Roughly a week ago, I wrote about our family resolution to experience more things in the New Year; specifically, we vowed to have more new adventures in 2016. We have lived in Asheville, North Carolina for over a year and there are a million things we have not done. We are within a one hour driving distance of four other states, and if we were feeling at all adventurous, we could road trip to any of seven US states in less than three hours. How many people can say that? And yet, in the last year, we have barely explored our hometown. So today, we set off!
First adventure in the new year? The Western North Carolina Nature Center.
First things first: this is not a “zoo” in the traditional sense. It is a wildlife park that specifically showcases animals residing in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. There are no elephants or polar bears – so don’t visit, expecting to see a sampling of Asiatic mammals or something you would find on an African safari. Do expect to see a vast number of exhibits that will make you say “I’ve never seen one of those before!” From the “Snot Otter” (American Hellbender Giant Salamander) to the “Least Weasel”, you will definitely spy some curious critters that (apparently) reside in your own backyard, as well as being able to safely get up close and personal with a few critters you might not be excited to encounter in the wild.
The forty-two acre park is laid out in a large loop that is stroller and wheelchair friendly. There are two play areas for children, a petting zoo that showcases animals you could find on a local farm, a reptile/amphibian house, outdoor enclosures featuring bears, deer, wolves, native wildcats, birds of prey…and the star of the park, a River Otter exhibit that feels nearly interactive. We wandered the entire park and came back for more otters!
After our initial stroll, we meandered into Captain Dave’s Pirate Dogs cafe and gift shop where we were treated to a warm woodburning fireplace and cozy cafe seating – a welcome break from the 46° outdoor temps. Together, we tried the veggie dog with homemade black bean salsa, the Nathan’s all beef hotdog, and a bratwurst with sauerkraut and spicy mustard. All were excellent, and the black bean salsa has us planning a second trip already. Captain Dave (yes, there really is a Captain Dave) and his wife are true Asheville foodies, handcrafting toppings for their gourmet dogs that include the black bean salsa we adored, and a chutney we sampled after the fact, and regretted not ordering as well. In addition to hot drinks and cafe foods, you can find handcrafted gift shop items, souvenirs, and tchotchkes. We bought a lovely silver bookmark, two packages of hand warmers, and some hairclips that look like cat ears. My Ruby Girl was thrilled.
Pleasantly satiated, sporting handwarmers and souvenirs, we headed back out into the 46° weather (did I mention it was cold?) We admired the White Tailed Deer trio, and laughed as the same deer compulsively groomed its friend’s ears the entire time we were on the viewing deck.
After completing the loop and viewing the birds of prey, the wild cats, the foxes, wolves and coyotes, we took a 3/4 mile hike on a well groomed nature trail that runs along the Swannanoa River. This trail would not be suitable for strollers, wheelchairs or anyone that has difficulty walking. It is a true hike, complete with exposed roots, fallen trees, rocky paths and mud. It was great for our eight-year-old to burn off some more energy and she even got to dip her toes in the cold river water; brr! The footpath makes a loop and brings you back to the trail head where you started. After our hike, the kids played for a bit on the “Arachnid Adventure” playground where two large web-like rope structures invite you in for climbing. There were benches and even covered picnic areas on each of the playgrounds. Checking with the nature center, they reported it is fine for you to bring in your own picnic lunches, and there are refuse collection areas including recycling bins.
We spent four hours at the center, walking, playing, eating and viewing. We would have undoubtedly spent more time if we had attended one or more scheduled presentations, or if we had planned our trek during warmer weather.
Because of our timing and the chill, we missed out on some of the animals due to hibernation (black bears) and their being moved into a private barn enclosure for warmth (marmots). And because of the cold, many of the animals were less active than we had hoped. All of the canines and felines were asleep when we arrived, and later in the day, we only spied one wolf on the move. We definitely plan to visit again in the late spring when the animals are sure to be more active.
We really enjoyed the otters, the petting zoo, the cost, and the size of the park (it never felt as though we would lose our youngest rambunctious child if she ran ahead.) One of the most pleasant surprises – how incredibly knowledgeable the staff and volunteers are. You expect them to be able to direct you to an exhibit or a bathroom, but seldom have I been to a zoo or wildlife park where the staff can tell you the names, ages and history of nearly every animal on exhibit. Many of the animals come in as orphans or rescues, some are part of national breeding programs. We were floored by the depth of knowledge staff, and even volunteers possessed.
In terms of value, we found the admission prices to be a bit high if you paid ala carte, so to speak. Adult admission is $10.95 and children under fifteen years are $6.95. Entry for our family would have cost us $50.75 for two teens, two adults and one child. We opted to purchase the family membership, allowing us unlimited visits for one year at a cost of $69.00. The beauty of the one year pass is that zoo society admission is reciprocated at full cost or a 50% discount at 150 facilities across the nation. We can visit the Atlanta Zoo, the Nashville Zoo, or even the Zoological park in Boston for a 50% discount. Any of the aquariums or zoos in North Carolina are free to card carrying WNC Nature Center members. If we visit the aquarium at Fort Fisher, NC, our family will save $52.75 in admission costs. If we trek to the zoo in Asheboro, NC, we will save $56.00 in admission costs. The reciprocal benefits alone make membership well worth it. The added benefit of purchasing a membership is the fact that we will make a return trip. A family activity where we will be “unplugged”, exercising, taking pictures and making memories. Hooray for experiences in 2016!