Take an Animal Adventure at the Western North Carolina Nature Center

This year, the Western North Carolina Nature Center opened its new, 30-foot mining sluice at Explorer’s Outpost.

When it opened during the Great Depression, the Western North Carolina Nature Center was called the Asheville Zoo, and housed exotic animals like elephants, lions and monkeys. Although it closed for a while during the mid-1960s, it reopened in 1973 as the Western North Carolina Nature Center with a new focus on native plants and animals.

The Western North Carolina Nature Center is open year-round, 361 days a year, and there’s no bad time to visit — but you’ll be rewarded if you time your visit well.

Animals at Play

Like the larger, flashier zoos near Charlotte, such as the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in Columbia, South Carolina and the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, the Western North Carolina Nature Center is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. But with its natural setting and smaller size — the nature center sits on 42 acres of southern Appalachian habitat owned and managed by the City of Asheville — it feels more approachable and welcoming.

“It’s just a different experience,” says executive director Kelly Christianson. “One of the things that people really like is that they can take it in in a half-day, and then spend a half-day taking in one of the other Asheville attractions.”

But make no mistake: There’s still plenty to see here. More than 60 species call the Western North Carolina Nature Center home, including black bear, red wolves, raccoons and reptiles, among others. One of the most popular exhibits is Otter Falls, which has many good spots for viewing and is especially fun when the river otters are feeling playful. (Pro tip: Time your visit to coincide with the 11:30 a.m. otter feeding.)

“I go out there on my lunch break and watch the otters,” Christianson says. “It’s one of the most fun things you can do here.”

Other don’t-miss exhibits include the center’s half-mile nature trail along the Swannanoa River and the cougars, a pair of brothers named Pisgah and Mitchell who were named for nearby mountain peaks.

“They are fun to watch, just hanging out with each other and playing with each other,” Christianson says.

Be warned: when it’s hot out, all of the animals can be less active. The best time to come in hotter months, advises Christianson, is in the morning, before the day warms up. But you’re not out of luck if you’re there on a hot afternoon; just check the daily schedule for the “animal moments,” when you’ll get to see the zookeepers interacting with the animals.


Water Play

This year, the Western North Carolina Nature Center opened its new, 30-foot mining sluice at Explorer’s Outpost. (You’ll also find food at Captain Dave’s Pirate Dawgs and a gift shop here.) Visitors can buy roughage for $7 and mine for gemstones, but playing in the water is free with admission ($10.95 for adults, $9.95 for seniors 65 and older, $6.95 for ages 3-15, and free for ages 2 and younger).

“We give kids the opportunity to play undirected, to use nature as a creative play activity,” Christianson says. “When you come here, you’ll see lots of areas designated with a ‘nature play’ sign. It’s really important for kids to be able to appreciate nature on their own terms.”

More Changes on the Way

The Western North Carolina Nature Center is in the midst of executing its vision plan to be completed by 2020. Next up: a new entrance that will make the center easier to access for strollers and wheelchairs; and a separate entrance for school groups, along with new restrooms and additional parking. Perhaps the most exciting change to come is the new butterfly exhibit that will have a permanent structure.

For more information, visit wncnaturecenter.com.

Aleigh Acerni lives in Charlotte with her toddler daughter, husband and doxie-mix dog. Somedays, her life feels like living in a nature center (and it's awesome)!