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Homeschool Nature Study: Field Trips and Day Hikes Near Home

Here are some simple tips for homeschool nature study field trips. You will find that building the habit of taking your nature study on the road is a great way to build memories together as a family.

Our family has always enjoyed being outside together, hitting the hiking trail and doing a little exploring. But often the biggest obstacle to taking that hike was figuring out where to go. We may have had the desire and the time to get outside but wrestled with the question of where to go. Often we thought too big.

I realized over time that we didn’t need to travel far to find places to go on short notice or even for a half day’s hike. I loved being able to roll out of bed, decide to go on a hike, and be out the door in a short period of time. So, how did I overcome the dilemma of finding places to hike near our home?

Here are some simple tips for homeschool nature study field trips. You will find that building the habit of taking your nature study on the road is a great way to build memories together as a family.

Homeschool Nature Study Field Trips and Day Hikes Near Home

Here’s the homeschool nature study field trip idea we landed on and have since adapted to our home.

“We found a long time ago that we can explore so many different places by using a simple idea. Take a map and place a big dot on your hometown. Now determine an hour’s distance from your home and draw a circle around your home at that distance. Make a list of all the places you can go that are within that hour’s distance and then start one by one giving them a try. We have been following this concept for over a decade and it always amazes us what we can find to do that is within that short distance range.”

-Barb McCoy, 2010

I wrote that blog entry when I still lived in California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. We were blessed with many trails within a short distance of our home, even some that were accessible in the winter. We of course had our favorites that we visited many times but over the years we tried to include new places each season. We were never without a few wish list places to look forward to trying.

When we made the big move to Central Oregon four years ago, we did the same exercise with an Oregon map. We drew a 50-mile radius around our hometown and then did research to find trails to explore in our new habitat. It’s surprising how many interesting places you’ll find if you give this a try. Everyone has a unique place to explore and it just takes a little preparation to get you going on some new and fresh trails.

Here are some simple tips for homeschool nature study field trips. You will find that building the habit of taking your nature study on the road is a great way to build memories together as a family.

How To Find Homeschool Nature Study Field Trips and Day Hike Resources

I did some research on Amazon and found that if you type in some particular words you can find some great ideas for books for your family just about anywhere you live. You can purchase the book from Amazon or look up the title at your public library instead.

Type in the search box on

Easy Day Hikes _______ (with your state instead of the blank)
Best Day Hikes ________ (with your state instead of the blank)
Day Hike ____________(with your closest National Park instead of the blank)
Fodor’s __________(with your state or region of the US like Southwest or Northwest)
Moon Handbooks ____________(with your state, region, or national park instead of the blank)
Hiking ___________(with your state, region, or national park…this one will get you a lot more choices and can be overwhelming)

Another tip that I will pass on is to go to Barnes and Noble and look for their travel guide section. Browse and pick out a guide book to your own state and/or local area. Be like a tourist and read the guide book to discover more about your own locality. I keep one of the hiking guide books and a local map in the pocket of the door in my car. I refer to it when we are looking for local attractions for day trips.

Of course, you can just look things up on the internet, although when I am out and about it is reassuring to have a map and some directions in my pack as a backup. I do lots of research online, but I feel better having a book describing the hikes when we head out the door. At the very least, we carry a map of the area where we are hiking. I could write a whole post about bad maps and books and trail markers but I will save that for another time. 🙂

Family day hikes ideas for homeschool nature study

Nature Study When You Travel

Maybe you would like to incorporate a little nature study when you take a vacation or longer trip. I think this is a fantastic idea and we’ve done it in our family for decades. It brings an added layer to your vacation experience, introducing you to things you might otherwise miss if you weren’t thinking about nature while traveling.

The difference between a good outdoor experience and a great outdoor experience with an opportunity for nature study is sometimes just a matter of preparation.

homeschool nature study when you travel

Preparation for Homeschool Nature Study When Traveling

1. Do a little research ahead of time for the habitat you’ll be visiting.
Determine what you’ll encounter on your trip that might make for interesting
nature study. For example, if you’re going to be visiting an ocean beach, learn what
plants, birds, and animals make their home there. You can also use the Handbook of
Nature Study to read about things you think you might encounter during your travels.

2. Find resources such as field guides or other nature related books to read or bring along with you. I suggest starting with a few field guides with common nature study topics: birds, wildflowers, and trees. Check your library for books you can borrow and take with you. To prepare, you should page through the field guides before you leave on your trip to be familiar with the layout of the book and perhaps to glean a few things ahead of time to be looking for as you go outdoors.

3. Bring along your nature journal or some pre-printed notebook pages. During down time it is nice to have supplies on hand to make a nature journal entry to record your nature study as you travel. Basic art supplies like markers or colored pencils are easy to pack. I also like watercolor pencils for nature journal entries. Keep it simple and light.

4. I also like to look up nature centers or nature trails in the areas we visit. A good nature center visit can take an hour or two and can provide a spark to capture the interest of everyone in the family. The staff is usually knowledgeable about the local habitat, giving you advice on where to go and what to see. They also can help identify anything you have observed but can’t put a name to as you try to make your journal entries. Most nature centers have bookstores that can provide additional resources to follow-up your nature study time.

Start With Our Getting Started With Nature Study Guide

Getting Started Guide: In preparing for your nature study field trips, you could also look up a few of the Outdoor Hour Challenges before you travel, the first five challenges can be applied to any habitat. If you have the Getting Started Challenges 1-10 Guide, you can have that loaded on your laptop and reference it as you travel.

Homeschool Nature Study Members

If you’re not a member here on the Handbook of Nature Study yet, please consider joining to gain the benefit of having a nature study curriculum library at your fingertips. There are numerous resources available for you to help create the habit of nature study within your family.


  • Nature Center Notebook Page
  • Habitat notebook pages – see the various habitats available
  • Any of the specific printables for topics you may encounter on your travels

Take time to go through your Membership library to see what’s available to help you in your quest to make difficult subjects easier for you. My intent in writing the Outdoor Hour Challenges was to make your life easier when it comes to pulling together an interesting and rich nature study for your family.

Here are some simple tips for homeschool nature study field trips and how to find day hikes near home. Make memories with your family!
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Channel Islands National Park – Tips and Images


This month I will be sharing another of the Western United States’ National Parks. The Channel Islands National Park is one many are not aware of and no little about its beauties.

Channel Islands National Park – link to the official website. There are many things to do if you visit this national park like hiking, camping, kayaking, whale watching, diving, and learning more about the plants and animals that make their home here.

Our family visited in 2008 as part of a trip to the coast of California. We stayed a couple nights in Santa Barbara and then went down to Ventura where we could catch a ferry boat to the Channel Islands. On the mainland in Ventura, California there is a Visitor’s Center that has telescopes where you can look out over to the islands but not much else.

For the rest of the entry…click back to an archived entry to see super images and lots of details.

Channel Islands National Park

You can read more in this series of posts to learn more about specific national parks:

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Redwoods National Park

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Rock Study #5: Rhyolite

During our last trip to Yosemite National Park, we made a stop on the way there at Mono Lake. There at the Visitor Center they have a display of local rocks right out in front of the building. There were three large specimens to really look at closely and two of them are on my list of rocks from my nature study goals.

As a side note: This is an awesome Visitor Center and it does a lot of things right in my opinion. There is an interesting display of natural as well as cultural items. They have a video that they play that gives you a great sense of just how special a place Mono Lake is in so many way. It is also a fantastic birding spot! If you happen to find yourself on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, don’t miss this stop at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park.

Rhyolite is a volcanic rock that can be pale gray, pink, or yellow. The chunk they had at the Visitor Center was reddish with gray and black.

In this area there is a large rhyolite dome that we are anxious to go back and see up close. We were unable to collect a rock here so the photos will have to make due for this time around. I did look in the gift shop for a rock to purchase but they didn’t have anything but a small collection of rocks for the Sierra Nevada….which I bought and am enjoying a lot.

Interesting facts 
(which makes sense now that I have done some reading)

  • The glassy rhyolites include obsidian, pitchstone, perlite, and pumice.
  • Obsidian is the pure volcanic glass formed from rhyolite
  • Pumice a volcanic rhyolite glass that has cooled in the form of bubbles.

We are planning on going back to this area again and exploring the differences between rhyolite, obsidian, and pumice. The specimen above is a large hunk of obsidian found at the Visitor Center.

Now that I know the relationship between these three kinds of rocks it makes it much more interesting.

For my reference—
 Photo Credit for this photo: Daniel Mayer

The photo above shows obsidian on the top and rhyolite on the bottom with a very different texture. The photo was taken at Panum Crater which is near Mono Lake.

So even though we didn’t actually collect a samples this time, we feel like we can check this rock off the list. We are continuing to work our way through the Rocks, Fossils, and Arrowheads book.

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Florida Nature Study – Exploring a New Habitat

Spending part of my time in Florida immersed in nature study was a highlight of my recent traveling adventure. I prepared ahead of time by purchasing a wonderful book focusing on the Florida Gulf Coast. Wow! There was a lot to be excited about! My trip was specifically to Sanibel and Captiva Islands and then a few days in Naples, Florida. Getting the opportunity to explore a new to me habitat is thrilling!

Since my time was limited but I did have a sweet ride in my friend Tricia’s sponsored car from Kia Optima Hybrid, I wanted to have a general plan for our time outdoors. I narrowed it down to a couple of possibilities and we decided that we would visit Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. We started off in the nature center browsing the exhibits and then I asked at the information desk what they suggested we do to make the best use of our two hours that we had available.

They handed us a map and directed us to take the wildlife drive that wound its way through the refuge and would take about an hour and a half. They also suggested that we drive over to the Bailey Tract and look for gators there.

Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge

We followed their advice and thoroughly enjoyed our time driving along the one lane road through Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. There were many birds right by the side of the road so we could stop and observe or take photos as much as we wanted. What made it really nice was the fact that the Kia Optima Hybrid is super quiet while running on the battery. We did not scare away the wildlife turning the car on and off….it was awesome.

We saw a mama raccoon and her *four* babies as they walked along the road and then across right in front of us. The whole drive was full of wonderful discoveries like the Roseate Spoonbill and the Anhinga who was sunning himself. What a great time we had and so many memories were made in a short period of time! I was so glad I had taken the time to prepare a little before leaving home.

Alligator and other Reptiles at Bailey Tract

Tricia and I were hoping to see a Florida gator on this trip and we were not disappointed. Along the way we also were treated to many butterflies and a few lizards. I can’t tell you how much fun we had hiking out to look for the alligators. We found one lying in the sun, half in the water and with one eye open. Another item to check off my life list!

South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island

Sanibel and Captiva Islands are known for their fantastic shell beaches. As a native California girl, I have spent my fair share of time at the beach looking for shells, but shelling on these Florida islands is much easier and more rewarding. Tricia and I spent one afternoon walking in the sand, wading in the water, and collecting a few beautiful shells in the Florida sunshine.

Our view from our hotel room was out onto the marina and we saw dolphins a couple of times over the weekend. Two times I saw osprey with fish in their talons flying over the marina. There were nesting platforms along the back side of the beach and one morning I saw some osprey on the their nest. What a great sight!

The Beach at Captiva Island and an Osprey Nest

There were shore birds, skimmers, gulls, sand pipers, pelicans, and plovers. It was a bird fest for this nature loving gal.

Pine Flatwoods at Corkscrew Swamp

Tricia left for home and I met another longtime friend at the second location I was able to explore. I stayed in Naples, Florida and was able to visit Corkscrew Swamp Sactuary. There are miles of boardwalks to investigate as they make their way through a variety of habitats. Slash pine and baldcypress were the main trees but there were some palms and saw palmetto too. The sound of birds singing and the cries of Red-shouldered hawks overhead were the soundtrack for the morning. We also learned to identify the Gray catbird by its call.

Epiphytes or Air Plants

We hiked the complete trail loop and took our time as we stopped to use binoculars and video to try to identify the various birds. There were naturalists out on the trail as well and they were super helpful in giving us information and help when we couldn’t identify a bird. This place was awesome and another place I highly recommend if you ever visit the gulf coast of Florida.

I was overwhelmed by all the things to take in…from the overall impression of the new to me habitat to the calls of some really big birds like the Great Blue Heron and the Anhinga. We saw more gators, squirrels, and more new birds to add to my life list like the Great crested flycatcher, the Pileated woodpecker, and the Carolina wren…all very exciting! I was able to use my iPhone to identify or confirm our sightings and then use the notes section on the phone to keep track of their names. Sometimes technology has its place in nature study and this was one time I was super glad to have it along.

Anhinga and Great Egret

One last stop on my whirlwind nature study adventure…the mangroves at Clam Pass Beach Park. My friend who lives in Naples was able to fit that into our day right at sunset. We walked part of the trail and then rode the shuttle the rest of the way…finding the sun just starting to set and people gathering to try to observe the infamous “green flash” at sunset. We soaked in the mangroves and I saw my first ever Blue jay (we have Scrub jays and Steller’s jays here in California).

Bald Cypress at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Florida

I am grateful for the opportunity I had to include some nature study and hiking into my trip to Florida. What a rich experience I had between the wildlife refuge, the beach time, and the time spent wandering the Florida swamps and mangroves.

I have already recorded my time in my nature journal….I did a quick sketch of the view from our window while in Florida and then finished it up at home with watercolors and details from my notes. I have the memories all tucked away in my heart and in a few good photos.

Would like to see some of Tricia’s Florida nature study images? Pop over to read her entry on her blog: Hodgepodge. While you are over there…check out her review of the Kia Optima Hybrid!

Kia Optima Hybrid Review

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Salmon Circle of Life

We were able to experience two kinds of salmon and their spawning this autumn.

Kokanee Salmon
The Kokanee salmon are a land-locked species that live in the high mountain lake and then return to the creek of their birth for spawning.

10 2010 Taylor Creek
This shallow creek is the perfect place for laying eggs in the gravel.

10 2010 Kokanee 2
The fish come by the thousands, swimming and leaping around in the water as they make their way back up the creek from the lake.

10 2010 Bear sign
The bears are around and we are warned to keep clear of them as they come for their autumn feast of salmon after the fish have spawned and then die.

Even though these are land-locked salmon, they still go through the same changes that their ocean cousins perform. Their colors change and their jaws and teeth become more prominent.

10 2010 Kokanee salmon 1
They wiggle a little dance to court the females and then fertilize her eggs. It is amazing to watch.

10 2010 Taylor Creek Bridge
There are two bridges that you can watch the fish from and on this day there were quite a few nature lovers out there viewing the fish ritual.

Mallard Duck and Salmon

The ducks, gulls, and eagles all depend on the salmon spawning for their autumn diet. We didn’t see any eagles on this day but the ducks were present.

10 2010 Kokanee and ducks
They eat the freshly laid eggs if they get the chance.

Our second salmon observing opportunity came this past weekend at the American River above Sacramento. There is a fish hatchery below a dam where the salmon will make their way up the fish ladder.

Nimbus Fish ladder
Here is the ladder the salmon will leap up as they  make their way to the hatchery. The officials were waiting until the next day to open the gate that ajoins the river to the ladder.

Chinook salmon 1
We were a little early but we were still able to observe the *huge* Chinook salmon waiting at the gate to climb up. They were actually jumping up out of the water and slamming into the metal gate. One sign says they can leap out of the water nine feet!

The Chinook are much larger than the Kokanee and we decided it was because they have a much longer migration journey. They travel round trip 2,000 miles from their birthplace, down the American River, through the Sacramento Delta and then out into the Pacific Ocean. Two or three years later, they make the return trip and end up at their birthplace again….changing from freshwater fish to saltwater fish and back again.

Nimbus Visitors Center
The hatchery we visited has a lovely visitor’s center to learn more about the cycle of life of the salmon.

Nimbus holding ponds
Trout are filling the holding ponds of the hatchery at the moment. There are steelhead and rainbow trout to view. In a month or so the steelhead will start their journey up the fish ladder and we may take time to visit again.

We had an additional observation of the rainbow trout a few weeks ago at a local pond that they stock for the kids to fish in. They are such beautiful fish and very tasty too. (I’m surprised I didn’t encourage us all to taste test the salmon and the trout…next time.)

So for our Outdoor Hour Challenge we were able to compare two different species of salmon as well as the salmon to the trout.

Our favorite is still the Kokanee salmon in its wild habitat and its unique cycle of life.

Kokanee Salmon -oil pastels
Here is a nature journal entry I made a few years ago featuring this colorful amazing fish.

Kokanee Salmon oil pastel
Here is one from my son’s portfolio…oil pastels.

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Trip to the Nature Center: Birds, Butterflies, and a Sundial Bridge

So yesterday was our big day trip to Turtle Bay. The weather was perfect which was a big relief. The city of Redding is usually scorching hot this time of year but there were a few high clouds in the morning to keep the temperatures down.

We started off with the outside exhibits at the nature center just in case it warmed up and the aviary was first on the list. What a racket these birds can make! You are given a little stick with some seeds on it to attract the birds down to eye level. This was a great way to spend extended time close-up to these colorful birds.

These Rosellas preferred to sick up high and watch us instead.

This pair of cockatiels posed for me and they never did come down to snack on the seeds.

After the aviary, we visited the butterfly house. We didn’t see too many butterflies this time but this Julia on some sedum was the prettiest one that I captured in a photo.

After lunch we went outside to explore the botanical gardens. What a display of plantings that will grow in our climate! I did not realize that this place had so much information and now I need to go back when I am fresh and the sun is not so hot. We became members of the nature center so we can get in free for a whole year and this will make it easier to go back just to look at the gardens and get some ideas for my yard.

We are going to be pulling up our lawn and replanting with drought-resistant plantings and the display at this botanical garden will help us pick things that will flourish and be beautiful without so much water.

This is the famous Sundial Bridge which doesn’t look much like a bridge from this photo because I took it from the gardens. Believe me, it is a very large bridge over the Sacramento River that connects the nature center with the botanical garden. Follow the link above to see the whole thing in a photo.

The bridge really is a big sundial. I took this photo of the shadow at 12:47 and you can see on the rock that it says 1:00….what a great way to teach about the sun and telling time.

One more thing that I loved about this nature center is the way things are so open to explore. This shelf is just what I want in my living room to display all our collections and nature stuff. I might have to have my son take a look at it and see if he can design something similar to fit my space.

It was a very long day with a long drive to get there and back but all of us agreed that it was a fantastic place. We all found something to be excited about and interested in. What more can you ask for?