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Weather exhibit NCAR national center for atmospheric research
Children learn how clouds form in a hands-on cloud simulation at NCAR. Photo courtesy National Center for Atmospheric Research/Carlye Calvin

Touch a Cloud at NCAR in Boulder

The National Center for Atmospheric Research gives kids a hands-on lesson in weather.

My family and I stumbled on the Mesa Laboratory earlier this year while exploring Chautauqua Park’s trail system. Designed by architect I.M. Pei to resemble ancient Indian cliff dwellings in southwest Colorado, the facility is the headquarters for the National Center for Atmospheric Research—NCAR for short—a nonprofit organization providing local and national science communities with an array of resources, from supercomputers to research aircraft.

Set against the flatirons, the futuristic concrete and stone structure is hard to miss, and my husband and I were more than a little intrigued by the Mesa Laboratory’s fortress-like architecture. My kids were more interested in the inside of the building—specifically NCAR’s first-floor visitor center. It’s accessible from the building’s east entrance, and packed with a series of hands-on exhibits built to inspire budding scientists.

After grabbing a map of NCAR’s exhibits—available near the front desk—education specialist Tiffany Fourment recommends starting in the NCAR theater (just beyond the Weather Gallery) with a viewing of Air, Planet, People, one of four short films for guests of all ages. After the show, my husband and I chased our boys around while they touched clouds, viewed a tornado created by crosswinds, steered a hurricane, and tackled a cloud-inspired memory game on a giant touch-screen computer. It felt like playtime, but my children were gaining a whole new perspective on weather, climate, and the sun-earth connection. In this mom’s opinion, few things beat sneaky summertime education like this. Best of all, the whole experience was free.

As a family, we browsed a rotating art collection in the NCAR cafeteria (on the south end of the building) and my kids made their own art at a station tucked under the stairwell near the main entrance. Upstairs, a secondary art station focuses on climate, and is accompanied by a series of interpretive panels about climate change. Fourment notes that for kids, the upstairs is a little more information-heavy, but the greenhouse gas game is a must-try.

Free hour-long public tours are offered Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at noon. After linking up in the lobby, tour-goers learn all about atmospheric science and current research as a guide offers an up-close look into the center’s exhibits. There’s no need to make a reservation, and if you miss the group tour, you can pick up tablets at the front desk (or download the NCAR Tour app on your phone) for a self-guided audio-video tour.

Why all the kid amenities in a working science lab? “Our original director, Walter Orr Roberts, valued not only high-level science, but connection with the public,” explains Fourment. “That’s what has always driven the amount of effort and resources we put into education and outreach.”

On the west side of the building, families run into the Walter Orr Roberts Weather Trail, a half-mile loop with informational signage. If you’re craving big adventure, consider taking Mesa Trail until it links with Enchanted Mesa Trail. This 2-mile out-and-back hike weaves through a shadier section of Chautauqua Park before ending at Chautauqua Dining Hall, a stellar stop-off known for its fresh bistro cuisine and wraparound views.

Check it Out:
1850 Table Mesa Dr., Boulder
Need to Know:
The visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays.
Insider Secret:
Chautauqua Dining Hall overlooks one of my children’s favorite playgrounds, a nature-based space with boulders, slides, and wooden and metal structures. Let your kids get their sillies out, then hike back to NCAR, or, if you’re worn out, hop in an Uber to your car.

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