Go On An NC Animal Safari
From lush mountains to sandy beaches, North Carolina’s diverse landscape provides welcoming homes for a variety of animals. Here's a list of places to observe them at play in their natural habitats:
Aquariums of North Carolina
No matter where you vacation on the North Carolina coast, an aquarium is not far away. There are aquariums on the northern, Crystal and southern coast and each is unique, featuring different exhibits from various parts of the state.
At the Roanoke Island location on the Outer Banks, you can see the largest collection of sharks in the state and touch a variety of aquatic and semi-aquatic creatures in the Close Encounters exhibit.
The Pine Knoll Shores aquarium's exhibits lead you from the mountains to the sea as you follow a stream’s journey to the ocean. See river otters play, discover the fish found in our rivers and the reptiles in our marshes, then make your way to the open sea. While you’re there, don’t miss the white sea turtle and hear its story.
At the Fort Fisher location, climb into the replica jaws of the Megalodon, a prehistoric shark the size of a bus that lived right off our coast. Time your visit to see the alligator feeding, or get to know Luna, the albino alligator, anytime.
For another aquatic experience on the coast, visit Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. The pier was recently rebuilt and now hosts a variety of education programs from fishing lessons to kids’ science camps to cooking classes, and, of course, a great opportunity for fishing.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Only miles inland from the Roanoke Island aquarium, visitors can take a guided safari into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This 154,000-acre refuge was established to preserve a unique wetland habitat type called the pocosin, which is a Native American word meaning “swamp-on-the-hill.” Be on the lookout for ducks, geese, swans, raptors, alligators, deer, river otters, red wolves and black bears.
Two half-mile trails will guide you to two different types of habitats. The Creef Cut Wildlife Trail takes visitors out into a freshwater swamp while the Sandy Ridge Wildlife Trail leads to 2,300 feet of boardwalk through a cypress swamp. Both trails are wheelchair and stroller accessible and offer many opportunities to see animals in their natural habitats.
Sign up for the nighttime Red Wolf Howling Safari and learn to “talk” to the refuge’s largely unseen red wolf population by howling. If you’re lucky, the wolves will howl back. The tours are every Wednesday in the summer; be sure to bring a flashlight and get ready for an unforgettable experience. There are also guided canoe tours on 15 miles of water trails and tram tours on a driving trail that is prime for black bear sightings.
NC Zoological Park
The North Carolina zoo is one-stop shopping for animal adventure. Divided into North American and African sections, there are over 1,100 animals to get to know. Some of the newest and most popular attractions can be found in the African habitats.
First, stroll out onto what’s known as an “immersion walkway” above the Watani Grasslands Reserve – a 40-acre exhibit simulating the plains of Africa. From this vantage point, you can spot elephants, white rhinos, ostriches and other animals that roam the grasslands of Africa. Next, get eye-to-eye with giraffes by climbing to the top of the Acacia Station Giraffe Deck. The viewing deck offers a tree-top view and a perfect place for a picture. Don’t leave before watching the leaping lemurs at the Lemur Island exhibit. These primates naturally love to leap and there are plenty of climbing trees for them to play on so visitors can enjoy their amazing acrobatics.
Other Must-See Animal Attractions
Carolina Tiger Rescue
A reservation-only guided tour introduces visitors to the tigers and other endangered carnivores that live here. Located 30 miles west of Raleigh in Pittsboro, Carolina Tiger Rescue provides homes to wild cats in need of rescue and educates the public about threats to these animals. Tours, including a seasonal twilight tour, bring you close to the animals at their most active times.
Carolina Raptor Center
Located in Historic Latta Plantation Park near Charlotte, the center offers self-guided tours to view and learn about eagles, hawks, owls and other raptors. The facility is home to more than 20 species and takes in about 700 injured or orphaned birds annually. A stroll on the three-quarter-mile nature trail will allow you to see the raptors and learn how the center became their home. Interactive programs for kids of all ages are also available.
Lazy 5 Ranch
This animal attraction in Mooresville is home to more than 750 animals from six continents. You can view rhinos, giraffes, zebras and many more during a horse-drawn wagon ride, or drive your own vehicle on the three-and-a-half-mile safari route. To get a closer look, head to the petting area where you can see smaller animals such as birds, lemurs and porcupines. Sheep, camels, llamas and goats are eager for you to feed them.
This iconic North Carolina attraction in Linville is best known for its hiking trails and Mile High Swinging Bridge but it is also a great place to get an up-close view of the animals that call this area home. Visitors stand only feet away from the seven natural habitats that house black bears, river otters, cougars, bald eagles, golden eagles and white-tailed deer. A special aquarium lets you watch as river otters dive and play. If you’re feeling really adventurous, try the Backcountry Hiking Trails. These trails are home to 16 distinct ecosystems and 73 rare or endangered animal species.
Western North Carolina Nature Center
This 70-year-old facility in Asheville is a great place for children to touch, explore and learn more about the animals that are native to the Southern Appalachian Region. Red and gray wolves, cougars, bobcats and coyotes prowl in the predator habitat while river otters flip and frolic in the otter area. Smaller children will love the Educational Farm where rabbits, sheep and goats are eager to say hello. Inside there are interactive exhibits, special programs and hands-on experiences in the Nature Lab. View native night animals in the Nocturnal Hall, such as skunks, herons, opossums and screech owls.
Jason Frye contributed to this article
added: August 4, 2010
updated: February 29, 2012
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