Imagine spending a peaceful summer afternoon hiking through rugged hills scattered with old oak and hickory trees, flowering dogwoods and a colorful palette of woodland wildflowers. You hear the cheerful sound of warblers and diligent woodpeckers as you make your way across the soft, woodchip trail, on the lookout for white-tailed deer, red foxes and flying squirrels.
This and other relaxing, educational encounters with Missouri wildlife await you about 30 miles southeast of Columbia at the Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City.
The nature center stretches across 112 acres of land and offers hiking trails, nature films, living and nonliving wildlife exhibits and educational activities and programs for all ages.
In addition to Runge, the Missouri Department of Conservation operates nature centers in St. Louis, Blue Springs and Springfield. Each center is designed to restore and maintain the state’s natural habitats on the trails and to actively engage visitors in learning about natural resources, said Kevin Lohraff, Runge’s interpretive programs supervisor.
Lohraff said the Jefferson City site was chosen because of the diverse natural habitats found in mid-Missouri. “We can educate people about habitats found all over the state because we have a little bit of everything,” he said.
Since opening in 1993, the $4 million nature center has attracted more than one million visitors. According to the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, it is the most visited attraction in Jefferson City.
Although Runge is just a short drive from the city, it offers much to those who enjoy the outdoors. There are five hiking trails of varying length and difficulty. Visitors can climb the fire tower along the paved Raccoon Run Trail or travel under a host of trees on the wood-chipped Towering Oak Trail. Naturescape Trail is paved and features just a few mild inclines, making it ideal for hikers with disabilities.
The nature center also offers guided outdoor activities focusing on different aspects of Missouri’s natural landscape, including wetland and prairie tours.
But Runge offers more than just an outdoor nature experience. Lohraff said a 27,000-square-foot indoor facility holds three classrooms, a library, a 200-seat auditorium and wildlife exhibits. The 3,000-square-foot exhibit area includes live animal exhibits offering a close look at various fish, an active beehive, reptiles and amphibians, and a 3,580-gallon freshwater aquarium.
Runge also offers outdoor landscaping demonstrations, an indoor wildlife viewing area and many hands-on activities. Free activities for children include bird watching, stream clean-up and beginning archery. Scout troops can also sign up for activities that meet the requirements for both the Naturalist and Forester badges.
Although many activities at Runge cater especially to youth, there are also many opportunities for adults wanting to learn more about Missouri wildlife. Lohraff said ongoing programs for adults include the Wildlifers Quilt Group, a hiking club and a book club.
Lohraff said there’s something for everybody at Runge. “The only requirement is that you bring an inquisitive mind and are ready to get excited about nature,” he said.
Missourian reporter Raegan Johnson contributed to this story.