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Get Nearer to Nature at the Squam Lakes Science Center

Christine Randall - July 9, 2012

Anyone who enjoys being in the great outdoors, learning about the environment and our natural world, will have to make sure to stop by and visit the Squam Lakes Science Center in Holderness, a place which has successfully combined outdoor and environmental education with fun activities for over 45 years. With several live animal exhibits, numerous educational and informational displays, interactive hands-on activities for children as well as adults, several hiking trails of varying difficulty, and opportunities to experience a variety of guided pontoon boat tours of Squam Lake, there is no shortage of activities for all ages to enjoy.

The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is open daily from May 1 through November 1. It is one of my favorite outdoor places to visit in the Lakes Region, and it is also a very popular place for school field trips in spring and fall, attracting an average of 25,000 school children and teachers annually. On a recent visit in late June, I discovered that the Science Center is also a popular destination for summer camp field trips, as almost 20 summer camps have memberships, which brings about 1500 summer camp visitors every year.

When I got to the Welcome Center to pick up my trail pass and trail map, I headed up towards the Trailhead Gallery, the starting point for the Gephardt Animal Exhibit Trail, a ¾ mile self-guided tour along easily navigated dirt, gravel, and boardwalk paths. The paths are accessible for strollers and wheelchairs.

The Trailhead Gallery has two live animal exhibits, barred owls and white footed mice, as well as the Mead Discovery Place, which has revolving displays which change every so often. This year, the Mead Discovery Place contains an exhibit of carved wooden birds, created and donated by former New Hampshire residents and artists Joyce and Marty Briner. The Briners have donated their collection of 241 pieces which have been carved over the years, and currently there are about 80 of them on display, representing 74 different species of fresh water and ocean birds. As a comparison, the display also contains several examples of taxidermy birds, and it is interesting to note the intricacy and accuracy of the carved pieces when seen side-by-side with the stuffed birds.

From the Trailhead Gallery, you access the ¾ mile long Gephart Exhibit Trail, one of the four trails at the Science Center (the other three are hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty). The Gephart Trail is an easy amble, featuring wide, gentle woods paths with strategically placed boardwalks which take you past over 15 live animal exhibits and informational displays, and it is easily negotiable for people of all ages.

Near the start of the Gephardt Exhibit Trail, there is a small outdoor amphitheatre, where Science Center naturalists give live animal presentations five times per day (11am, noon, 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm) during the months of July and August. These presentations, called “Up Close to Animals,” include mammals, birds, and reptiles, and they are included in the price of your trail pass.

Most of the animals featured in exhibits along the Gephart Trail are native to New Hampshire, including black bears, skunks, hawks, bald eagles and vultures, blue jays, deer, bobcats, mountain lions, and otters. Many of the animals at the Science Center have either been orphaned or injured to the point that they would have difficulty surviving on their own in the wild, and the exhibits have been designed to come as close to imitating their natural habitats as possible.

One of the first animal exhibits along the Gephart Trail is the Ecotone Mammal Exhibit, with skunks and some red foxes (the skunks and foxes are separated, of course!). The bobcats seem to be a relatively laid-back pair in the next exhibit, and I counted three of them just relaxing in the sunny enclosure. Of course, with their watchful eyes, I am sure they don’t miss a thing, and I’m glad to not be encountering them in the wild.

Then you reach the mountain lion exhibit, which is one of my favorites, and which seems to be a favorite amongst other visitors, judging by the comments. The two mountain lions, which came to the Science Center as orphaned cubs in 2003, have grown to be very large and fierce-looking, and informational signage shows that in the wild, they are impressively swift runners and jumpers, agile and strong, making them very successful as predators. One is constantly prowling the perimeter in what seems to be a set, circular path, while the other just seems to watch him from the shady shelter of a small rock cave.

The deer exhibit was upgraded during the winter, and it now includes a large window so that you have a nice viewing of the deer feeding area. I counted four deer in the exhibit this year, which I think represents a slight increase over previous years.

If you want to take a break from the animal exhibit trail, just after the deer exhibit and before the otter exhibit, you can access the Kirkwood Gardens, as well as the Squam Lakes Artisans Gallery and the Squam Lakes Café, both of which are housed in an historic building owned by the Science Center adjacent to the gardens. The Kirkwood Gardens is a lovely landscaped garden full of seasonal and perennial flowers and shrubs native to New Hampshire.  It is very peaceful place to stop and relax for a few minutes.

The Artisans Gallery specializes in handcrafted artwork and crafts made by local artisans, and it is open daily from late May through Labor Day weekend from 10am until 5pm. After Labor Day weekend, the Gallery is open from Friday through Monday until Columbus Day weekend. The Café will be open daily from June 29 until September 3 from 11am until 3pm, and you can find gourmet snacks, beverages, sandwiches and ice cream that you can enjoy on the porch or the terrace overlooking the gardens. The Gardens, the Gallery, and the Café are also accessible directly from Route 3, but you cannot access the Science Center from the gardens without a paid trail pass.

My other favorite animal exhibits along the Gephart Trail include the river otters and the black bears, and judging by the large groups of excited children (and adults) clustered around each one of these exhibits, I am not alone.

The river otters are a lot of fun to watch, particularly when they are playing in the water.  The two river otters can be very playful, and the viewing area shows them clearly both when they are above water on their patch of land and when they are swimming below the surface.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 11:30am, the otters (and visitors) get to enjoy “otter enrichment,” in which frozen fish balls are given to the otters to play with and eventually eat. An “otter” slide attached to one side of the building is a great favorite for kids.

Located in between the otters and the bears along the Gephart Exhibit Trail, you find the Gordon Children’s Activity Center, a two-story building featuring a climbable “spider web” and a “tree,” as well as tunnels, slides, and hands-on interactive exhibits. It is a very popular place for kids of all ages, and there are a couple of pavilions outside the building for people to rest and relax.

The bears, which have their own little natural outdoor pool with a small waterfall, can get quite feisty and you can safely view the bears from the adjacent bi-level building. The exhibit building also has fun features for kids such as “bear crawl tunnels,” in addition to informational displays about the bears’ natural habitat and information about how to avoid them as unwanted guests in your backyard. There is also an exhibit about bees in the facility.

The songbird exhibit has been changed into a blue jay study exhibit, as all the songbirds were rehabilitated and released into the wild last summer. The exhibit also contains information about birds in general and the Common Loon. A nearby exhibit down the trail features raptors, or “birds of prey,” including vultures, bald eagles, kestrels, owls, and hawks.

Just past the raptors, Upper Pond is a nice place to stop and look for turtles and tadpoles. It is also a place where you can access the three other trails at the Science Center – the Ecotone Trail, which is a short extension of the Gephart Trail looping through the woods above Marsh Pond; the Forest Trail, which is a 2/3 mile trail through the forest; and the Mt. Fayal Loop Trail, a mile-long, relatively steep trail which leads to the 1067-foot summit of Mt. Fayal and offers views of Squam Lake and the surrounding area.

The Gephart Trail then heads back to the Welcome Center on a newly enlarged section of boardwalk through the marsh, where you can watch marsh birds, look for turtles, and learn about the importance of wetlands in helping to maintain a balanced ecological system for our environment. If you are lucky, you might see some ospreys taking advantage of the recently constructed osprey nest near the marsh.

A geology exhibit, constructed a couple of summers ago, is located adjacent to the wetlands boardwalk near the start of the Gephart Exhibit Trail. The exhibit features 8–10 large rocks native to New Hampshire that visitors can touch, as well as a display illustrating the geologic time line of events, an interpretive panel about the rock cycle, and an interactive panel about the connections of rocks to life.

Back at the Welcome Center, the Howling Coyote Gift Shop is a good place to find all kinds of educational and nature-related gifts, books, note cards, and souvenirs to commemorate your visit.

The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center also offers a variety of boat tours on nearby Squam Lake on comfortable all-weather pontoon boats. The tours vary from daily 90-minute scenic cruises exploring the natural and cultural aspects of Squam Lake to late afternoon educational cruises with a naturalist on board. On Thursdays from July 19 until August 23 at 5:00pm, the Science Center joins forces with Walter’s Basin restaurant on Little Squam to offer special dinner and sunset cruises.  Schedules and ticket prices for each cruise vary, but reservations are required.

The Science Center also offers a special Trail and Cruise Combo Pass.  For more information about schedules and ticket prices, contact the Science Center at 968-7194.

The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center is open daily from May 1 until November 1 from 9:30am until 4:30pm. They are located on Route 113 in Holderness, just outside the center of town.  Admission to the trail system is $15.00 for adults, $12.00 for seniors 65 and up, $10.00 for kids from ages 3 to 15 and free to those aged 2 and under. Admission for those who are members of the Science Center is free. Pets, excepting certified service animals, are not permitted on the trails.

For more information, contact the Science Center at 968-7194 or log onto

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