For all those 3- to 5-year-old adventurers with cabin fever, the Claytor Nature Study Center has a cure: a four-day “Animals in Winter” hike series that will get them exploring the forest throughout the month of February, searching for traces of wildlife and learning about animals’ winter survival strategies.
The center, nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Bedford, offers opportunities to get outside once the weather warms up, too, with summer nature camps, monthly “night sky” viewing parties, community science days, the yearly International Outdoor Classroom Day, and the Earth and Sky Festival.
The center’s 491 acres were placed under easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation by then-owner A. Boyd Claytor III in 1998. He subsequently donated the land to Lynchburg College, which transformed it into a nature center.
At first, access to the center’s resources were limited to students of the college for lab experiences and to regional elementary schools for field trips. This changed a few years ago, says the center’s director, Dr. Greg Eaton. “After 20 years of environmental education programming for K through 12, we felt it was time to start reaching out to a wider swath of the public. We started to advertise, put up informational signs, kiosks with trail maps, and a registry. We recorded an increase in the number of people coming to the property almost immediately.”
Open to the public daily throughout the year, the center’s 7.5 miles of trails pass through upland and lowland forests, wetlands, and grasslands, with views of a lake, ponds, and a rocky stream segment of the Big Otter River. Views of the Peaks of Otter grace the western edge of the property and provide a scenic backdrop to weddings, conferences, and other special events held at Cloverlea, the 1780s-era farmhouse on the site.
Other facilities on the property include an astronomical observatory and a 7,700-square-foot education and research facility. The facility houses an integrated laboratory/classroom for Lynchburg students, a “Discovery Center” classroom for K-12 students, and connects to a wetlands observation deck. The center also boasts an eco-lodge that can host 16 people at a time for overnight visits.
But the state-of-the-art buildings depend on their setting. “What’s most striking about the property to me is that, even though it’s only 490 acres, there is such an incredible diversity in the landscape,” Dr. Eaton says. “It’s amazing that such diverse terrains exist in this space. There are even remnants of plantation plantings. It’s a remarkable resource for all of us.”
For the public, the upcoming Earth and Sky Festival (to be held April 20th, the Saturday before Earth Day) will host hikes, workshops, and, once the sun sets, night sky viewing. “Because of our location away from city lights, we have one of the darkest night skies this side of the Blue Ridge. The festival is a way to give back to the community, but also highlight the connections between what exists on the ground and what we see in the sky,” Dr. Eaton says.
For the university, current use of the site includes on-site sessions for biology, chemistry, and environmental science classes, serving roughly 800 students per year. Use of the facility is growing across the curriculum, with visits by literature, history, creative writing, and art classes, increasing every year. Extra-curricular student organizations are also taking advantage of the natural setting for retreats. “We’re starting to call it our ‘Blue Ridge campus,’” Dr. Eaton says.
More immersive experiences are in the works. Dr. Eaton and other faculty and staff are preparing for the center’s first “J-term” offering: a four-week course on winter ecology that will run between the end of fall classes in December 2019 and the beginning of the spring semester in January 2020. Students will live and study on site.
“It will be the first chance for students to experience the center as their home,” Dr. Eaton says. “I’ve often thought that it would be ideal if every student could spend one night outdoors at the center. Sleeping under the stars or in a tent, you can really begin to understand what nature has to offer, as well as its challenges.”