College campuses offer unique activities for visitors of all ages.
When you think of college, images of fraternity parties, football games, exams and books probably come to mind. Even if you've moved past your undergraduate days, many universities offer unique and captivating attractions that beckon non-students to their campuses.
Read on for suggestions of college campuses within a day's drive of Columbus that offer unique, engaging and family-friendly amenities to enjoy.
Penn State University: The Arboretum at Penn State
The Arboretum at Penn State is more than an impressive floral display. It is an oasis of greenery composed of 17,000 plants representing 800 species and cultivars. According to Kate Reeder, the facility's event and marketing coordinator, the arboretum was envisioned as a place for teaching, research, relaxation and enjoyment. It has been carefully designed and cultivated to be a center of beauty and renewal, a venue for the arts and a pathway to discovery and enrichment, she explains.
The arboretum is being built with philanthropic support. The first phase of the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens, which serves as the proverbial front door to the rest of the grounds, features a riot of plants, shrubs and small trees resplendent in color, size and appearance. They are arranged in a series of outdoor rooms and specialty gardens, including a display garden that showcases spring bulbs, annuals, perennials and tropical plants in an ever-changing tapestry of color and texture. The H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens currently sits just under 7 acres, but will comprise nearly 30 acres when complete. In total, 370 acres of greenery is under construction at the arboretum, with projects completed as donations allow.
The portions of the arboretum open to the public feature not only various gardens and natural areas, but also a rail trail, an air quality learning and demonstration center and numerous trails through a historic valley-floor woodlot. The Childhood's Gate Children's Garden, a 1-acre area specifically for young children, is a unique and engaging learning environment designed to educate visitors about the plants, animals, geology and history of central Pennsylvania.
The grounds also offer havens such as the Overlook Pavilion, where visitors can sit and take in sweeping views across the gardens and out toward Bald Eagle Ridge in the distance, Reeder says. Hiking and naturalist activities, such as bird-watching, also are popular.
Another spot not to miss is the Joel N. Myers Sundial. The landscape-scale granite sundial was a gift from Myers, a Penn State alumnus and founder of AccuWeather, says Reeder.
University of Pittsburgh: Nationality Rooms
Pittsburgh is home to more than just the Penguins and the Steelers; it also boasts the Nationality Rooms in the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, “the only attraction in the world like this with such a complete coverage of communities of immigrants,” says director E. Maxine Bruhns.
“Everybody comes from somewhere,” says Bruhns, who is in her 52nd year at the helm of the institution. The Nationality Rooms aim to honor as many of those origins as possible. In order to qualify for a room in the facility, a nation has to be recognized by the United States, although the rule was relaxed in 1967 to allow a room dedicated to African heritage.
Currently, 30 nations have a dedicated space in the Nationality Rooms, with three additional rooms on the horizon. According to Bruhns, it has taken 25 years to fund the Finnish room, which will soon be added. Construction on the Filipino Room will begin this year, and an architect was recently hired to design an Iranian Room, she says.
Each room is filled with décor, furniture and historical items unique to that nation. The Syria/Lebanon Room, for example, is an original room from Damascus dating back to 1781 that was painstakingly transported to the facility and reconstructed there.
Classes and other events often are held in the various rooms during the week, although they are open to tours and guests when not in use. Because of that, Bruhns says the best times to visit are weekends or in the summer.
During the holidays, rooms are adorned with festive, native décor. In a tradition begun by Bruhns, a Holiday Open House is held annually at the Cathedral of Learning on the first Sunday in December. The 2017 event saw 4,000 attendees. Volunteers in each of the rooms sell food and artifacts during the event, which helps raise funds for various projects. One such program involves sending qualifying University of Pittsburgh students abroad during the summer to assist a nation of their choice with a social service project.
Cornell University: Cornell Botanic Gardens
It seems fitting that an Ivy League university would be home to an impressive arboretum, which Cornell University has been since 1909. According to Shannon Dortch, spokesperson for the arboretum, an average of 70,000 people visit the facility every year.
“Children love it here because there is so much to explore,” she says.
The gardens' expansive offerings include the Nevin Welcome Center, a LEED-certified structure housing a gift shop, exhibits and rentable areas. And the 100-acre F.R. Newman Arboretum is “a museum of trees and woody plants,” Dortch says. It features walking and driving paths, although driving paths often are closed in the winter. It is accented by beautiful vistas and is popular for jogging and other recreational pursuits.
The property also features two iconic gorges not to be missed. According to Dortch, the Cascadilla Gorge is within walking distance of the Cornell University campus, although its paths are closed during Ithaca's harsh winters. The Fall Creek Gorge offers 44 miles of trails and 15 waterfalls; it is not handicapped accessible.
The various gardens at Cornell are designed to evolve as weather changes. For example, in late May, the gardens are beautified by an enormous array of colorful rhododendrons. As the season progresses, “don't miss the herb garden, which is organized by uses,” suggests Dortch.
Another unusual offering is the Climate Change Demonstration Garden, featuring both an indoor and outdoor area. The environment in the indoor section is designed to emulate what scientists predict temperatures and growing conditions will be 22 years in the future, based on current climate change models. The same plants are grown outdoors under real-time conditions. This comparative growing experiment allows visitors to see firsthand which of today's plants might thrive in the warmer conditions predicted to be the norm in the next two decades.
Visitors to the gardens should not miss the facility's overlook, located on the grounds' highest elevation. “The views are amazing,” says Dortch. It also features a large bell guests can ring. “It's great to be in the arboretum and hear people ringing the bell,” she adds.
Michigan State University: 4-H Children's Garden
It might be located in the State Up North, but the Michigan 4-H Children's Garden is a delightful, unique and educational garden to visit on Michigan State's campus. While only 2 acres in diameter, this little horticultural gem is chock-full of whimsical décor, various plants and hidden gems.
Take, for example, the Dance Chimes, says Dan Bulkowski, an MSU horticulturist who describes the garden as featuring “vignettes of multiple themes” and serendipitous surprises. The Dance Chimes are two cast-iron frogs playfully sitting on sculpted waterlilies in the garden's small pond. They're a cute feature in their own right, but if a guest spins a small metal gate on a post near the frogs, the amphibians gleefully spit water into the pond.
Other vignettes and themes include the Cereal Garden, which boasts wheats and grains commonly found in that morning staple. Not surprisingly, the Pizza Garden is round and features tomato plants, oregano, thyme and other 'za ingredients. Of course, says Bulkowski, “a slice of pizza is missing.”
The 4-H Children's Garden was the first of its kind when it was dedicated in 1993. Although not protected by locked gates, the prime time to visit is between April 1 and Oct. 30, before plants are cut back for winter.
Don't forget to see the maze, the Monet Bridge and the foot piano—à la the movie “Big”—just waiting for kids to tap out a festive tune.
Duke University: Duke Lemur Center
Who would have thought a university famed for its men's basketball team would also be home to an educational center devoted to an endangered animal from Madagascar?
“Lemurs are the most endangered vertebrates in the world,” says Sara Clark, director of communications for the Duke Lemur Center. “We offer a conservation and public education program [featuring them].” The facility houses 240 lemurs, which comprise 16 species, and the opportunities for viewing these adorable creatures are seemingly just as numerous. They range from the Little Lemurs tour (ideal for families with children 8 and under) to the more exotic experience of Painting with Lemurs. While guests do not create art alongside the playful primates, there is a level of interaction. Lemurs enjoy finger painting, so they are the artists in this experience. “You can watch them and choose the paint colors, and then get to take home” the painting created by your lemur/painter, says Clark.
The Duke Lemur Center is located on 70 acres of the Duke Forest. General tours involve walking on a designated path through the trees. A fence prevents guests from touching the animals, but there are no limitations on watching them climb, play and eat.
On the Walking with Lemurs premium tour, guides escort guests into the forest, where there are no barriers between visitors and the animals. “Be sure to bring your camera, as this experience offers views of the animals unlike any other,” Clark says. The most immersive tour, however, is the Lemur Keeper for the Day, which allows guests to accompany one of the center's keepers as they care for and interact with the lemurs. “You can even feed them,” she says.
Because all tours are supervised, reservations are required. No matter which experience you select, be sure to ask your guide about the nocturnal aye-aye lemurs. “They're among the most unique primates in the world, so [they're] definitely worth seeing,” Clark says.
Tami Kamin Meyer is a Columbus writer whose vacations with her now-grown sons inspired this story.