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Park Review: Prairie Ridge Ecostation

The environmental field station for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences sits in busy west Raleigh and features a prairie, pond, arboretum and more.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
There's a lot going on around Prairie Ridge Ecostation. The N.C. Museum of Art is around the corner. RBC Center and the state fairgrounds are down the road. All kinds of state office buildings and warehouses sit next to it. And there's lots of construction.

And maybe that's why so many people don't know about it. You wouldn't expect to find a prairie or a forest trail in bustling west Raleigh.

The former cow pasture turned field station for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences opened six years ago next month. And staff continues to work to get the word out that the spot is open to the public. Everybody is welcome to explore the 45 acres on Reedy Creek Road off Blue Ridge Road.

"Most people are very surprised to find us and how convenient we are," said staffer Cathy Fergen, who took me on a walk across the property this week.

The only really tricky part about getting to Prairie Ridge is figuring out exactly where to turn off Reedy Creek Road. There's a sign with the ecostation's logo in orange. But it's easy to miss just behind the bold black and white sign that says "N.C. Military Center Entrance" and the view of military vehicles down the street.

But that's exactly where you want to turn. The ecostation will be on your right just across from those vehicles. Park in the lot and head up toward the white trailer, which is at the start of the trails.

From there you can explore the trails and different habitats, which is what I like about Prairie Ridge. It's kind of like going to three or four different parks in one. There's the prairie grassland, bottomland forest, ponds and stream. And staff is working to collect every single species of tree in North Carolina for its arboretum. You'll have the opportunity to see a variety of animals, plants and insects that live among the grasses, trees and waters of the property.

My favorite section is probably the prairie. The tall grasses stand as tall as your average preschooler. Butterflies, dragonflies and grasshoppers flit between the grasses and across the trail. Look into the grasses and you might find a rabbit or mouse or other animal. You won't see this at your typical park in the area.

Continue down the trail and you'll come to the pond, a bird blind (which the public is welcome to enter), a forest trail, the arboretum and the striking education building (which includes a public restroom). Near the education building, you'll find an informal play area along a trail with a spot for kids to build gnome homes, dig in the dirt and search for fossils.

Prairie Ridge offers a variety of programs for kids to adults, including a regular series of Tuesday morning walks a couple of times a month, which is popular for homeschoolers. Stay tuned for more early next year when Prairie Ridge launches a new program called Stroller Struts for young children.

To mark Take a Child Outside Week, which runs Sept. 24 through Sept. 30, Prairie Ridge will offer a special free event from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 30. Naturalists will take visitors on a guided walk through the property. Walks begin every 30 minutes with the last walk starting at 5:30 p.m. Kids 15 and under must be with an adult. A variety of hands-on activities will be offered as well.

But you can always just go to Prairie Ridge. It's open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. The main gate is locked at 5 p.m. daily. The trail surface is mostly mowed grass, but not impossible for strollers.

Check the website for details. And take a look at Prairie Ridge and hear from Fergen as she takes me through the property in the video.
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