Best nature preserves in Charlotte

Reedy Creek Park in Charlotte is a popular nature preserve, offering 10 miles of trails.

Mother Nature can be enjoyed in many ways at nature preserves in Charlotte. Each destination has distinct features and its own history, but all are ready for quick walks or lengthier treks. Here are three of the best nature preserves in Charlotte.

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McDowell Nature Center and Preserve
15222 York Road

Open six days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays, McDowell Nature Center offers ample opportunities for walks quite close to Charlotte's downtown center. It's the oldest preserve in Mecklenburg County and made up of mostly rolling terrain and forest along the banks of Lake Wylie. There are 1,132 acres and 7 miles of trail here, along with a discovery hall and gift shop.

Visitors are welcome to explore the Ozone Garden, demonstration compost area and a natural play area. The opportunities for observing wildlife and protected habitat are vast: McDowell Nature Center and Preserve protects habitat for at least 119 bird species, 21 mammal species, 21 reptile species of reptiles and 14 amphibian species. Just a few of the unusual species spotted at the preserve include the Seminole bat and Gulf Coast spiny soft-shelled turtle.

McDowell is also one of the nature preserves in Charlotte known for its diversity of spring wild flowers; a springtime walk here is paradise. The Piedmont prairie restoration area of the preserve also protects the habitat for the federally endangered Schweinitz's sunflower and the rare prairie dock.

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Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve
6211 Sample Road, Huntersville

Go big and bold at Latta Plantation Nature Center, the county's largest nature preserve with more than 1,460 acres of protected natural communities, a natural heritage site and the Southeast's largest eagle aviary. In the 1800s, most of this area was a cotton plantation, and the acreage was once used as a Boy Scout camp in the 1940s.

Today, visitors who walk portions of the preserve's 16 miles of trail will find a diversity that includes upland and bottom land hardwood forests, open fields, streams and a Piedmont prairie restoration site protecting the federally endangered Schweinitz's sunflower and Michaux's sumac. Birders will also revel at the preserve's role as part of the Mountain Island Lake Important Bird Area, designated by the National Audubon Society due to its diversity of wintering waterfowl, and breeding and migratory songbird species.

Other programs enhance the nature preserve walks, including paddling and Segway tours of the preserve and environmental education courses for all ages.

Reedy Creek Nature Center and Preserve
2900 Rocky River Road

Ten miles of trails offer visitors pleasant walks (or a little more challenge) through this preserve that protects 927 acres of natural, forested habitat within Reedy Creek Park. Scenic views of small lakes, forests, fields, streams and wildlife are the mainstays here, and one of the most popular routes in the preserve leads to the ruins of the Robinson Rockhouse, built circa 1790.

Mountain bikers and anglers will also find amenities at Reedy Creek Park, which offers picnic shelters by reservation. Just be sure to contact the preserve before coming out for a day or hour's enjoyment, because restoration projects sometimes mean portions of the center or preserve are closed.