Monday, September 24, 2012

Four Free Outdoor Escapes to Reboot Your Green Spirit

Enjoy this guest post from John Egan...

When it comes to invigorating the human spirit, almost nothing beats time spent immersed in nature. Many of today's children are growing up with "nature-deficit disorder," a term coined by author and activist Richard Louv. Technology is not a substitute for the real-life experiences of exploring a pond, stream, or forest.

Finding a place to truly be surrounded by nature can be difficult, however, depending on where you live. Although simply watching two dragonflies play in the backyard can calm our nerves, there's an added benefit to getting to a place where no distractions exist from the natural world. City, state and even national parks are a great escape, but we often have to head far down a trail to escape the crowds.

In my travels, I've come to appreciate and enjoy the network of preserves owned and maintained by the Nature Conservancy. Unlike national and state parks, these sites are typically free to visit, an added bonus to families or individuals on a budget. Although they're easily searchable on the group's website, the preserves are well off of the typical tourist's radar, largely kept as local secrets.

If you're looking for an escape close to home or a chance to experience a city's underlying natural history on your next visit, here are four spots around the country worth visiting:

Hope Goddard Iselin Preserve -- Long Island, New York
Just west of Queens, this 42-acre preserve is free and open to the public during daylight hours. With deciduous forests left undisturbed for over 100 years, the woods of the Hope Goddard Iselin tract are an excellent place to find wild berries and birds, including white-winged crossbills and black-capped chickadees. Less than 30 minutes from the heart of New York City, the chance to disappear into the forest on a hiking trail is a rare treat and cherished escape.

Herrick Fen Nature Preserve -- Cleveland, Ohio
South of Cleveland, Herrick Fen offers a year-round respite into the much-vanished natural beauty of northern Ohio. Consisting of 140 acres with a boardwalk traversing over the boggy fen, the area is an herbalist's dream, full of St. John's wort, pennywort, goldenrod, and sundew (although the preserve asks that visitors stay on the trails and boardwalk to protect the species). The low-lying area was created by the slow progression of glaciers across the Great Lakes area. After a snow, the boardwalk can provide a protected traverse across a white wonderland, with the tracks of small mammals appearing throughout the preserve as they burrow through the snow.

Kathy Stiles Freeland Bibb County Glades Preserve -- Birmingham, Alabama
Just a short drive from Birmingham, this preserve is one of two places in the world to find the dwarf horse-nettle plant, a tiny flower that was believed to be extinct for 150 years until being rediscovered here in 1993. The Little Cahaba River flows through the preserve, which is open and free to visit during daylight hours. It's also home to the Brighthope Furnace, Alabama's earliest known ironworks, and trails through mature pine and hardwood forests.

Cosumnes River Preserve -- Sacramento, California
Minutes from California's capital city, the only remaining undammed river on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains flows majestically and calmly through the valley. This massive 46,000-acre preserve includes hiking trails and canoe and kayak throw-ins, but biking and pets are not allowed, to protect the pristine natural environment. Wildlife flourishes here, including thousands of sandhill cranes who stop here during their migration. Hang out until sunset to watch the thousands of bats emerge from under the bridge over the Cosumnes River, and keep an eye peeled for otters playing in the water down below.

Take time to discover the beauty of the natural places where you live, and share your discoveries with your family. What hidden natural gems have you discovered close to home or on your travels?

John Egan is managing editor of the website Insurance Quotes, which provides online car insurance news and services to consumers in all 50 states. John's goal is to deliver high-quality content and Car Insurance Resources to drivers so they can make informed decisions about choices that affect their pocketbooks and their driving experience.

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