Wednesday, January 17, 2018

WNC Nature Center / Asheville Wildlife Park

On federal holidays we take a different approach to choosing places to go explore with the kids, as many destinations are closed (such as parks, historic sites and museums), while others offer specific programming meant to care for children while their parents are at work (popular kids’ attractions). We used the recent day off to take a day-trip to  Asheville, to one of my favorites - the Western North Carolina Nature Center. Open 7 days a week (with the exceptions of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve & Day, and New Year's Day), from 10 to 5!

Owned by the City of Asheville, the WNC Nature Center is dedicated to connecting people with the animals and plants of the Southern Appalachians. The location within a bend of the Swannanoa River was previously home to the Asheville Zoo, which housed exotic animals from 1925 until it was transformed into the Nature Center in 1977. (Read more about the fascinating history of the zoo here; it includes tidbits such as that the location of the grave of Henrietta, a three-ton Indian Elephant who spent 30 years at the center, is under what is now the petting zoo area.)

Upon arrival guests enter through the Welcome Center. Prices are reasonable ($6.95 for children ages 3-15 and $10.95 for adults, with discounts to Buncombe County Residents and seniors), but we got in for free; as an accredited AZA and ASTC member, the center participates in the passport reciprocity program offering discounted admission to over 350 zoos, aquariums and science centers nationwide including the Greenville Zoo and Roper Mountain Science Center. There are only eight AZA –accredited facilities in North Carolina: among them the Durham Museum of Life and Science and the Greensboro Science Center.

Pisgah and Mitchell, the resident cougars

We headed for the raccoon and fox enclosures first, passing two Nature Play areas on our way. These zones are located throughout the park and feature activities such as natural balance beams and stump jumps, musical instruments, art sites and more. At “builder’s Deck” the boys built a racecourse with chutes, and then just behind the Turtle Amphitheater they built a lean-to while listening to the sounds of pebble-triggered instruments. Age-appropriate scavenger hunts are also available – see the website to print those out before your visit.

Nature Play areas are located throughout the park!

The Small Mammal exhibits opened in 2009 and are home to red & gray foxes and raccoons. In addition to education, one of the main goals of the center is to allow the public to see the animals in their natural habitat, with little-to-no cages or concrete. Large viewing windows accommodate visitors of all sizes, while fencing allows views into the enclosure while not making it seem confined.

Sassy the raccoon and Toby the red fox

When the otter feeding was announced we headed to Brandon’s Otter Falls where we met Olive and Obi Wan Kenobi, two North American River Otters. The exhibit features underwater viewing and a flowing river, and while the keeper fed the otters he discussed their care and habits.

The resident otters, the lower underwater viewing area, and the otter slide play area

Next up, the 4-acre Appalachian Predators exhibit features coyotes, cougars & bobcats, and contains the red & gray wolf habitats. The red wolf exhibit opened in 2008 and complies with the requirements of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan. In 1980 there were fewer than 20 wolves remaining in the wild, while today approximately 90 – 110 wild red wolves live at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Since 1990, 13 red wolf pups have been born at the WNC Nature Center.

The two gray wolves, Nova and Wayah, were born in a wildlife facility in Montana and came to the Nature Center in June of 2014. We got an up-close view of the wolves, giving an adrenaline-rush despite the thick safety glass separating us from these skilled hunters.

Stare down!

We paused in the Arachnid Adventure Playground for some more nature play; the boys climbed webs while I hunted for the spider sculptures hidden there. The Trillium Nature Trail begins at this end; the 0.6 mile trail winds through the forest along the Swannanoa River.

After a hot chocolate break at the Explorer’s Outpost (which has gem mining during the warmer months) to warm up we stopped at the Main Barn and Petting Zoo area. It was too cold to pet the animals on our visit; however we enjoyed additional Nature Play areas before circling around Black Bear Ridge.

This Cotswold sheep (Gibson) is a resident of the petting zoo

The black bears were already hibernating, but the white tailed deer were out in the adjacent enclosure. This whole area will see a large revamp in the coming years, as the next phase of the park’s “2020 Vision” will feature a new and improved park entrance, the addition of species such as the red panda, and a new name: Asheville Wildlife Park. You can download your copy of the master site plan here.

The bear enclosure, with the main barn visible in the background

We made one final pass through the heart of the zoo, greeting the Birds of Prey and exploring the “World Underground” before entering Appalachian Station. The indoor exhibit features a variety of reptiles including rattlesnakes and copperheads, as well as amphibians and small mammals. I took a break on one of the benches in the center while the boys circled the aquariums and terrariums, locating each inhabitant and discussing their favorites.

What makes the WNC Nature Center unique is that it concentrates exclusively on the wildlife of the Southern Appalachians. Throughout the 42 acres visitors will find engaging exhibits and hands-on nature play centers, offering a wealth of information and entertainment. And it just keeps getting better! On our way out we passed the construction zone on the lower lot; we’ll be back soon to watch the progress towards the Nature Center’s transformation into the Asheville Wildlife Park!

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