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Welcome to
McDowell Nature Center and Preserve - Charlotte and Mecklenburg County Parks

McDowell Nature Center and Preserve - Mecklenburg County Park and Rec

15222 York Road

GPS: 35.1050, -81.025

View Larger Map 

Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department
5841 Brookshire Blvd.
Charlotte, NC 28216

Phone: 704-336-3854

Explore McDowell Nature Center and Preserve

McDowell Nature Center serves as the gateway to the 1108-acre McDowell Nature Preserve and is the source for educational programs and information on the preserve's natural communities, flora, and fauna. The preserve, the oldest in Mecklenburg County, has been left 90% undeveloped and protects mostly forested, rolling terrain along the banks of Lake Wylie.

Location and Directions

McDowell Nature Center and Nature Preserve is located at 15222 York Road in southwestern Mecklenburg County.

Traveling South on I-77 from Charlotte
Near the NC/SC border, take Exit 90 onto Carowinds Boulevard. Go west approximately 3 miles to Highway 49 (York Road). Turn left on Highway 49 and travel 4 miles. The nature preserve entrance is on the right.

Getting Around Inside the Preserve

McDowell Nature Preserve is a large facility. It is over 1 mile from the entrance to the waterfront.  Visitors can walk between amenities such as the campground, picnic areas, or nature center, but most prefer to drive. To help minimize traffic with the preserve, visitors with bicycles are encouraged to utilize them to travel from one amenity to another. Please remember all bikes must remain on paved roads and are not allowed on hiking trails. Campground patrons are particularly encouraged to bring bicycles to help minimize their vehicle use within the preserve.

History and Description

McDowell Park was the first major park owned and operated by Mecklenburg County. In 1975, Crescent Land and Timber Corporation (Crescent Resources), a subsidiary of Duke Power, donated 136 acres on Lake Wylie to Mecklenburg County. The area had once been part of Camp Steere, a Boy Scout camp. An additional 10 acres was purchased from Tom Henderson of Corpus Christi, Texas. 

The park first opened in June of 1976. A Bureau of Outdoor Recreation Grant of $620,000 funded the development of the first facilities within the park, including McDowell Nature Center. The park was named for John McDowell, a prominent Commissioner and Chairman of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission from 1966 - 1974.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, additional acreage was purchased adjacent to the park and the area was designated the "Southwest Nature Preserve." Funding for the purchase was obtained through Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF). The entire property was designated McDowell Nature Preserve following the approval of the Nature Preserve Master Plan in 1997. Additional acreage has been added over the past several years bringing the current total to 1,108 acres.

Most of the property was logged or "high-graded" during the middle 1900's leaving only immature hardwood trees standing. The trees that remained make up the mature forest community types found on the property today. 

Its diversity of natural communities includes upland hardwood forests, open fields, streams, the 9-acre Dodge City Prairie and the 140-acre McDowell Prairie, now one of the largest grassland/shrubland communities remaining in Mecklenburg County. Both of the Piedmont Prairie restoration sites protect the federally endangered Schweinitz's sunflower.


Traditionally one of the most popular sites in Mecklenburg County, McDowell Nature Preserve offers a wealth of a outdoor recreation opportunities. Canoe and kayak enthusiasts will find a landing near the waterfront area that provides direct access to Lake Wylie. Anglers ages 16 and older must have a NC State Fishing License. Numerous fishing opportunities are available. 

A playground provides hours of enjoyment for children. A reservable medium (40 person) picnic shelter, a reservable picnic pavilion (200 person), a reservable waterfront deck, along with numerous picnic decks and tables with grills provide picnic opportunities and nearby restrooms for families, corporations, or individuals. The waterfront deck is also a popular destination for weddings

If all of that is not enough to take in during one day, you can stay the night at the preserve's 56-site family campground complete with RV sites, tent sites, and a Rent-A-Tent program where a 9'x12' tent and two cots are provided. The campground even has hot showers!

McDowell Nature Center features live, native animals, an exhibit hall, and a gift shop. Outside, visitors can stop and observe nature in action at the National Wildlife Federation certified Backyard Habitat Garden which includes bird feeding stations, seasonal butterfly gardens, garden pond, and a demonstration compost area.


McDowell Nature Preserve has 7 miles of trails offering hikers and nature enthusiasts the opportunity to explore a variety of terrains while enjoying scenic views of the lake, forests, and streams. The Four Seasons Trail, a 1-mile loop located near the nature center, is paved and handicap accessible. 

Mountain bikes are permitted only on paved roads within the preserve. Dogs are welcome on preserve trails, but must remain on a 6-foot or shorter leash at all times. All trails are marked with color symbols. Download a full-color, pocketsized trail map.

Flora and Fauna

McDowell Nature Preserve preserves habitat for 119 species of birds, 21 species of mammals, 21 species of reptiles, and 14 species of amphibians. Among the unusual species that have been found at the Preserve are: Seminole bat (first record in NC), spotted salamander, Gulf Coast spiny softshell turtle, and Loggerhead Shrike. 

McDowell Nature Preserve is also well known for its diversity of spring ephemeral wildflowers and is among the best areas in Mecklenburg County to view Pileated Woodpecker. The Preserve protects a federally endangered plant (Schweinitz's sunflower), a federal candidate species (Georgia's aster), and one rare plant (prairie dock) at its two Piedmont Prairie restoration sites.

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