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Rock Cliff Nature Center is a hub for things to do

By Jessica Eyre for The Daily Herald - | Jul 13, 2014
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The Rock Cliff Nature Center, located in the Wasatch Mountain State Park, is a beautiful place to explore nature and enjoy a great stay-cation. 

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No matter what time of year, the Rock Cliff Nature Center is a great place to take the entire family for an outdoors-filled escape. 

There’s more to Jordanelle State Park than a picturesque reservoir dotted with sailboats and waterskiers.
 
Sure, the man-made lake between Park City and Heber is great for boating, and boy, is it beautiful as you drive along Highway 40 or State Road 23. Stop off at the dam lookout point on S.R. 23; it’s truly breathtaking.

Also part of Jordanelle State Park is Rock Cliff (the reservoir part of the park is called Hailstone), located up and around the corner, so to speak. This part of the park has a system of boardwalks that snake over sections of the Provo River and meander by the 51 available campsites.

And a real gem of Jordanelle lies in the Nature Center, which opened in 1994, a year before the reservoir opened.

Kathy Donnell, the park naturalist, operates the center and is available to school groups and other organizations by appointment.

“The Nature Center is great for kids because everything is touchable,” Donnell said, as my two kids went running in to see the stuffed bear in the entrance.

While you can’t climb on the displays, of course, patrons are welcome to touch the animals — two bears, beaver, porcupine and deer, among others.

Both kids were in awe of the bear’s big, sharp teeth and its tongue that was partially sticking out. A baby bobcat is posed playing with a butterfly. The cub was hit by a car on the highway, and Donnell thought it would be a nice addition to the center.

Other personal finds she has at the center are various antlers — she gave a quick, age-appropriate demonstration of how antlers of elk, deer and moose are different to my 4- and 2-year-old children. There are also various birds. We all measured our “wing span” to see how it compares to varies types of birds. Grace, 4, measured the same as a Peregrine falcon; Caleb, 2, measured to that of a Cooper’s hawk; and I was between an osprey and a turkey vulture.

My favorite was a tree trunk, about 4 inches in diameter that showed evidence of a beaver hard at work — it had various bowls and hatch marks chewed into it. Donnell said she found it among a fairly large patch of trees felled by the rodents. She saved a piece as a teaching tool for the Nature Center.

While the center is small, it was a highlight of our trip to Jordanelle. The kids spent a long while peering at the tank housing a couple of tiger salamanders — the only indigenous species of salamander to Utah — and both got excited when they started walking or swimming.

Outside the center, we walked down the boardwalk and made our way to the Provo River. The kids threw rocks into the water while Donnell and I enjoyed the crisp September weather and talked about the abundant wildlife in the area. At a good clip, you could make the entire boardwalk loop in about a half-hour, but Donnell said if you’re observing the birds and other wildlife, and reading the interpretive signs, it could take you an hour or more.

The campsites surrounding the center are all hike in — nothing strenuous, but it’s not like other sites where you park your car right next to a fire pit and picnic table. The longest distance from the parking lot is about a half-mile. They are small — perfect for a 4- to 6-man tent — and include a fire pit, picnic table and a lot of shade. About half are available for reservation, while the other half are left open on a first-come, first-served basis.

While most of the riverbeds are dry this time of year, Donnell said the water is raging in the spring. And while Hailstone may be loud with the buzzing of people and motorboats, Rock Cliff can be loud with the roar of spring runoff.

The state park is open year-round, however, the Nature Center only has regular weekend hours for another week or so. Donnell said if she’s at the center, she’ll open the doors to any visitors who want to come in. She also hosts various winter programs, such as tracking hikes, moonlight snowshoeing and other events.

Rock Cliff Nature Center

Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Events: Send Kathy Donnell an e-mail, and she’ll put you on her e-mail list to receive announcements and event information. Her e-mail address is kathydonnell@utah.gov. 

Directions: Take I-80 east to US 40 south. At the traffic light, turn left onto State Road 32 east. Travel about 7.5 miles, then turn left on Rock Cliff Road.

Entrance: There often isn’t an attendant at the entrance. Be sure to bring exact change to pay your fee — $7 per car for day use — to put in the payment envelope. An annual state park pass is $75 and is available at the park.

Info: Visit www.stateparks.utah.gov, to find out more about the park or to make a campsite reservation.

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