,680 feet, you’ll want to pick a clear day for this hike. Be sure to sneak a peek at the gold mine shafts on your way back down the mountain.

Newman Wetlands Center. Head to Hampton, GA early in the morning for the half-mile boardwalk hike around the pond. You’ll find birds, turtles and fish enjoying the wetlands. If you care to stay longer, take one of the several trails shooting off from the boardwalk, or explore the exhibit hall.

Need more free and cheap ideas for summer? Look no further: Summer fun for less than $5 per kid.