We’re so fortunate to live in a place where one can enjoy all of the benefits of a big, cosmopolitan city while still being able to get away from it all without ever going very far. But how much do you really know about the flora and fauna around you? The following are places where you can not only ditch the urban hustle, but gain a wealth of Mother Nature knowledge as well.

(credit: enca.org)

At the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains just a quick drive north of Downtown, lies this stunning preserve guaranteed to put you in touch with your inner nature baby. 190 acres of zoological, botanical and geological splendor make this a hiker’s paradise; popular treks include a 3 ½ mile round trip hike to Eaton Canyon Falls, a Plant Walk, a Bird Walk and, for those just wanting a crash course in the great outdoors, the Family Nature Walk which sets out every Saturday morning at 9:00 and is especially great for those with small kids in tow. There’s also an equestrian trail. But if you’re not a rider, it’s still fun to check out the horses at the Equestrian Staging Area. Don’t forget to follow the signs to the large and airy Nature Center. There, you can check out live animals, fascinating displays and a charming gift shop. Word to the wise – come early on weekends to beat the crowds.

Open daily sunrise to sunset. FREE
Nature Center hours 9:00 AM -5:00 PM daily. Closed Monday.

(credit: wildlifelearningcenter.com)

Beyond their modest gate in an unremarkable neighborhood just off the 210 Freeway live about 50 different species of rescued and zoo-born wild animals in naturalistic settings representing ecosystems from around the world. Don’t plan on a full day expedition — you’ll most likely spend around 45 minutes on the lush, uncrowded grounds enjoying close-up views of a menagerie including a lynx, sloth, alligators, prairie dogs, foxes and even a bald eagle. There’s also a trailer full of reptiles, amphibians and arachnids to explore and an amusingly vocal macaw that greets you at the entrance. Starting at 1:00 and every hour on the hour, a trainer will teach about a select critter kids can usually touch and indulge parents in a photo-op. For an even more up close and personal animal experience, consider scheduling an ‘animal interaction’ where you might find yourself feeding a porcupine or holding an owl.

Open 7 days a week, 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Adults, $7, Kids 13 and under, $6, 2 and under FREE

(credit: ballonafriends.org)

You may have driven by this open area on the way to LAX, not realizing it’s a thriving ecological reserve and important part of our coastal community. The Ballona Wetlands serve as a rest stop for millions of migratory birds and a nursery for young fish, naturally cleanse the waters that feed into Santa Monica Bay and recharge our local groundwater supply. An organization called Friends of Ballona Wetlands have worked for decades to protect and restore this urban oasis and are passionately committed to educating the public. If you’re inspired to support their mission, you might start by pitching in the last Saturday of the month when they host Habitat Restoration Volunteer Day. You’ll literally get your hands dirty (they provide the gloves and tools!) learning about wetland ecology, reconnecting to SoCal’s natural coastal heritage and helping restore this important ecosystem. You can also take a free tour every Saturday and Sunday. Just make sure to check the website or call ahead before you go to see where your particular tour is meeting.

(credit: ecostation.org)

This unassuming 18,000 square foot structure in the heart of Culver City is actually a nonprofit wildlife rescue and environmental science center tending to around 200 abandoned, illegal and abused exotic animals. A volunteer tour guide arrives every half hour to take small groups through a series of connected rooms, from the “Oceana Room” with large tanks of fish and turtles to the “Wildlife Sanctuary” with big, beautiful cats, to the “Mayan Reptile Kingdom” (you guessed it, all things scaly and slithery) and finally the “Tropical Bird Paradise”, a squawk-fest of vibrant parrots, toucans and other feathered friends. Note to new parents: opt for the baby carrier instead of a stroller as spaces can be tight. Tours last just under an hour and hosts will frequently stop and take out an animal so kids can get a closer look. The laid back, friendly guides seem to genuinely enjoy teaching kids all about the animals and the importance of taking care of our planet. They also host special events through the year including their popular DinoFaire where kids ‘dino dig’ for dinosaur ‘fossils’. Children’s Earth Day is Sunday April 22 with live outdoor performances, celebrity guests, crafts, food and more!

Open Fridays from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM. Weekends 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.
$8 for adults, $6 for kids, babies in strollers or carriers are free.

(credit: treepeople.org)

You’ve probably heard of these folk for their tree planting efforts throughout Los Angeles. In addition to helping keep our city beautiful and our air clean, they also work to educate the community through numerous free workshops and tours. Every Saturday at 11:00 AM, there’s a free 45 minute guided (stroller and wheelchair friendly) tour where you’ll discover how they use technology to recreate the functions of a forest in our urban world and give hope for a sustainable future. The tour takes you through the Center for Community Forestry, featuring a 216,000-gallon underground cistern, watershed teaching garden, seedling nursery, environmental learning center and more. If you’re not big on group tours, help yourself to a stroll around the grounds with signs throughout. But perhaps the coolest option is the Full Moon Hike held every full moon during Spring, Summer and Autumn where you can take in glittery Valley views from the moon dappled trails of Coldwater Canyon.

Noelle Wright is a nature lovin’ mom and writer living in Los Angeles.