The lady at the information desk told me that the Tom Ridge Environmental Center is a hands-on nature museum experience. Well, yes, technically, if you consider lifting a flap that's hiding an answer to a nature question to be a "hands-on" museum experience. Having been to the Toronto Science Center though, I know what a real hands-on museum experience is, and this isn't it. Even the expERIEnce Children's Museum was a lot more fun for me to play with as a grown-up as well as a lot more fun for my kid as a "hands on" educational experience.
The Tom Ridge Environmental Center is devoted to educating people about Presque Isle State Park, what is commonly called "The Peninsula" by the locals. The Tom Ridge Environmental Center is located at the entrance to Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA., directly across the street from Waldameer Park & Water World. It's a little tough to find if you don't think to look for it. Oh, you'll see the giant observation tower just fine from the road, and even the entrance is easy to find because there's a stop light there, but the small sign and green building looks like a corporate enterprise rather than a public educational center. The parking lot is a bizarrely arranged series of overgrown boulevards with a sidewalk that slices through the middle of them and leads to the entrance of the Tom Ridge Environmental Center.
Once in the building, it was spare in its displays for an educational museum, and that was a bit of a letdown to me. Presque Isle State Park is known for more than 325 different bird species having been spotted there because it's a main migratory path from Canada to Florida and back, and is currently home to a pair of nesting bald eagles and many peregrine falcons. But the bird display was relatively small, with fewer than 25 of the most common native bird species mentioned. The land animal display wasn't much better, with a stuffed opossum and a wild turkey representing the wildlife that can be found at the peninula. But the inland woods of the peninsula is home to hundreds of deer, and I was thrilled on the day I was hiking along one of the inland trails and ran into a red fox and her three kits coming up the trail from the other direction. And when I was driving around the peninsula one day, I nearly ran over the biggest sunbathing snapping turtle I had ever seen in my life, but I didn't see much information there about snapping turtles. The fish and duck display was kind of cool, and so were the bugs and butterflies.
One of the main attractions of the Tom Ridge Environmental Center is the "Big Green Screen" theater that shows nature movies. This month, "Mysteries of the Great Lakes" and "The Human Body" are showing, and in July, "Journey into Amazing Caves" will be showing. Tickets are $7.50 for adults, $6.00 for seniors and $5.50 for children. Group rates are available, and the theater is wheelchair accessible.
I could also climb the 75 foot observation tower and get a spectacular view of Lake Erie from there, grab some lunch at the Sunset Cafe, and pick up souvenirs at the Nature Shop & Gallery. But the Tom Ridge Environmental Center is just a brief introduction to the truly unique habitat and geology of a natural freshwater peninsula, and I would have liked a much more in-depth educational experience.
The Tom Ridge Environmental Center is a good place for an environmental science educator to begin their lesson before taking the kids on a field trip to Presque Isle State Park to experience the application of natural sciences. There's over 15 miles of trails, 13.5 miles of which are paved and popular with hikers, joggers, skaters and bicyclists. There's over 7 miles of sandy beaches, and nine of the beaches are guarded for public swimming. The unguarded beaches are a popular place for kite-flying. Kayaks, canoes and paddleboats can be rented for self-guided tours of the lagoons, or you can join one of the many guided tours of Presque Isle State Park that are offered through the Tom Ridge Environmental Center year round.