Pacifica Gardens near Williams is known to thousands of Jackson and Josephine County school children as the place with the big caterpillar. Between 6,000 and 8,000 elementary-school students a year learn about science and nature in a mobile laboratory housed in a trailer once shaped like a large caterpillar.

Pacifica Gardens near Williams is known to thousands of Jackson and Josephine County school children as the place with the big caterpillar. Between 6,000 and 8,000 elementary-school students a year learn about science and nature in a mobile laboratory housed in a trailer once shaped like a large caterpillar.

"The original idea started with schools' budget woes. They couldn't visit us, so we decided to go to them," says Peg Prag, who with her husband, Ray, founded the nonprofit Pacifica in 1998 on 423 acres near Williams in the Applegate Valley.

As many as 100 kids a day learn first hand about geology, plants, fossils, soil and other science topics in four activity stations housed inside the caterpillar.

"The kids love it because it's hands-on, and the teachers love it because it's bench-marked with their standards. Science, nature — that's something kids don't get enough of," Prag adds.

Each child is given a journal to record their experiences in the caterpillar. This gives the child something to take home and something to share with parents.

A few years ago, the caterpillar developed a few leaks and was upgraded. Although the newer, longer trailer is rectangular-shaped, it has retained the old name.

The 2010 caterpillar program is called "Riddles and Biodiversity." After passing through the four stations — genetics, giraffes, adaptations and vertebrates & invertebrates — each child is given a bookmark to take home with a riddle printed on it. One of the staff's early favorites is:

Q: What would you like to be on a hot day? A: A little otter.

A new outdoor caterpillar is now in the works to supplement the week-long summer day camp Pacifica has offered for several years, according to Prag.

"Kids have a daily nature-learning activity, arts and crafts, playing and phys ed, especially swimming," Prag says.

Like so many other programs at Pacifica, the activities for the young have expanded to include the young at heart.

"We hope to have a zip-line in this fall; it's part of the 'challenge activities' to develop team-building, trust. It includes a ropes course," says Prag.

The zip-line should be in place for the fall Family Festival Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 23-24. The caterpillar will sport a Halloween theme for that weekend. Other activities included in the $10-per-car entrance fee are pony rides, mask making, story telling, and a petting zoo, to name a few. Live music, an art show and plenty of food will entertain the adults.

Fall is a great time to visit Pacifica with the entire family on any day of the week.

Three miles of trails have been constructed through Pacifica and adjacent property managed by the Bureau of Land Management, winding through a variety of ecological habitats, including oak savannah, pine forests and chaparral. Interpretive signs are in the works. Trails on the BLM side run past old gold mines, and several hikers have created geocaches near the trail, so don't forget your GPS.

Bring a picnic when you come to hike, as well as a fishing pole. Catch and release for bass and bluegill is a popular activity in a pond that covers more than an acre. Several botanical gardens are scattered throughout the Pacifica grounds, making for an enjoyable stroll.

These activities are free and are available any day, except during special-event days. Call in advance for the schedule.

The botanical gardens are the long-term focus of Pacifica's efforts.

"One reason Ray and I moved here 35 years ago was because of the botanical richness. We're trying to make a home for many plants here at Pacifica," says Prag.

The Prags have owned the company Forest Farm for many years. Forest Farm is a native-plants nursery that sells more than 5,000 plant varieties, primarily through a catalog with national distribution.

The Prags have reached retirement age and have decided to gift their business to Pacifica.

But with all the projects in the queue for new gardens at Pacifica, the Prags are unlikely ever to retire officially. Pacifica is the legacy they hope to leave.

"Pacifica will now have a for-profit nursery, but will be run by a nonprofit," says Prag. "This will hopefully help to stabilize Pacifica's budget."