In North Carolina, wild animals love to come out and play, often even posing for photo ops in their natural habitats. Here are some places you can perch, roam, learn about and observe the fascinating creatures that share our state with us.
1 Duke Lemur Center
1 Duke Lemur CenterDurhamSee on map
The Duke Lemur Center is a non-invasive research facility that holds the world’s largest and most diverse population of lemurs outside Madagascar. To get up close and personal to these wide-eyed creatures, choose from a multitude of tours ranging from large public tours to learning how to be a lemur keeper for a day – just make sure you have a reservation; they’re required. You can even symbolically “adopt” a lemur, where the proceeds go toward the care and conservation of this endangered mammal, or send the lemurs a present from their wish list. Keep an eye out for a thank you card from your lemur friends if you do.
2 Greensboro Science Center
2 Greensboro Science CenterGreensboroSee on map
This destination is home to a museum, aquarium and zoo, and it’s all included in one general admission fee. In the museum, kids are blown away by the size of the dinosaur models and from the winds of hurricane forces in the Extreme Weather Gallery. The aquarium features penguins, sharks, otters, eels, stingrays and a variety of fish. And the zoo offers up-close views of tigers, meerkats, lemurs, crocodiles, a red panda, farm animals and more.
3 Western North Carolina Nature Center
3 Western North Carolina Nature CenterAshevilleSee on map
This facility showcases animals native to the Southern Appalachians. Red and gray wolves, cougars, bobcats, and coyotes prowl in the predator habitat, and river otters swim and play in their own special area at the Western North Carolina Nature Center. There’s an Educational Farm outside, plus 42 acres of interactive exhibits in the Nature Center.
4 North Carolina Zoo
4 North Carolina ZooAsheboroSee on map
More than 1,700 animals representing 200+ species will amuse and amaze you at a zoo divided into “Africa” and “North America.” ("Asia" is scheduled to open in the next few years.) In Africa, you can get eye-to-eye with a giraffe, castaway to Lemur Island and head for an "immersion walkway" above the Watani Grasslands. From this vantage point you can spot elephants, white rhinos, ostriches and other animals in a spacious habitat that stands in for the grasslands of Africa. From there, you can walk or take a tram to North America, where habitats range from a cypress swamp to a desert.
5 North Carolina Aquariums
5 North Carolina AquariumsRoanoke Island, Pine Knoll Shores, Fort Fisher
No matter where you vacation on the NC coast, an aquarium is never far away. At the Roanoke Island aquarium on the Outer Banks, you can see the largest collection of sharks in our state and touch a variety of aquatic and semi-aquatic creatures in the Sea Senses tank. Exhibits at the Pine Knoll Shores aquarium near Atlantic Beach lead you from the mountains to the sea as you follow a stream’s journey to the ocean, watching river otters, fish and reptiles along the way. At the Fort Fisher location, you can climb into the replica jaws of the Megalodon, a prehistoric shark the size of a bus that lived right off our coast. You can also visit Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head for a variety of educational programs from fishing lessons to kids’ science camps.
6 Lazy 5 Ranch
6 Lazy 5 RanchMooresvilleSee on map
More than 750 animals from six continents call the Lazy 5 Ranch home. You can board a horse-drawn wagon to view rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and many other striped and spotted residents. Or drive your own vehicle on the 3.5-mile route and expect shrieks of laughter from your kids as they hand-feed ostriches, llamas, zebras and other animals that come right up to your windows.
7 Grandfather Mountain
7 Grandfather MountainLinvilleSee on map
Best known for its hiking trails and Mile High Swinging Bridge, this iconic North Carolina attraction also gives you an up-close view of local animals, ranging from black bears and cougars to bald eagles and river otters. If you’re feeling really adventurous, try the Backcountry Hiking Trails, home to 16 distinct ecosystems and more than 70 rare or endangered animal species.
8 Animal Park at the Conservators Center
8 Animal Park at the Conservators CenterBurlingtonSee on map
Lions, tigers and bobcats are just three of the many species totaling more than 70 exotic animals you’ll see up close. The Animal Park at the Conservators Center focuses on education, conservation and rescue. And it also offers a variety of tours year-round, including some specifically for kids and families, as well as seasonal tours.
9 Carolina Tiger Rescue
9 Carolina Tiger RescuePittsboroSee on map
Take a reservations-only guided tour to meet tigers and other endangered carnivores that have found sanctuary at the Carolina Tiger Rescue facility 30 miles west of Raleigh. Tours, including a seasonal twilight tour, bring you close to the animals at their most active times.
10 Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
10 Alligator River National Wildlife RefugeManteoSee on map
This 150,000-plus-acre refuge was established to preserve a wetland habitat called the pocosin, a Native American word meaning ‟swamp-on-the-hill.” You can walk trails into a freshwater swamp or a cypress swamp, or take a tram or guided canoe tour to look for animals ranging from swans and river otters to black bears.
11 Carolina Raptor Center
11 Carolina Raptor CenterHuntersvilleSee on map
Walk along this center’s 0.75-mile nature trail to see and learn about more than 30 species of eagles, hawks, owls, and other raptors or birds of prey. The Carolina Raptor Center takes in about 900 injured or orphaned birds annually, and it offers interactive programs for kids of all ages.