Educating Our Community Through Nature

by Kelly Tolbert, Recreation Services Coordinator, Prescott Parks and Recreation

Our community is enriched beyond measure to have not one, but two locations for nature-based education in the area. These locations, the Community Nature Center (CNC) and the Highlands Center for Natural History (HCNH), offer many opportunities to learn about our local natural surroundings and community history.

The present day Community Nature Center would not likely be in existence had it not been for the foresight of local like-minded education professionals. As the story goes, the Prescott School District was looking for land for a new junior high school in the early 1970s and discovered the 20-acre parcel that was the beginning of the Center. Determining quickly that the land was unsuitable for play areas or athletic fields, the purchase was nonetheless deemed worthwhile as the future home to an outdoor nature study park.

With funds already earmarked by the school district for innovative educational programs, the official Prescott Community Nature Center was founded in 1974. In 1977, the first federally funded curriculum was implemented, known as the Energy Education Program.

During the three-year span, the CNC had transformed from rough grassland marked with native juniper and oaks into a complete nature park. Nature-based curriculum had also been developed for area schools to use; nature trails were established and a pioneer-inspired log cabin was constructed to function as a visitor center. As a result, various nature-based learning projects became available to the Prescott communities.

Perhaps some of the most fascinating history unique to the Community Nature Center area is the old Hardyville Road, a stagecoach path that connected Williamson Valley farmland to downtown Prescott. The road also served as the main supply route to Fort Whipple from the Colorado River. Bullhead City, at the time, was known as Hardyville.

According to the Arizona State Parks website, the ports of La Paz, Ehrenberg, Fort Mohave and Hardyville were all supplied by shipping from the larger port cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles via the Gulf of California and ultimately providing a shipping route up the Colorado River. An onsite exhibit is dedicated to the history of Hardyville Road.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Prescott, efforts to establish a permanent location for the Highlands Center for Natural History were well underway in the 1990s. In addition to gathering and submitting the required paperwork for a long-term, special-use authorization through the Prescott National Forest, mobile nature-based education programming was happening at various locations around the area including the Community Nature Center.

Today, the Highlands Center remains a valuable and respected asset to our community, offering approximately 80 sprawling acres in the Prescott Basin.  A beautiful amphitheater and restrooms were made possible through generous Arizona State Parks funding. The Discovery Gardens was added more recently, funded through The James Trust among other charitable donations, and the Center now serves as a smaller event venue offering space for weddings and other gatherings. For more information on the Highlands Center for Natural History programs, memberships and other offerings visit highlandscenter.org.

Fast forward to the year 2006, when the City of Prescott purchased the Community Nature Center from the Prescott Unified School District using allocated open space funds from a 1% voter-approved tax. The purchase was congruent with the City’s open space policy in considering the growth and maintaining “harmony between physical development and the natural environment for the benefit for all Prescott citizens.”

Around 2009, plans to widen Williamson Valley Road concerned longtime stakeholder, Dr. Henry Dahlberg. He approached the City of Prescott Recreation Services Department about preserving the remaining of the three naturally occurring springs, the spring house built with Future Farmers of America resources, along with the history of the Hardyville Road.

The Hardyville stop was the first stop from Prescott for the old stagecoaches, allowing many horses to quench their thirst — it took about two hours to get there. Other groups have since invested in the original mission of the Community Nature Center such as the Native Plant Society and local Master Gardeners. The site is an established phenology monitoring location where data is entered into a national database to compare seasonal changes through observations and measurements of leaves.

One way to pack in a lot of punch with a visit to the Community Nature Center is to plan to attend the Wildflower Festival, which occurs annually in early September. Typically, guided tours are offered every half hour beginning around 8:30 through 11:30 a.m. Naturalists and docents from the Highlands Center lead the walks and offer their unlimited knowledge about the blooming plants scattered about the natural habitat of the Community Nature Center.

Also, the Highlands Center for Natural History, Yavapai County Community Health Services and the City of Prescott partner to offer a biweekly hiking club called Trekabout. Hikes are guided on both Tuesdays (one hour, less difficult) and Thursdays (two hours, slightly more difficult). To join a hike or the club, please visit prescott-az.gov/recreation-events/programs-special-events/programs/trekabout-hiking-club.

Wherever your interests take you, the Community Nature Center features something wonderfully appealing to all. Open to the public all year long, hours are 7 a.m. to sunset. Parking is free. Visitors include large groups from schools and other organizations so it is preferable to make reservations with the Recreation Services Department for groups of 10 or more. To do so, call 928-777-1122. For more about the CNC or trails in the area visit prescott-az.gov or prescotttrails.com.