Hollywild Animal Park's family of animal lovers care for a stable of four-legged, photogenic stars. Dozens of resident critters include lions, a white tiger, and Tank, the white rhino best known for giving its spots to an outcast cow in an act of zoological altruism. Trips on the Outback Safari ride breeze past 70 acres of rolling terrain, and visitors can purchase feed to bestow upon hungry quadrupeds including fallow deer, zebras, and Scottish Highlanders. A specialized feeding area provides additional opportunities to bottle feed the next generation of mammalian stars, and a picnic area gives humans chances to gloat about opposable thumbs as they nosh nimbly on sandwiches.
Unlike their mythical cousin, the velociraptor, modern-day raptors are real birds of prey that strike like death from the sky. Visitors can expect to see a wide variety of these fearsome creatures, from eagles to owls, some of which can be seen up close and personal at one of the center's several live programs and tours. On a clear day, fortunate guests can catch a clear view of the resident raptor, Emma, a white barn owl taken under the wing of the center following a series of broken bones. Too fragile to survive in the wild, Emma now pitches in around the center, raising wildlife awareness and taloning up rogue litter.
Anytime from 1 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, December 4 or Sunday, December 5, families can embark on 25-minute hayrides through the woods and pastures of Harris Farm. As you travel over the scenic Reedy Creek, gorge your eyes on area wildlife and cute farm animals as you chat with Santa himself about wish lists, cheerful holiday memories of yore, and the universal appeal of Seinfeld -themed stocking stuffers. Bring home some seasonal spirit by getting your photo snapped with St. Nick (an additional $5) or picking out the perfect evergreen from the farm's Christmas-tree lot.
The vision of a local North Carolina man, Zootastic Park sends animal lovers on an educational, interactive journey with an ever-expanding selection of exhibits, attractions, and activities. Owner Scottie Brown—who, along with his family, has been working with exotic animals for more than 30 years—transformed his dream into reality in 2009, when the zoo finally opened its gates after several years of construction and growing inside a kangaroo pouch. Today, the zoo's themed areas, such as Western Town and the Barnyard Petting Zoo, let visitors explore reptiles, farm animals, and exotic beasts including antelope, birds, and tigers who go by the names Sasha and Jasmine. Zootastic Park also hosts or furnishes animals for special events and can provide an exotic feel for events including birthdays, weddings, and corporate gatherings. When winter rolls around, the zoo morphs into a wonderland of lights, complete with an appearance from a Santa Claus who is clearly just a zebra wearing the sheep's cast-off wool.
Cold Blooded Encounters fills guests' days with a variety of science-related exhibits, interactive presentations, and games. The newly-opened Science Center schools visitors on topics from fossils and gemstones to fun kitchen chemistry and turtle races. At the Reptile Zoo meanwhile, an affable red-footed tortoise named Confucius and a gentle black rat snake named Oreo greet visitors. Secluded and multispecies habitats house more than 150 species of amphibians, fish, reptiles, and invertebrates, including fire salamanders, jewel cichlids, Kenyan sand boas, and whip scorpions.
Annual memberships grant gift-shop discounts, guest passes, and a family photo posed with an animal. Cold Blooded Encounters also reaches out to school groups from preschools to colleges with effusive educational programs and sends ambassadors to birthday parties, where children can help feed turtles or pose for photos with 8-foot snakes.
People tend to walk slowly across the Mile High Swinging Bridge, though not out of fear. The view is enough to slow anyone's steps. Spanning an 80-foot chasm one mile above sea level, the bridge grants 360-degree views of the mountains, specifically a rugged peak that rises to 5,946 feet: Grandfather Mountain. Recognized by the United Nations as one of the world's most diverse nature preserves, Grandfather Mountain bristles with verdant pines and wild flowers in full bloom, including the pinkshell azalea. The flower only grows in northwest North Carolina, and Grandfather Mountain claims the largest population.
Even on the eleven backcountry trails, hikers aren't inclined to move very fast. Up-close views of the area's wild flora and fauna are enough to inspire quiet, peaceful strolls. And on one trail—Grandfather Trail—cables and ladders physically challenge hikers as they climb to the mountain's peak. Other trails, meanwhile, wind past the park's seven animal habitats, where the likes of bears, cougars, and bald eagles live in their natural environments with their expert Feng Shui.
Although primarily an outdoor attraction, Grandfather Mountain does encompass a few indoor destinations. The Nature Museum chronicles the mountain's history—which stretches back billions of years to a time when the Earth still wore diapers—with two-dozen exhibits, including Indigenous American artifacts and mineral displays. Luckily, the park's onsite naturalists can help make sense of it all. Before or after exploring the mountain and its past, visitors can fuel up at the onsite restaurant or, if they can't bear to spend time indoors, picnic outside.