For decades, when people drove down the winding road about a mile from the North Carolina Museum of Art and about six miles from downtown Raleigh, they saw farmers’ fields
For decades, when people drove down the winding road about a mile from the North Carolina Museum of Art and about six miles from downtown Raleigh, they saw farmers’ fields and cow pastures. If they looked closely, they could just make out the stream that furrowed the land as it wound its way toward Raleigh.
When longtime museum educator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Mary Ann Brittain, who passed away in 2019, drove down that road, she saw something else. What she saw would bring forth the ancient past for each of us, whether we travel by feather, feet, or claws. She wanted to use the land to restore our prairies, a little-known North Carolina eco-heritage, to show us the wild abundance of which our land is capable.
“Mary Ann knew that parts of North Carolina had [once] been covered in prairies,” says North Carolina architect Frank Harmon, who designed Prairie Ridge’s outdoor classroom. “She also knew that prairies were one of the richest ecosystems out there. Building a prairie on this land seemed like a no-brainer to her.”
Today, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Prairie Ridge Ecostation offers 45 acres of trails through native woods and prairie. Each of us can walk in Brittain’s footsteps to see the immense natural beauty that comes if we build a space for it. It features the outdoor classroom Harmon designed and a natural playspace for young children. And, thanks to the museum’s meticulous reconstruction of native habitats, the ecostation offers a space for visitors to enjoy the supreme diversity of life that can be found in our state.
“I remember the first time I went to Prairie Ridge,” Harmon says. “I was with Mary Ann, and they had cows living out there. Recently, I went there in the morning and there was an intensity of life — katydids were humming, crickets singing, bees buzzing around.”
The outdoor classroom at Prairie Ridge is a modern, wooden building with a slanted metal roof. The walls are screens, the thinnest membranes between indoors and out. The porch juts out across an overlook so visitors can survey every type of habitat Prairie Ridge offers.
“From the porch, you can see forest and bottomland. You can see the prairie. You can hear and smell the world there,” Harmon says.
Just before the outdoor classroom, visitors can look for tadpoles in the nature garden’s pond or scout for butterflies, native bees, and other creatures who use the garden’s flowers and leaves.
2023 is the Year of the Trail, celebrating North Carolina’s thousands of miles of stunning trails, greenways, and blueways. Hike, bike, paddle, and ride to grand mountain vistas, along quiet rivers, on vibrant urban greenways, and through lush piedmont forests.
The trails around Prairie Ridge are relatively short and easy going. The Prairie Trail is mostly flat and meanders through the tall grasses of the prairie. Visitors will spot two bison sculptures, constructed from recycled wire, tucked along the trail as reminders of the large animals that once grazed on this land.
Prairie Ridge’s other trail, the mile-long Forest Trail, slopes through the natural playspace. This outdoor area gives children room to learn about the natural world by playing in it. The trail also makes its way along a gently tumbling creek, through an arboretum where only native trees grow, and meets up with the Prairie Trail.
One of Prairie Ridge’s greatest assets from a nature lover’s perspective is its status as a satellite campus for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh. As such, researchers and citizen scientists descend upon the land, taking stock of the wild things that flourish there. Now, the place offers a running list of species visitors might find there, which can be downloaded from Prairie Ridge’s website.
Because of their observations, we know that more than 26 mammal species can be found throughout the ecostation, including flying squirrels, shrews, and river otters (humans also make that list). We know the place boasts nearly 40 species of reptiles and amphibians.
But the real show for Prairie Ridge is put on by winged creatures.
Almost 140 species of butterflies and moths soar between branches and tall, swaying grasses. Forty dragon and damselfly species, with names like ebony jewelwing, gray petaltail, and blue-faced meadowhawk, hunt for miniscule insects in the park’s airspace. And nearly 160 bird species have been recorded at Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Hummingbirds, flycatchers, orioles, warblers, martins, sparrows, wrens, towhees, thrashers, and even the uncommon bobolink take shelter at Prairie Ridge.
The website reveals nature education programs and events to attend at the ecostation, as well as how to sign up for them. Whether you want to hunt for moths one summer night or take a winter walk, the station offers regular and often free events for the public. You can also download trail maps, species lists, and more.
Though guided tours and events are fun, no one needs a guide to immerse oneself in these ancient prairies restored, to experience the “intensity of life” that Mary Ann Brittain knew would come if we built back the welcome mat. Upon her passing in 2019, the museum started a campaign to raise funds for a $2.4 million education center in her honor. Click here to learn more about the Mary Ann Brittain Education Center project.
The Prairie Ridge Ecostation, which is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday (and is closed Sunday and Monday), is a perfect place for all ages to explore nature and to immerse themselves in the great, living world. It’s a place to see what’s possible if we take time, pay attention, and care for the earth around us. These former cow pastures may be close to downtown Raleigh, but they are worlds away from any city with their vast and varied life.