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Hidden Oaks Nature Center’s $1.7M renovation brings new classroom and bigger pond

The renovated Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale (courtesy of Hidden Oaks Nature Center)

Annandale’s Hidden Oaks Nature Center is reopening later this month after a months-long, nearly $2 million renovation and expansion.

The 53-year-old nature center, located on Royce Street and part of Annandale Community Park, closed its doors in February for a long-planned expansion and renovation.

The $1.7 million project gave Hidden Oaks a new classroom overlooking the woods, an updated outdoor play area with a safe, working water pump, a larger, remodeled pond, and ADA-compliant facilities, including restrooms. The funding came from the over $100 million 2016 Park Bond.

The facility is set to reopen to visitors on June 25 with a grand reopening celebration planned for July 16. The festivities will include entertainers from “American barbershop to Korean folk tunes to native Bolivian music and dance.” There will also be poems and thoughts from students on the “importance of environmental stewardship” as well as crafts and a puppet show.

When it opened in 1969, Hidden Oaks was the county’s first nature center. The last renovation in the early 1980s “fell woefully short of being able to meet the consumer demand and interest” even by the 1990s, when attendance was “dramatically rising,” Hidden Oaks staff tells FFXnow via email.

Prior to the pandemic, nearly 50,000 visitors and 7,000 school children per year were using the nature center.

With the new renovation, the center now has a glass-framed classroom “that overlooks a pond and the woods, inviting the outside in,” the Fairfax County Park Authority says.

The classroom includes a built-in kitchen that will be available for school groups as well as for private rentals. Additionally, there’s a new bilingual reading corner in honor of Hidden Oaks volunteer and retired county school teacher Jean Laub.

The updated Nature Playce, a wooded play area for young children, now has a workable water pump.

“Its non-pinch child-friendly features enable children of all ages to enjoy the wonders of water,” staff wrote.

There are also two new outdoor interpretive trails with signage in English, Spanish, and Korean.

The original small pond — popular with wood frogs, American toads, and spotted salamanders — was replaced with a pond nearly double its size to provide “more teaching area.”

Earlier this year, an Eagle Scout project created two temporary small pools in the front and rear of the nature center to create amphibian breeding areas so that they’d eventually migrate to the new pond.

“Between the two pools, the wood frogs returned in similar numbers while the American toads and the spotted salamanders balked at the substituted water source,” nature center staff said.

The project faced a number of minor challenges, including the placement of a beloved carved woodland sculpture.

Several years ago, a 130-year-old, 100-foot-tall tulip poplar behind the center was struck by two bolts of lightning, which severely damaged the tree but didn’t destroy its base. Instead of completely knocking the tree down, the county commissioned a chainsaw artist to turn it into a wood sculpture featuring native animals, like raccoons, a fox, an owl, and a turtle.

“Due to [the sculpture’s] prominent location in the rear of the nature center, the ability to bring construction vehicles to the far side of the center was limited,” staff said. “To alleviate tree loss, the vehicles entered in a relatively narrow space between the existing nature center and Nature Playce.”

Despite “multiple delays of material delivery,” the project was still completed roughly on time and within budget, staff noted. With Covid restrictions now gone and the renovations done, Hidden Oaks staff could move a number of programs back inside, but that isn’t the current plan.

“Due to the popularity of classes in the last few years, more of the center’s programming will continue to be focused outdoors,” staff said.

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