What: Hike the trails and take in sweeping views of Lake Michigan at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Bayside.
Less than 10 miles from downtown Milwaukee, the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is a natural retreat from city life.
Located on more than 185 acres along Lake Michigan, the center features hiking trails, an observation tower providing views of the lake and the surrounding forest, and a Gold LEED-certified environmental learning center with interactive exhibits, classrooms and administrative offices.
In the 1800s, the land the center sits on was known as Nine Mile Farm and was made up of farmland consolidated by the Uihlein family and the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.
The brewing company used the land for its draft horses, and the Uihlein family later used it for recreational purposes.
In 1952 the land was given to the Schlitz Foundation, which considered a number of development options.
But local residents heavily favored preserving the land as a nature center, and in 1971 Joseph Uihlein threw his support that way and the foundation turned over responsibility for the nature center to the National Audubon Society.
Today, the society still owns the land, but the center is completely locally financed and operated.
"We're a totally locally treasure," said Nathan Smallwood, the center's executive director.
He added that this is advantageous because the center has access to the resources of a large national organization while maintaining local control.
Part of that local control is an effort to return the land to its pre-settlement state of the early 1800s.
Staff naturalists participate in habitat restoration and management projects, including removing invasive species and planting native trees, shrubs and flowers.
Those preservation efforts are paying off.
Today, the reserve is the largest undeveloped tract of land along Lake Michigan in Milwaukee County.
It also represents the southern tip of the great northern forest, Smallwood said, noting the ecology is similar to Door County's.
More than 140,000 visitors and nearly 30,000 schoolchildren visit the nature center every year. One big draw is the variety of events offered year-round.
"The number of programs and the extent of the offerings here is really large compared to other nature centers," Smallwood said.
"There are literally hundreds of programs going on every day, and it's a really very broad mix of programs."
What to do: Six miles of trails await exploration. Grab a map from the main building before heading out for a hike through and around prairie, pockets of woods, wetlands and ponds.
Follow the trails around the prairie and through the woods down to the quarter-mile-long beach.
You can continue walking along the beach through the adjacent Doctors Park, which is county property.
Don't forget to look up. Smallwood said you can spot up to 300 species of birds throughout the year, and fall is an especially good time for seeing migrating monarch butterflies and birds, including birds of prey.
"Fall time is hawk time," he said.
You'll also want to look down. Make the climb up the 60-foot observation tower for 360-degree views of Lake Michigan and the changing leaves.
Difficulty level: The trail leading to the observation tower is wheelchair-accessible, but the tower itself requires a climb.
All other trails are well maintained and easy to navigate.
When to go: The center is open year-round. Fall's cooler weather and changing leaves are great for hiking the trails and climbing up the observation tower for fantastic views.
During winter, the trails are open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Visit on a Saturday or Sunday to get an up-close view of some of the center's 16 raptors during Word with a Bird, held from 1 to 2 p.m.
"It's a really superb collection, and we do really innovative things with them like flying them," Smallwood said.
See all of the birds of prey during Xtreme Raptor Day on Nov. 2.
The event includes flight demonstrations, children's activities and a showcase of the two newest birds, Dory and Loki.
While most people head for the center on warm, sunny days, Smallwood said his favorite times are when the weather isn't perfect. "If you want solitude, don't count us out on bad weather because it's always beautiful here," he said.
How much it will set you back: Members get in for free, one-time visits cost $6 for adults and $4 for children.
Membership is $50 a year for individuals, $60 for families, and includes admission to more than 140 nature centers in the United States and Canada.
While you're there: Fill up on creamy custard and mammoth burgers at Kopp's, just south of Bayshore Town Center at 5373 N. Port Washington Road, Glendale; (414) 961-3288.
Take the scenic route home. Instead of hopping back on the interstate, follow N. Lake Drive south along the lakefront back to downtown Milwaukee.
Getting there: The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is at 1111 E. Brown Deer Road, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Milwaukee via I-43.
More information: Contact the center at (414) 352-2880.
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