Trailside Nature and Science Center: Exhibits, Trails And Discovery


If your kids are obsessed with all things nature and science, then a visit to the Trailside Nature and Science Center in the Watchung Reservation in Union County is a must. Combining an indoor and outdoor experience that features walking trails, animal facts, and exhibits, families can spend the day having fun and learning about our local environment. And did we mention it’s FREE? Keep reading for all the details on planning a day out with the fam at this fun and educational Center. Where to find more? Check out our guide to gardens and nature centers in NJ for one near you. (feature photo taken at Trailside Nature Center)

Trailside Nature Center

Check out the Edge Habitat and see the beautiful animals. Photo taken at Trailside Nature and Science Center

Discover animals and NJ ecosystems

With over 4,500 square feet of state-of-the-art exhibits, the wow factor starts as soon as you step into the atrium, with a towering 34-foot American beech tree exhibit that brings the outside in. For littles, make a beeline to the Children’s Discovery Room, where they will enjoy hands-on activities like live snake displays, a cozy reading corner, drawing on chalkboards, and even digging in the sand. Older kids will want to check out the Edge Habitat, where you can see a variety of taxidermy animals native to Northern NJ, including deer, rabbits, and a ton of bird species. Forest Community is another spot where kids can learn about the forest up close—trees, forest mammals, birds, and even catch a glimpse of those essential decomposers in the “Life in a Log” exhibit. Kids can go inside a hollow tree and view live box turtles in their homes on the forest floor. And don’t forget to visit the Lenape Native Americans exhibit, where you and your kids can sit in a life-sized wigwam, learn about the tools used by the Lenape, and discover how they lived.

Learn more about NJ Wetlands

A must-stop for any visit to the Center is The Wetlands, one of the most popular exhibits at the Center. The area is a recreated wetland habitat filled with thousands of gallons of water within the Center. Once inside the exhibit, your little ones can crawl through a hollow log and view live fish and turtles that make this wetland environment their home. They will learn about the wetland, pond, and stream habitats in New Jersey, which include the plants and the animals living in them. Kids will be amazed at this ecosystem and learn how wetlands help clean our water and provide sustenance to many species.

Trailside Nature CenterGo maple sugaring with the fam in the winter. Photo taken at Trailside Nature and Science Center

Family-friendly events for your calendar

Whether it’s maple sugaring, a sensory walk on the trails, or a meet and greet with one of the birds or animals that reside at the Center, there’s a calendar of events every season. For the littlest ones, toddler time includes sensory walks and activities with Maple Sugaring, Solar Spectacular, Bubble-Mania, and Going Buggy. Then, bring the kids ages 4 and up and get back to nature with events like Sap to Syrup, Total Eclipse, Falcon Friends, and Wild About Flowers. If your family loves camping together, there is a Family Overnight Campout in June, which is perfect for beginner campers and families with children ages 6 and older. Make sure you check out their calendar for all the workshops and events throughout the year.

Take a walk on the trails

When the weather turns warm, explore the Watchung Reservation, a 2,142-acre park with woodlands, fields, lakes, brooks, and picnic areas. The Reservation is nestled within the Watchung Mountains and spans one mile wide by three miles long. You can start at the Center, and as you walk along the marked trails check out the native plants and play an I-spy as you catch sight of wildlife. A few of the facilities and features from the trails include Lake Surprise, Seeley’s Pond, the Watchung Stable, the Loop Playground, picnic areas, and more. Make sure you pack a lunch to enjoy.

Trailside Nature Center overhead

Trailside Nature Center is a kid-friendly way to spend the day. Photo taken at Trailside Nature and Science Center 

Stop at the gift shop before you leave

After you have learned all day and spent some time outdoors, head inside the gift shop and browse a wide variety of nature-themed items in the adorable store. Kids will love checking out the large selection of plush animals, toys, gifts, and educational books. If you have kids who dig geology, there are lots of different types of rocks, minerals, gemstone jewelry, and more available to purchase. Before you leave, grab one of the colorful T-shirts to remember your visit.

What to know before you go

The Trailside Nature and Science Center is open all year round, Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 AM to 4 PM, and admission to visit is free. For special events, there may be a fee. Food is not allowed inside the Nature Center, so make sure you pack snacks to eat in the sensory garden. There is also a little park behind the Center with two playgrounds, one geared towards older kids and one for little kids.

For more information about Trailside Nature and Science Center, check out their websiteFacebook and Instagram

Trailside Nature and Science Center
52 New Providence Road
Mountainside, NJ 07092

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About Author

Karen lives in Central Jersey with her two dogs, one cat, husband and daughter Olivia. Graduating from Seton Hall University with a B.A. in Journalism and Public Relations, she has been writing and working in the social media field for a few years. One of her proudest moments as a writer so far has been interviewing Tim Gunn from 'Project Runway' and subsequently winning Honorable Mention in NJ for Feature Writing. When she is not busy as a mom, she enjoys reading, going to the beach and watching the Real Housewives.