1. Clark’s Elioak Farm, located at 10500 Clarksville Pike in Ellicott City, opens for the season on April 1, 2017. Clark’s Farm, a 312-acre farm, was purchased by the Clark family in 1927. Martha Clark and daughter Nora Crist have been developing the family cattle as a 100% grassfed since 2006 and sell the beef at their farm stand along with non-GMO pork, and open a produce stand beginning July 1.
In 2002, they opened a petting farm and educational venue that includes goats, pigs, donkey, chickens, emus, sheep, horses, cows, bunnies, etc. My son really enjoys feeding the goats and sheep (bring a quarter!) and getting to go into the pen with the kids (baby goats).
In 2004, Clark’s Farm began the process of moving and restoring storybook attractions from a 1955 amusement park in Ellicott City called The Enchanted Forest, which closed in 1990. In addition to playground features such as a slide, they added a 1 and 1/4 mile maze filled with the characters and attractions called the Pine Tree Forest.
As if this were not enough to keep the kiddos entertained for hours, the farm also offers a hay ride, cow train, and pony rides ($2) and weekly events offered on the weekends. At just $6/person over the age of 1, this farm is my top choice for outdoor places to go in Howard County.
2. Watkins Regional Park, located at 301 Watkins Park Drive in Upper Marlboro, is open year-round, but will also run an antique carousel, train, and miniature golf from May 6 through August 27, 2017. This huge playground, nature center, and small animal farm would definitely be first on my list given it’s cost of FREE if it weren’t 40 minutes from Columbia!
Watkins Regional Park is absolutely worth the drive. My toddler will spend hours on the Wizard of Oz playground alone. The playground includes animal spring riders, a two story chicken coop with slides, giant xylophones, swings, spinning flower chairs, climbing walls and ropes, play houses, a natural treadmill, a large bouncy tractor, etc. All of this is on a clean rubber mat so you take home none of the mess!
Just behind the Wizard of Oz playground is a trail to the Watkins Nature Center, where you can see the resident live animals close-up, explore hands-on exhibits, and participate in special events. We really enjoyed seeing the small owls they have inside the nature center!
Following the trail behind the carousel and miniature golf will take you to the Old Maryland Farm where you can see bunnies, chickens, peacocks, turkeys, ducks, pigs, goats, llamas, donkey, horses, and cows. You really could spend all day and night (there’s also a campground) at this beautiful park.
3. Wheaton Regional Park (Brochure with map: here), located at 1800 Glenallan Avenue in Wheaton, is about 25 minutes from Columbia. I initially learned of Wheaton Regional Park when reading an article about the 50-acre Brookside Gardens and it’s butterfly exhibit, Wings of Fancy (leftmost picture below), which is located in the park. However, Wheaton Regional Park is so much more than a garden.
The garden offers trails, a children’s garden with a play house, plenty of places for picnic, and seasonal events such as the Garden of Lights and indoor train exhibit. The Brookside Nature Center, with it’s own parking lot at 1400 Genallan Ave, offers an indoor tot discovery room (picture right), resident reptiles, and an outdoor natural playground.
On the other side of the park (you can walk or take a 5 minute drive to 2000 Shorefield Road), is the adventure playground, miniature train (picture right), and carousel. The playground is really quite impressive. There are slides as tall as a house. There are things to stand on and spin until you can’t stand, things to climb, and slides that will drop your stomach. And yes, there is a smaller tot playground (picture left) with sandbox for the little ones. I have yet to explore all of Wheaton park in a day, but considering all is free except the butterfly exhibit and rides, we don’t mind going back time and time again!
4. Robinson Nature Center, located at 6692 Cedar Lane in Columbia, offers connections with nature both indoors and out. In the winter, my toddler has enjoyed the tot discovery room, resident reptiles, and exploring the small museum. I look forward to taking him to the planetarium when he gets a little older.
As the weather warms up, Robinson offers great little walking trails and a natural playground for the kids to explore. My son really enjoys the tunnel/slide. Robinson also offers a lot of great programming throughout the year, including story times and nature walks. We are looking forward to participating in their 3-day summer camp this summer! Robinson is $5/adult and $3/ kid over 3 years.
5. Irvine Nature Center, located at 11201 Garrison Forest Road in Owings Mills, is about 30 minutes from Columbia. They offer some really great programming, including Tales and Tails Story Time on Fridays, nature camps, special events, and even a nature preschool for ages 3 to 5. Irvine Nature Center also has a fantastic natural playground with a sandbox. As far as indoor options, they have reptile residents in the nature center, a small children’s area, and a butterfly house that opens in June. Visiting Irvine Nature Center is free.
6. The Hilton Tire Park, located at 1101 Hilton Avenue in Catonsville, is part of the Patapsco Valley State Park and does have a small entrance fee. The park offers a tire park playground, a new play structure, a tire swing, a natural playground with sandbox, and a kids exploration trail with some musical instruments. Of course, being in Patapsco, there are also some beautiful areas for picnic, bathrooms, and lots of hiking. You can walk to the swinging bridge from here in about 20-30 minutes.
10. The lakes! Centennial Lake (2.4 mile loop), Lake Elkhorn (1.7 mile loop), Lake Kittamaqundi (1.44 mile loop), and Wilde Lake (1.31 mile loop) are the four largest lakes to check out in Columbia. Centennial and Elkhorn also have great playgrounds for the kids. Wilde Lake has a tot lot with swings and a stream where the kids can play. Lake Kit has some great summer concerts, yoga on the lake, restaurants, and other activities, but no playground. Smaller walks include Jackson Pond or the Font Hill Wetlands.
After a year and a half exploring Maryland, these are my favorite places to get our little guy out in nature. Many thanks to the Columbia Families In Nature group for introducing us to some of these great places!
If you think there is a stellar place I have forgotten, please add a comment below!