A monarch caterpillar prepares to make its cocoon on the side of the Baker Wetlands Discover Center.
An exhibit inside the Baker Wetlands Discovery Center. Whooping cranes are a common bird to see at Baker Wetlands.
Monarch Watch holds an annual Monarch butterfly tagging event at Baker Wetlands every year in the fall.
Taking a walk on the short Boardwalk Trail in early fall.
The Baker Wetlands Discovery Center in early spring.
Cattails waggle in the breeze, as the setting sun turns the native grass surrounding them golden. A whooping crane gracefully dips its head near the shallow edge of marshy lake, and a snapping turtle bobs up to the surface of the silvery water to catch a breath of air. You might think you need to drive out into the countryside to experience such a bucolic scene, but no—we have it right here in Lawrence.
Baker Wetlands is a 927-acre nature conservation area just south of Lawrence in the Wakarusa River floodplain. It boasts 45-acres of native wetland prairie, restored marshes, open water, and mature riparian (that means “near water”) woodlands. As you might imagine, that’s a lot of beautiful space, but, according to Jon Boyd, director, the openness of Baker Wetlands is about much more than just acreage.
“Since 1968, when Baker University acquired the property—50 years ago this August—one of the main objectives has been community outreach and involvement. Inside the Discovery Center we have informational panels about wetlands and how humans have interacted with them over the years. We have a gift shop. We also have a ‘Wetlands Wonders’ room aimed at fun for children.
“With that being said, we have also always allowed the public to walk our trails and just enjoy nature. We have found that people who visit more than once visit the facility on their first trip, and then, on return trips, just utilize our trail system,” Boyd said.
And what are you likely to see on those trails? Tons of wildlife.
Boyd says that, while everyone has their own opinion, his favorite time of the year at Baker Wetlands is early summer and late spring, because that’s when the animals are commonly more active.
The easiest animals to see around are birds. We do have others, but they are mostly active at dawn or dusk or night time,” Boyd said.
In fact, Baker Wetlands is one of the most species rich locations in eastern Kansas. Whooping cranes, geese, and ducks are common, as are beavers, frogs, deer, and snakes. If you’re quiet and have sharp eyes, the trails are like a natural scavenger hunt.
And, thanks to the staff and a soon-to-be Eagle Scout, the trail system at Baker Wetlands just got an upgrade this winter, with new, color-coded signage to make the trails easier to navigate. The signs are great for families with young children and more rugged walkers, alike, as they make it easy to see how far and where you’re going before you start.
But, speaking of kiddos, if you have them, be sure to follow the Baker Wetlands Facebook page. There they post special events each month, like stargazing, family days, and “Wee Walks”, a special hike for kids under 5.
“All of our events are free of charge, and we try to include an educational component. Most of the Wetlands events are geared toward children. Wee Walks is specifically geared toward 5-and-under children, and we have had to expand to two times a month, because we usually have 25 children per time.
“All of the other events are really for both adults and children. I really enjoy Monarch tagging, because we always see new people that come out to interact with the environment and learn,” Boyd said.
My family loves the Monarch butterfly tagging event at Baker Wetlands, too. With nets and tagging equipment provided, this annual fall happening is a chance to catch and “tag” the Monarch butterflies that stopover at Baker Wetlands on their journey south. By keeping track of the tag numbers on the butterflies that you catch and release, you can follow along online as the butterflies migrate to Mexico.
It’s science, it’s nature, it’s learning, but mostly—like everything at Baker Wetlands, from special events to quick morning walks—it makes for a few hours of good, outdoor, family fun.
The Baker Wetlands trails are open from dawn to dusk, and can be enjoyed 365 days a year. The Discovery Center hours vary seasonally, and are currently as follows:
June 1 – August 30:
9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Saturday
1 – 4 p.m. Sunday
A proud Lawrence transplant, Meryl Carver-Allmond lives in a hundred-year-old house with her sweet husband, two darling kiddos, one puppy, one gecko, and an ever rotating flock of poultry. By day, she’s a public defender. By night, she writes, takes photos, knits, and cooks up a storm. She chronicles her adventures on her personal blog, My Bit of Earth.