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  • Chrissy Somers



By Brenda Doolittle, Families on the Fox Content Contributor

hickory knolls discovery center, hickory knolls, st. charles, st. charles park district, things to do, museums, free things to do

It’s a Wednesday in late February. The wind is whipping, the sky is overcast, the children are rebelling against any activity us desperate parents are trying to entertain them with at home. The budget is tight, so options are limited. But it’s still only late morning and we need out of this house NOW. Where to go that’s affordable, family-friendly, and let’s be honest - fun for the adults, too?

Enter the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center.

Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, St. Charles, St. Charles Park District, Nature, Bunny
Well, hello Peter Rabbit!

Part of the St. Charles Park District, this FREE facility is surrounded by 130+ sprawling acres of natural prairie land, woods, and wetlands. We arrived and were immediately tempted to explore the outdoors due to the dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the natural areas just beyond the glass, but Mother Nature briskly reminded us that heading indoors was the right choice for the day.

Our kiddos wasted no time forging through the doors and were immediately greeted by the fluffiest, sweetest resident, Peter Rabbit. Peter eagerly hopped towards them to say hello and offered his head for a pet. We later learned that Peter was estimated to be around 14 years old, but you wouldn’t know it based on his energetic and friendly demeanor.

As we continued to make our way in, we were greeted by staff at the front desk and another friend to meet; this time a Bearded Dragon who was ready to enjoy her lunch. We were given the chance to watch her nosh on some delectable worms, much to the delight of our giggling girls. We also learned the Guinness World Record for oldest known Bearded Dragon lived a bit past his 18th birthday, and that this sweet gal may actually be around 19 years old! “What’s her name?” I asked. Well, it’s Grandma, of course!

While the friendly staff are eager to help and share their extensive knowledge, the Discovery Center allows for you the chance to self-guide around the various exhibits and features of the building at your own pace. Since our 5 and 2 year olds’ attention spans rival that of your average goldfish, my husband and I took turns viewing exhibits such as a large turtle pond, and reading about the various wildlife housed at the Knolls, while the other shared in the play and exploration from our kids’ point of view. We even learned of a creature none of us had ever heard of - a cool looking amphibian called an Axolotl!

Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, Hickory Knolls, St. Charles, St. Charles Park District, STC Park District
This bear was found roaming the Hickory Knolls property in the late 1970s. JUST KIDDING! Just another piece of nature to exam at HKDC!!

As a preschool class let out and more families strolled around, the kids were kept busy in the play area with building blocks and trucks, plenty of toy animals, a replica Native American dugout canoe, and our little ones’ personal favorite, a log cabin just their size to explore. The kids all gathered in a circle and waited with wide eyes for a chance to take turns holding a turtle!

Children and adults alike will be amazed by an expansive mural created by a local artist that features local ecosystems and wildlife. Large windows allowed for unobstructed views of the winter wonderland outside, and while snowflakes gently fell, we saw several species of birds come for a snack on the birdfeeders stationed feet away from the building.

As our visit was winding down and nap time drew near, I eagerly learned about some of the programs offered at Hickory Knolls, including birthday parties with hands on experiences with the animals, as well as summer nature camp options for children as young as 2! I will absolutely be signing up my soon-to-be kindergartener for nature camp this summer to give her an educational and fun outdoor adventure. Registration just opened this week, so check it out!

And if you can’t bring yourself to explore the great outdoors, Hickory Knolls also offers Community Outreach programs that brings the experience of interacting with nature to you! With my husband’s 40th birthday looming right around the corner, I couldn’t help but to take note of the beautiful event spaces available for rent!

On our way out, we got to meet a Milk Snake named Mary who came out of her habitat to say hello. While my 2 year old gave me some serious side eye when asked if she would like to touch Mary’s smooth scales, I gladly accepted the opportunity to hold her. She was so docile and happy to be out exploring, that my typically leery 5 year old gleefully held her too, making me one proud mama!

We can’t wait to return in the warmer months to picnic and explore the more than 3 miles of trails Hickory Knolls has to offer. There is even a natural play area, the Hickory Hideout, for the kids to burn off some energy and word is that new features are in the works to be added!

Keep an eye out for upcoming events including an evening flashlight Easter egg hunt, as well as a “Turtle Racing and Brew Tasting” event with proceeds supporting the care of the loveable and educational animals that call Hickory Knolls home as well as community nature programs.

We drove away grateful for the new family memories and the fact that we can experience such natural wonder right here in the Fox River Valley year round.

Hickory Knolls Discovery Center is open Monday - Saturday from 10am to 4pm and on Sundays from 12pm to 4pm, YEAR ROUND, making it easy to #ExploreMore!

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