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Explore Trailside Nature and Science Center with Kids


Do you know the Trailside Nature and Science Center?



High up in the hills of the Watchung Reservation is a Union County hidden treasure! The Trailside Nature and Science Center is a popular destination for school field trips and scout programs, but you don’t need to be in a group to experience all that Trailside has to offer kids.


About the Trailside Nature and Science Center

Trailside Nature & Science Center is Union County’s Environmental Education Center, located in the Watchung Reservation, a 2,065-acre preserve containing woodlands, fields, lakes, streams and more than 13 miles of hiking trails.


Admission is free, but donations are always appreciated. The Trailside Nature Center is open daily noon to 5 pm. They have their own parking lot and parking is free.


Melanie first shared her experience about the Trailside Nature & Science Center a few years back.

This past winter I rediscovered Trailside by taking my son for some of Trailside’s weekly classes. I hadn’t been to Trailside since elementary school field trips and was very impressed with the facility and the quality of the classes. My son learned about skunks, hunted for dinosaur bones, and watched a turtle race. On a recent Saturday our whole family visited Trailside so we could all spend some time exploring the facility.




When I knew I was going to have time to explore things to do in North Jersey with kids, Melanie recommended I make a visit to the Trailside Nature Center with my boys. I am so glad she did. While I didn’t have as much time to explore the nature and science center as I would have liked we were definitely impressed by all it had to offer. Spend an hour, spend a few hours… you and your kids will enjoy this treasure in Union County.


Watch our highlights and then read on for more details.

10 Things to do INSIDE the Trailside Nature & Science Center with kids

Inside the impressive 3 floor, 4500 square feet Trailside Nature & Science Center, your eyes will first see a huge 34-foot American Beech Tree reaching from top to bottom of the nature center’s atrium. But go in further and you’ll see so much more.

  • Listen to the babbling brook. How many fish will you find in the 7,000 gallon tank?
  • Watch a show about nocturnal animals inside the night theater.
  • Pretend to sleep in a Lenape teepee. The life-sized wigwam has beds positioned around a pretend fire.


life-sized wigwam Lenapi native american tent


  • Dig for fossils.
  • Walk through the Geology of the Watchungs to experience the exciting geological history of the Watchung Reservation. See and touch real minerals, and learn about how the Watchung Mountains were formed.  
  • Go into a dark room and look at glowing fluorescent rocks
  • Compare your foot size to that of a Hadrosaur, New Jersey’s dinosaur.


fossilized Hadrosaurus foot


  • Keep your eyes open by the bird observation windows. Can you identify the birds stopping by to grab a snack?
  • Color a butterfly. In the lower level there is a two-sided chalkboard with outlines of butterflies. Kids can color them in with chalk.


A chalkboard with outlines of butterflies


  • Read a book together in the Children’s Discovery Room reading nook.
  • and so much much more.


Things to do OUTSIDE the Trailside Nature & Science Center with kids

The fun at the Trailside Nature Center isn’t confined to the indoors. There’s plenty to see and do outside too.

  • Walk the Watchung Reservation Sensory Trail. This beautiful hiking trail may not be long, but it’s packed with opportunities for all to learn. It’s .2 of a mile that loops with a small rope that runs from beam to beam. It’s .3 miles when you factor in the gazebo play area just outside of the path. (This gazebo serves as the main centerpiece to the outside area of the Trailside Nature Center.) At points along the rope you’ll notice a wooden ball. I can only imagine that these balls guide the visually-impaired and let them know when there’s an opportunity to stop and learn about the wildlife from signage. The signage is created with braille text under the printed words. Each signage also features a wooden carving of the animal described on the sign. You can see from our picture below how carvers took the time to create 3 dimensiona carvings that capture some of the details of the wildlife.


a rope and a wooden ball help guide the blind along the Watchung Reservation Sensory Trail at the Trailside Nature and Science Center in Mountainside, New Jersey


  • Crank it up to learn. At both ends of the Watchung Reservation Sensory Trail are educational boards. Each one has 8 different panels of learning. They feature an animal, a plant, people, or the habitat. Guests can either read the boards themselves or crank the dial and select an audiorecording from one of the boards. It’s a great feature that allows either non-reading children or visually-impaired guests to learn about the environment of the Watchung Reservation.


Crank up a dial to hear an audio recording at the Trailside Nature Center.


  • Hike a trail. The Trailside Nature & Science Center is situated in the Watchung Reservation, a 2,065-acre preserve containing woodlands, fields, lakes, streams and more than 13 miles of hiking trails. You can enter the hiking trail from behind the nature center.


Hike the Watchung Reservation near the Trailside Nature Center.


  • Play some music. Inside the colorful gazebo sits interactive instruments waiting to be played. Kids can beat on the drums or play the xylophone like my youngest did.


Child plays Xylophone in the central gazebo of the sensory trail at Trailside Nature Center


  • Activate your senses in the Sensory Garden. Also inside the gazebo are three raised flower beds. Together they create a sensory garden that encourages guests to look, touch, and smell.


Raised garden bed in the sensory garden of the Trailside Nature Center focuses on touching plants with unique textures, smelling plants with unique smells, and seeing plants that are visually stimulating.


  • Pretend to lead a class in the outdoor theater. Along the hiking trail we saw many places that looked like outside theaters. I imagine this is where many of the Trailside nature classes take place. But on our visit, with no class occuring, my son picked up a rock and pretended he was giving his own lesson.


boy pretends to lead a class at an outdoor classroom with log benches and acorn seats at the Trailside Nature and Science Center


  • Spin the dials. These colorful wheels and balls invite guests of all ages to spin them for fun.


There are two spinning wheels and dials and one spinning ball area as part of the Union County sensory Trail


  • Pick a rock, leave a rock. Girl Scout Troop #45063 created a Kindness Rock Garden along the outer ring of the gazebo. Visitors are encouraged to take a rock, share a rock, or leave a rock. 


Kindess Rock Garden at the Trailside Nature Center


  • Tell stories around the campfire circle. Along the hiking trail is a circle of logs with a campfire ring in the center. Use it to tell your kids your favorite story or create a new one.


A campfire circle complete with benches that surround a campfire ring outside of Trailside Nature Center.


  • Play on the playground. Behind the Trailside Nature Center is Loop Playground. With multiple playgrounds, all of your kids will enjoy an extra way to play at the Trailside Nature Center. More details on the Loop Playground coming soon. For now, see more pictures here.


MORE things to do at the Trailside Nature & Science Center

Trailside offers kids events yearround. On any given weekend you can find plenty of weekend programs for families free, or at a small cost. 

You can find their free or almost free events on our calendar with this link. Also take a look at their Trailside Summer Matinees running this July and August.


Trailside Nature and Science Center events include

  • Outdoor Adventures for families
  • Full Moon Hikes
  • Campouts
  • Campfires
  • Scavenger Hunts
  • Trailside Talks for high school students and adults
  • and more



Whatever you do and no matter how long you stay, you won’t be disappointed with a day out at Trailside!


Trailside Nature and Science Center is located at 452 New Providence Road in Mountainside. Open daily from 12-5 PM.  Admission is free but donations are welcome.  Classes and special programs are at an additional cost. 908-789-3670. Learn more at their website.


See more photos in our Facebook Gallery.


boy sits inside log


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