Nature Center at Hart Park offers fun activities and a connection to outdoors

·4 min read

Jun. 30—It's still an infant just learning to walk, but the Kern River Parkway Nature Center, the newest addition to Hart Park, is officially open for business.

"We started the second week of June," said Project Director Katherine Winters. "We wanted to get in there and work out some of the kinks."

For decades, the Depression-era building on the east side of the park sat empty, surrounded by a chain-link fence — and several peacocks.

But the newly remodeled adobe structure has been transformed and beautified thanks to a yearslong effort and funding by the county of Kern — and a slew of local partners. Now the center is offering nature experiences and guided hikes, creative time for kids and even a yoga hour for anyone trying to stay lithe and limber.

For now, only on weekends.

"It's still very bare inside," Winters said of the building that was once a home for park rangers.

But revolving exhibits and art are on their way, and they are expected to bring more educational value to the 83-year-old adobe house, which at one point in its history came perilously close to being demolished.

Winters is of two minds. On the one hand, she's thrilled to see the center open and offering a direct connection to nature for Kern County's children, some of whom have never walked the banks of the river or learned how the water in the river has flowed more than 160 miles through wilderness and mountains to get to Bakersfield.

But she also is impatient to see the center reach its potential, filled with the best exhibits, docents and activities available anywhere. Of course, she also understands the infant child must learn to walk before she runs.

"So many kids in our community have never been out here," she said of the 370-acre riparian park situated just a few miles northeast of the city.

And that is an oversight she wants remedied.

She thanked the many volunteers who have donated their time and sweat to help make the dream a reality — especially the co-founders of the Kern River Parkway Foundation, Bill Cooper and Rich O'Neil.

The building is owned by the county, but is operated by the non-profit foundation, established in 1985 to protect, preserve and restore the natural riparian and wildlife habitat of the Kern River. The foundation also supports projects that advance educational and scientific knowledge of the Kern River — and the nature center is designed to do just that.

"I can't wait to see the look of wonderment on the faces of these children as they discover nature for the first time," said 3rd District Supervisor Mike Maggard, who was instrumental in saving the adobe house and helping fund its transformation.

"My favorite thing," he said, "is that an entire new generation will make lifetime memories at Hart Park just as did mine."

The Nature Center's no-cost classes and guided hikes are designed to inspire connection and an understanding of how to care for the indigenous fauna and flora in the area.

"Hart Park is not just a public park for human recreation, it is a complex, living ecosystem with a vibrant cultural history," the center proclaims in its informational literature.

And it deserves respect and care. And that's why the center is also teaching children that plants and animals are to be respected and not harmed, and that litter and trash must be disposed of properly.

The nature center's regularly scheduled classes and special events are free to the public, are family friendly, and designed for all ages. And classes in Spanish are available, too. A schedule of events can be found online at www.kernriverparkway.org.

"That little adobe house is now not only a place to gather for activities and information, but it's the 'trailhead' for nature walks to experience and see the unique natural environment and beauty of our Kern River," Stephen Montgomery, one of the many volunteers, said in an email.

"Saving this place from the wrecking ball has been a long journey," Montgomery wrote, "and I'm delighted it's finally become something constructive rather than yet another lost element of our built history."

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.