Natural Areas

  • Water flowing over rocks on the Big Otter River
    The Big Otter River at Claytor Nature Center (© FedByAdventure)

The Claytor Nature Center boasts open fields, woodlands, riverside cliffs, wetlands, a wide variety of flora and fauna, and more than 8 miles of trails.

  • 491 total acres under a Virginia Outdoors Foundation conservation easement
  • 240 acres of upland and lowland forests
  • 70 acres of wetland and riparian habitat
  • Four ponds and several intermittent streams
  • One mile of the Big Otter River
  • More than 800 species of flora and fauna

The Claytor Nature Center lies between 800 and 1,000 feet above sea level. There are slopes of every aspect and degree on the property, ranging from the open floodplain of the Big Otter River and relatively flat uplands to vertical and overhanging rock faces. The land was managed as a farm from the late 1700s until the mid-to-late 1900s. Thanks in part to its varied topography, the center now includes a variety of aquatic and terrestrial habitat types, and some sections are managed for environmental conservation and restoration as part of agreements with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.


Forest stands on the property range in age from early successional to mature forest with well-developed canopies, natural canopy gaps, and large fallen logs. Some of the more mature forest appears to not have been cleared for agriculture in recent centuries. Across the property, some trees measure over 36″ dbh and are estimated to be 200 years old or older.

Forest types on more acidic or nutrient-poor soils are primarily oak-hickory. Mature white pine stands are largely or even entirely free of invasive plants, and are in places dominated by an understory of mountain laurel.

Upland, mid-slope, and riparian areas where more fertile circumneutral soils developed also harbor some mature stands, but have experienced more recent human disturbance. They are in various stages of succession into beech-maple forest. Invasive plants are a problem in these areas, but portions remain largely free of them. Multiflora rose is in decline from the rose rosette virus, and active management over the past two decades has functionally eliminated Ailanthus, or tree of heaven.

On the floodplain, the river banks and more mature forest here are dominated by sycamore, box elder, green ash, and black walnut. There are a few healthy butternut trees and some mature pin oak, which is unusual for the area. Much of the floodplain is restored wetland and was planted in pin oak, water oak, willow oak, and persimmon. There are both wet and drier, sandy floodplain areas.

Warm-Season Grasses and Open Fields

Since the property changed hands in 1998, significant acreages of both upland and floodplain fields have been planted in a mixture of switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass. The floodplain tract is being managed as an active floodplain and riparian buffer. Portions of upland tracts that were formerly used for pasture and row crops are being managed for hay. The fields are dominated by tall fescue and crownbeard, and are minimally managed by occasional liming and mowing. The remainder of the fields are being allowed to naturally regenerate into forest.

Wetlands and Riparian Habitats

The Big Otter River is a relatively healthy, clean stream with a dynamic floodplain. Beaver, otter, and fishing birds have been seen by visitors and documented with wildlife cameras. Several smaller streams run through the property. There are also two human-made ponds, two small natural ponds, and more than five vernal pools across the property. Claytor’s vernal pools support more than a dozen documented amphibian species, including seven species of salamander and 10 species of frogs. Two areas of mature swamp forest support plants such as skunk cabbage, trout lily, and arrow arum.

Through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, an 18-acre section of land adjacent to the Big Otter River has been converted into a conserved riparian habitat.

Another 50-acre lowland area that was formerly used as cropland has been restored to its native wetland habitat under the agency’s Wetland Reserve Easements program. As part of this process, a few thousand trees were planted to facilitate restoration.

Flora and Fauna

Claytor Nature Center’s diverse habitat types support a wide array of flora and fauna, including rare. We welcome researchers to survey our property or to submit sightings of taxa, particularly those that may be uncommon or rare species. If you are interested in conducting taxonomic surveys, please reach out to [email protected] to discuss access.

We also encourage casual visitors to upload any photos they may have to the iNaturalist app to allow data access for researchers worldwide.

You may access some of our formally documented species through our compiled resources:

Measures are used to control noxious exotic plant species such as kudzu, knotweed, and multiflora rose. Each of these invasives can be a serious impediment to growth of native vegetation.