A giant bronze statue of an elk at the entrance welcomes visitors to the Salato Wildlife Education Center, a place where Kentuckians can enjoy the thrill of nature in an urban setting.
Located on the grounds which serve as headquarters for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the Salato Wildlife Education Center opened in 1995.
The Center had a modest beginning – only a handful of indoor and outdoor exhibits, and first year visitors totaled just a little over 35,000.
Today, it’s home to 40 species of animals and visitors number between 50,00 and 55,00 annually (in non-pandemic years.)
However, don’t go expecting to see exotic fauna from Africa, Asia and South America, the way you will in many of America’s theme-park attractions.
As Jules Foster, Branch Manager of Salato Wildlife Education Center, explains it, “We are essentially a small zoo for native Kentucky species.”
That means you will see black bear, bobcat, bison, and bald eagle, as well as tamer species such as deer, turkey, and quail. Inside the Center, are exhibits featuring venomous and non-venomous snakes, frogs, turtles, and fish.
Some of these species, says Foster, such as the alligator gar fish, and Hellbender salamander are in decline and in need of conservation.
Native Kentucky species also make up the Center’s flora. They can be found in a variety of native habitats from the Dragonfly Marsh, a refuge for herons and turtles to a pollinator garden featuring various types of milkweeds. The Davidson Woods, which lead to hiking trails, is an example of a native cedar forest.
Four Miles of Hiking Trails
Salato offers visitors four miles of hiking trails, with levels of difficulty suitable for every hiker, including children who must be accompanied by an adult.
On the Pea Ridge Loop Trail, keep an eye out for owls as they have been spotted in this forest habitat.
The Habitrek Trail, perfect for children, is a good place to see trees such as oak, ash, mulberry, maple, walnut, hickory, cedar, redbud and dogwood, some of which are tagged for identification.
In spring and summer, wildflowers such as trillium, blue phlox, purple larkspur and Brown-eyed Susan carpet the ground, making for a colorful mosaic.
It’s also a great place to see wildlife from cottontail rabbits and white-tailed deer to butterflies and birds.
In addition, the trails offer hikers the opportunity to see native grasses such as Virginia Wild Rye, Little and Big Bluestem and Indian Grass.
Salato Wildlife Center is educational as well as entertaining. There are interactive exhibits suitable for all ages covering a variety of topics from nocturnal wildlife to why fisheries are important to the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s efforts at restoration, specifically with elk and deer.
All the daily programs are conducted by conservation educators on a variety of topics, with one of the most popular being the Raptor Encounter at the Outdoor Amphitheater.
Two Lakes Run Through It
While the Center itself occupies a compact 12 acres, the entire Wildlife and Fisheries campus has several hundred acres with picnic tables, shelters, and two fishing lakes open daily from dawn to dusk. Access to the lakes is free, but a fishing license is required and can be purchased at the front desk of the Education Center.
On a recent Saturday afternoon two distinctly different “fishermen” try their luck with the assortment of fish found in the lakes – bluegill, catfish, largemouth bass, rainbow trout and various other sunfish.
One of them resembles a redheaded, freckle-faced Opie Taylor from “The Andy Griffith Show.” In between flinging his fishing pole, he runs to his father, as if seeking approval.
A few hundred feet away, a man who looks as if he has been outfitted from an L.L. Bean catalogue, casts his rod with the skill of a character straight out of “A River Runs Through It.”
Both levels of fishermen are welcome sights to Foster, who says the Center is “dedicated to connecting people to nature.
“Those who fish, hunt, camp and hike are more likely to care about our natural resources and learn to manage them in a responsible way,” she says.