Climb, build, crawl, splash, grow!

Do your kids like to play in the dirt? Build tree forts? Climb cliffs and careen through tunnels?

If you’re nodding your head YES right now, you need to plan a trip to the newly updated Tamarack Nature Center, about 20 minutes north of St. Paul.

Operated by Ramsey County Parks and Recreation, the center is located in a 320-acre preserve within Bald Eagle-Otter Lakes Regional Park in White Bear Township.

More than four miles of turf pathways, paved trails and boardwalks provide year-round access to forests, prairies and ponds in the park.

And that’s not to mention the Discovery Hollow Nature Play Area, which opened in 2011.

It’s positively packed with nature-play features, including:

  • The Wood: Build a tree fort!
  • The Overlook: Climb the cliffs and survey the local landscape.
  • The Stream: Make a dam, learn how water flows and dig in the sand.
  • The Garden: Pull weeds and water.
  • The Mud Table: Play in the mud. Get dirty.
  • The Hobbit House: Crawl in and over the house like a hobbit!

You’ll also find many tree-canopied picnic areas, so you can take a break from the sun and fit in a lunch as part of your visit.

kids using magnifying glasses

Tamarack Nature Center north of St. Paul features indoor and outdoor learning opportunites for all ages.

Tamarack Nature Center

Indoor activities abound at Tamarack, too. To accommodate a growing number of users — Tamarack had an estimated 117,000 visitors in 2015 — the nature center is working on a 10-year project to upgrade and expand its facilities, programs and exhibits.

Marcie Oltman, director of the nature center, said the most recent phase of the project expanded the main exhibit area, revamped the entrance to allow for strollers and wheelchairs and created an animal-care room for the center’s resident owls, turtles and tree frogs.

The first phase also added a dedicated space for birthday parties and a volunteer room.

This month, a new parking lot will be added closer to the main building to make it more easily accessible to parents and groups.

The expanded main building, which started out decades ago as little more than a trailhead stop with restrooms, now offers a spacious lodge with a distinctly log-cabin feel.

Today’s visitors can congregate and enjoy indoor exhibits. Parents will especially appreciate the sparkly new restrooms and hand-washing station for kids.

toddler walking in creek

The Stream at Tamarack helps kids learn how water flows while they dig in the sand.

Preschool options

Two new classrooms also were added as part of Tamarack’s recent improvements to complement its vibrant in-house Nature Preschool program, which includes a partnership with the White Bear Lake Area School District.

School-year programming — September through May — includes a Play and Learn Preschool for ages 3 to 5; an Early Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) program for ages 21⁄2 to 4 (accompanied by a parent); and homeschooling classes for ages 5 to 10.

Summer programming is offered for kids, adults and groups, too.

“We’ve grown so much since opening in 1989, we really had no choice but to expand,” Oltman said. “We’ll now be able to accommodate more students and visitors — and larger groups to our summer programs.”

Tina Mortimer is an essayist and a contributing writer for many local publications. She lives in White Bear Lake with her husband and two children. Follow her work at

If you go


Tamarack Nature Center building hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Discovery Hollow Nature Play Area hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Admission is free. Learn more at

Find a nature center near you at

Drop-In Discovery Stations

These free, family-friendly, all-ages Tamarack Nature Center programs feature a range of topics, including up-close visits with live animals such as owls, snakes and salamanders.

Participants get hands-on experience with touchable artifacts, such as skulls and skins, and tasty samples from the Discovery Hollow garden.

Stations are open from 10 a.m. to noon every Saturday from June to September and the first Saturday of the month from October to May.

This month’s classes include:

  • Reps & Phibs on Aug. 6 
  • Seeds & Fall Planting on Aug. 13
  • Monarchs in Motion on Aug. 20 
  • Honey Harvest on Aug. 27