With sunny, clear days throughout most of the year, North Carolina and South Carolina are great states to find outside activities. The Carolinas have several amazing places to see animals of all varieties. Some places display the local and native, others the wild and far-from-home, and some a combination of both.
I’ve not included aquatic locations in this post, though there certainly are a few aquariums between the two states as well. And, of course, amazing beaches abound.
For a full list of wild and wonderful ideas for exploring the Outer Banks of North Carolina – including the ocean (obviously!), and an aquarium, and the wild horses of Corolla – keep this post handy.
If the beach isn’t in your plans this time around, check out these other five great places to see animals in the Carolinas.
North Carolina Zoo
The North Carolina Zoo is huge – specifically, it is the world’s largest natural habitat zoo! Practical translation: if you are bringing anyone under preschool age, bring a stroller or wagon. Their little legs will get tired, but their enthusiasm will not die.
The North Carolina Zoo sits on 500 developed acres and 2,600 wooded acres. Plenty of space to appreciate alligators, elephants, gorillas, polar bears, and so, so many more animals of the world.
The NC Zoo’s approach to education and conservation is comprehensive. Plants and animals are considered in their layout and the zoo has committed to several initiatives supporting sustainable actions.
Check their website for Covid-19 adjustments and for tips for visiting. There is a Covid Park map PDF that also has a page of general updates and tips about their altered attractions and availability. They also have an extensive list of tips for visiting the zoo at different times of the year – may be good to look at in order to set expectations and prepare for the weather.
SIDENOTE: The NC ZOO is located in ASHEBORO, NC. Don’t get it confused, as I did when making plans with my sister, with the Wildlife of North Carolina Nature Center in ASHEVILLE, NC. Both may come up if you enter a general search for zoos in North Carolina. Check to make sure you have the right one!
Riverbanks Zoo & Garden
Visitors to Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in Columbia, SC will be delighted even before purchasing tickets. Grand, imaginative displays of animals stir young minds before they even have a chance to encounter the real thing. Wander the well-maintained paths and see a komodo dragon, elephants, alligators, giraffes, flamingoes and so many more animals!
Be prepared for a nasal assault when you enter the penguin location – it’s a bit of a stinky surprise, but totally worth it to see the different species inside.
One of the first exhibits you’ll encounter are the sea lions, and they can be downright enjoyable to watch! Sometimes friendly, sometimes aloof, their grace in the water is surprising and delightful. Go inside the attached building to see their underwater antics.
Take a look at the large turtle sculpture made from trash found in the ocean. Typically I’m in favor of art that reminds us of God’s work of taking what is ugly and making it beautiful. And this sculpture is a reminder of that potential, but it carries a heavy warning too about our use of the natural world as a trash can.
Lazy 5 Ranch
Lazy 5 Ranch is home to myriad varieties of animals that roam the enclosure in carefully planned groups. Pre Covid-19, you had two options: take an open-air wagon ride through the animal areas or drive your own car.
In response to Covid-19, Lazy 5 temporarily suspended their open-air wagon rides, but if you get the chance, take the open-air wagon ride. It’s the best.
If you opt for the drive-yourself option, or if that’s your only choice, follow the directions that they give you. Definitely purchase feed buckets – one per eager and able child. Do not hang the bucket outside of your car window to feed the animals. There’s a good chance in excitement or hurry that a bucket will drop and you’ll be out of food. Do not get out of your car to retrieve the bucket.
After the hour-ish encounter with a wide range of exotic animals, grab a picnic lunch from your car, or buy a snack on the grounds, and head over to the playground area. The campus is spread out and a great place to enjoy several hours of animal experiences and creative playground romping. Who wants a nap?
PLEASE NOTE: Lazy 5 Ranch accepts ONLY CASH or a NC check. Prepare in advance, bring cash for your entry tickets and any food or souvenirs you might want to purchase.
Just under an hour from Charlotte, NC is a place that has dedicated its work to rescuing and rehabilitating exotic animals; they have a strong passion for conservation. Though the name suggests otherwise, it is not just a place for tigers. Lions, peacocks, monkeys, gorillas and more prowl, swing, and strut through the park’s enclosures.
Before Covid-19 there were opportunities to visit Tiger World at certain times and see feedings. Check their website for details about the various animal encounters that they now offer and for updates about when they’ll be operating similar programs.
If/when you do get a chance to visit, I highly recommend coming in the morning. Get there as close to opening as you can. First, you’ll avoid whatever heat the day might have in store for you. Second, you’ll likely see some very active animals. We were thrilled and amazed how many creatures were moving, playing, stalking, and calling when we wandered through the dusty trails in that first hour or so.
In some cases, animals have a small money box displayed near their home that asks for a donation specifically for their care. While that’s not usually a way that I participate, there was one particular monkey that seemed so enthusiastic about the day and was caterwauling and swinging and interacting with us that he convinced me it wasn’t a donation as much as it was a tip. That impromptu performance was unforgettable.
Wildlife of North Carolina Nature Center
Check out the wildlife native to the Southern Appalachian Mountain region in this animal environment set in the mountains of Asheville, NC. We visited the Wildlife of North Carolina Nature Center (WNCNC) when our eldest was little, and it was the perfect place for a young family.
Take your time as you encounter an American Black Bear or an American Red Wolf. Enjoy the playful antics of the American River Otters. Keep an eye out for goats, owls, cougars, and so much more!
The displays speak to the imagination and curiosity of children. The winding paths allow for strolling to various parts of the center. The large trees and cooler mountain air create a comfortable environment for spending time learning about and watching the animals.
The Center is in the mountains and the walking trails are windy and hilly so wear suitable walking shoes.
There’s one more to add to this list of places to see amazing animals in the Carolinas. Unfortunately, we’ve not had a chance to visit it yet so I’m passing it on as a head’s up to you!
Sylvan Heights Bird Park is connected to Avian Breeding Center and combined they boast the world’s largest waterfowl collection and the U.S.’s second largest bird collection. The Breeding Center is not open to the public, but the Sylvan Heights Bird Park is.
This is an 18-acre collection of aviaries displaying over 2000 different waterfowl, toucans, parrots, and other exotic birds from South America, North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
Sounds amazing! Tell me how it is if you get there before we do!
Where are the best places to see amazing animals in your state or country?