A founding tenet of the environmental education movement is that to want to conserve and take action to save the planet, we must first appreciate and love the natural world in which we live. By exposing children (and grownups!) to the intricacies of nature, they begin to realize their profound connection to the rhythms of the planet.

That sort of understanding directly correlates to actions as simple as choosing the recycling bin over the trash can when it’s time to dispose of an aluminum can. People that care about and appreciate their role in nature will feel guilty tossing something to the landfill that can be otherwise reused or recycled.

In order to foster the relationship between individual humans and nature, we need wild, preserved places for them to visit and enjoy. Our national and state parks systems provide this outlet, but they’re often visited only on weekends and vacations. Fortunately, it’s likely that a wild preserve may exist closer to your home, perhaps previously unbeknownst to you. For over 60 years, the Nature Conservancy has been protected pristine wild lands around the world. Some of these preserves are only a few acres, while others spread for miles.

During my work travels, I’ve discovered a passion for visiting these places, most of which are only a short drive from significant towns and major metropolitan areas. Spread across the country through all types of habitat, here are a handful of my favorite hidden natural gems in the lower 48:

Aiken Canyon Preserve, Colorado

One of the beautiful aspects of a true nature preserve is that they’ve been protected for animals and plants, not necessarily just for humans! Aiken Canyon, just a short drive from Colorado Springs, is only open for (human) visitation on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. On the other days of the week, it’s left to the birds, over 100 species of which make this their home, including Golden eagles, Prairie falcons, and downy woodpeckers. There are also big mammals, from Rocky Mountain elk to mountain lions. The 1,600 acre plot of land covers a rich abundance of foothill terrain, providing a perspective on the transition from prairie to the Rocky’s Front Range that’s unparalleled.

Waubesa Wetland Preserve, Wisconsin

Literally minutes from Madison, this spring-fed wetland is a haven for migrating birds and waterfowl, as well as spawning northern pike. With cool, clean water originating in deep underground caves, this wild wetland is best explored via canoe or kayak, although visitors on foot should still be able to catch views of wading Great Blue Herons, bitterns, coots, and geese. A favorite escape for water-loving Madison residents, the 230-acre Waubesa is well-worth exploration as a destination in itself.

Apalachicola Bluffs Preserve, Florida

The last thing most visitors to Florida expect to find is a sweeping vista for miles across a river landscape, but the impressive sand hills in this massive 6,300-acre preserve an hour west of Tallahassee provide just that. Follow the 4-mile roundtrip trail through native longleaf pine forests, across streams, through sand hills, and through an impressive natural ravine and bluff topping out at 135 feet over the Apalachicola River. For hiking enthusiasts relegated to the flatlands of Florida, that’s hard to beat.

Sheldrick Forest Preserve, New Hampshire

Finding old growth forest in New England is rare indeed, but this 227-acre gem allows a walk back in time. Somehow, the preserve’s towering white pines, oaks, and hemlocks have escaped the logging saw for centuries. A hike through the preserves four miles of trail system will take visitors past trees with 30-inch diameters, along a steep ravine and ridge, and past the gently meandering Morgan’s Brook. Within an hour of Manchester, N.H. or Boston, it’s a worthy escape from the bustle of city life into a world still much like it existed when settlers first arrived on the nearby shores.

What preserves and natural escapes in your area inspire you to protect and conserve nature? Did an experience in the great outdoors help make you aware of the importance of recycling and conservation?

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