Into the Woods

by Kevin Cummings

The stillness is calming, with only bird calls or rummaging squirrels to capture my attention. Occasionally, I catch sight of a deer as it stands motionless, watching me warily from a safe distance before disappearing quickly into the underbrush.

I’m on the Bluebird Trail at Tanglewood Nature Center; 600 acres of serene wilderness located a mere 10 minutes from the city of Elmira. On any given day, I might hike for an hour or more without human contact, maybe seeing another hiker far off in the distance. Or I may run into a group of children pointing out birds and chasing butterflies. It’s all good – a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Looking at the rolling, forested hills now, one would never know that this was once farmland. Known collectively as Tanglewood Farms, several farms dotted this area. In the 1920s, a reforestation project was undertaken to correct erosion brought on by decades of planting and harvesting. In 1928 alone, an estimated 27,000 trees were planted. As those trees matured, a logging operation was started that captured the attention of school children eager to see the process. Eventually, it was determined that the land should be preserved and Tanglewood Community Nature Center was created in 1973.

Take in the museum

A visit to Tanglewood requires mentally shifting into a lower gear. After parking your car, take the time to appreciate the view. The gentle hills stretch into the distance without a break. Keep an eye out for grazing deer in the field beyond the parking lot.

The main building, or nature center, houses offices, a museum, a library and more. Strolling through the museum is a treat in itself. A collection of live animals – birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles – can be found alongside mounted animals. A sulcata tortoise named Bernice is a longtime resident and a visitor favorite. She makes her home in the main hallway of the nature center, so be sure to say hello as you walk by.

During your museum visit, don’t neglect any of the rooms. The animals are spread throughout the building. Activities abound for children, including games, books, and stations where kids can make their own nature discoveries. Adults can relax on the spacious deck overlooking Rotary Pond.

Behind the museum are enclosures that house two owls, two hawks, a falcon and smaller birds. “I encourage all of our visitors to see the animals while they are here,” says Tanglewood Executive Director Elaine Spacher. “Our raptors are especially popular.”
Occasionally, you might find a handler with a bird outside the cage. Questions are always welcome.

Hike the trails

Twelve routes take hikers across fields, past ponds, and through forests. They are well-marked but vary in length and difficulty so pick up a map before you start, and wear sturdy shoes. The children’s trail, nearest to the museum, features reading stops along the way, as well as places to play and explore. The Twain Trail is the longest, about three miles, but the view of the Chemung River from the trail’s furthest point is well worth the trek. Pause for a few minutes to rest and take advantage of the photo opportunity. Trails are open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk; snow shoes can be rented in the winter. As the saying goes, take only pictures and leave only footprints.

It’s free!

One of the best things about a visit to Tanglewood is the cost. There isn’t one. You can spend the entire day touring the museum, eating a picnic lunch, and hiking to your heart’s content and it won’t cost a thing. However, Tanglewood is a nonprofit entity that relies greatly on volunteer workers and financial generosity, so donations are gratefully accepted. Family and corporate annual memberships are encouraged. Please consider helping out any way you can.

Be sure to visit the gift shop at the back of the nature center, where you will find a variety of nature-related items for children and adults.

Get married there

The summer months at the nature center are busy, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the facility. Tanglewood hosts a variety of programs and camps for children and families. Some have no cost. Ten weeks of camps for children from pre-K through grade 5 are scheduled each summer, and adults get their turn as well. “We have many options for adults and children,” says Spacher. “There are bird hikes and naturalist walks. We’ve even held a wilderness survival class. Each year we host two trail runs, and those are always fun.”

Non-camp events this summer include outings to learn about creek ecology and conservation, moths and dragonflies. Check the calendar on tanglewoodnaturecenter.com to see what’s coming up.

Tanglewood staff members offer programs for public schools, scout meetings and other groups. Guided walks are provided at parks and other sites in the area as a way of creating a deeper awareness and appreciation of the environment. “We educate 20,000 children a year,” says Spacher. “And then we have probably another 10- to 15-thousand people who visit the nature center and lodge. Some people come here just to hike the trails.”

The lodge, completed in 2015, is a multipurpose venue. Weddings, receptions, birthday parties, corporate meetings and baby showers can all be accommodated in the rustic post-and-beam building. “It is completely solar powered,” says Spacher. “Thirty-six panels provide the electricity, and some of that power is even sent to the main building.”

The rest of the power for the Nature Center is clean geothermal – a testament to the environmental awareness of those involved in Tanglewood’s development.

From its inception, these folks have had a vision to create a place where children and adults can not only enjoy nature, but also learn to preserve it for future generations. In the hills just outside of Elmira, they have done just that.


Tanglewood Nature Center is open Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. For more information, please check tanglewoodnaturecenter.com.