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A cyclist climbing the inclined path to the bridge across Flint River. The duck carving aimless arcs across the pond. The boundless energy of kids on a playground. Moms fast-walking on the greenway, pushing strollers. A bluebird suddenly darting from its nest. Kindergartners with microscopic attention spans gathered around to see an animal’s footprint. That uh-oh rustling a few feet away in the brush as you stroll down a trail.

That’s just one page of an hour-long scrapbook from Hays Nature Preserve.

This Saturday, Hays Nature Preserve will mark Earth Day with a variety of events, from butterfly releases (at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.) to fishing lessons to an appearance by the magician and “eco-entertainer” Steve Trash, hosted by the City of Huntsville’s Green Team. The event lasts from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. For more information, call (256)532-5326.

But, when you get right down to it every day is about the earth at this beautiful, sprawling 538-acre property off Highway 431, just past Hampton Cove.

According to Denise Taylor of Green team, there are 950 events a year there, and more than 10,000 school children visit on field trips.

Hays Nature Preserve is a magnificent example of what can happen when private benefactors, the government and Mother Nature combine forces.

And the kids? They don’t just visit. They give back. Various Cub Scout packs, Girl Scout troops and school groups have created gardens, built birdhouses and designed learning experiences.

There is an irony about Hays Nature Preserve in that, even for many of its regular visitors, it’s still undiscovered.”

Hays Nature Preserve, donated to the City of Huntsville by the Hays family to provide an area for exploration and conservation, is the city’s largest public park. And it’s certainly the most diverse.

The preserve includes a stretch of the Flint River popular with canoeists and fishermen. Bar Lake, near the entrance, is stocked with catfish, bream, bass and trout and, unlike fishing on the river, it does not require a license. To encourage youngsters to fish, there are frequent programs in which the Hays staff provides a fishing rod and bait.

A greenway for joggers, walkers and bicyclists meanders through the park and is connected to the greenway through Hampton Cove, across Old Highway 431. Miles of hiking paths have been carved out through the woods and there are horseback riding trails.

The playground near the entrance to the Preserve is a model of combining fun and nature, from the ever-popular tree swing to pits that replicate fossil digs to a swinging bridge. There’s another ingenious wrinkle. Parents, don’t let your kids read this next paragraph:

It’s designed so a parent can be anywhere on the playground and his or her child is always within view (except when they duck inside Fort Hays) but there’s no need to “helicopter” over them. They enjoy a sense of freedom inside the vast, shaded area that can give a true outdoorsy adventure, yet remain safe.

Gallery – Hays Nature Preserve

While preschoolers bounce around the playground on a warm, sunny morning, a few “older kids” are being herded around the Animal Track ID Trail, a projected created by Girl Scout Troop 455. The loop around Bar Lake has various stations with wooden boxes on which different animal footprints have been etched. Visitors can guess the source of the print, then open the box for an answer and brief info about the animal.

It could be one of the dozens of varieties of critters who call Hays Nature Preserve home, from armadillos to red-tailed hawks to deer to coyotes. There are more than 120 different species of plant life on the property.

There is an irony about Hays Nature Preserve in that, even for many of its regular visitors, it’s still undiscovered. The bikers don’t see the hiking trail. The hikers may see the playground only from a distance. The anglers at Bar Lake don’t see the vast meadows and deep woods through which the greenway winds.

It leads to an odd invitation for Earth Day. First, certainly, come visit. Second, even if you visit regularly, see the other spaces you may have missed.

It’s a spectacular piece of earth to embrace, no matter the day.