Located in the heart of downtown, the Indianapolis Zoo allows visitors to immerse themselves in the natural habitat of a myriad of wildlife. The Ocean exhibit features the country’s largest smooth dogfish shark touch pool and a 17-foot underwater dome for viewing dolphins. Nearby, the Desert exhibit raises the temperature to appease the meerkats, iguanas, cacti and poisonous snakes that inhabit the space. The Plains exhibit allows kids and adults alike to check out the lions through thick-gauge glass, explore a pavilion overlooking white rhinos as they play in the mud, watch staff feed giraffes or feed them yourself and test your legs against a simulation of the zoo’s own cheetahs. Elsewhere, guests can gawk at tigers and fawn over brown bears, then ride the zoo’s mini-train for a faraway look at animals and behind the scenes pavilions, before taking in the sprawling, butterfly-filled indoor garden.
A boer goat stares at you. A donkey stares at the goat. And a baby tennessee walking horse reads its first Dr. Seuss book. No matter where you point your eyes, you’ll be treated to sights of charming animals at Jane’s Saddlebag’s petting zoo. It’s one of many delightful fixtures at the rural getaway—a hands-on historical education experience at a restored saddlebag home, which sprawls across more than 35 acres near Big Bone Lick State Park. A historic smokehouse adjacent to the home offers insight to the days before refrigeration, when Kentucky farmers would preserve their cured meat by hanging it above a smoldering fire. And behind the saddlebag home lies a replica of a 1700s flatboat, a low-cost form of transportation used by settlers to take one-way trips down the Ohio River and achieve ankle tans.
From April to October, these rustic outposts bathe in the sound waves of live music, and the cook-in-residence slakes the hunger built up from exploring both the refreshing nature of the grounds and the historical splendor it offers. When it’s in season, the cook uses freshly grown vegetables and puts flames to a new york strip steak until it’s almost as tender as the mashed potatoes with which it’s served. There’s even a wine and gift shop, where regional wines—some from Kentucky—vie with antiques and gift baskets for the attention of gift givers.
There is nothing run-of-the-mill about Idle-Hour Ranch. With more than 200 animals, including 40+ species, the Iddings family's exotic menagerie has grown quite a bit over the years. Guests to the ranch can meet one of its most beloved residents, Sam the giraffe, or catch glimpses of mountain lions and peacocks. Open to visitors on the weekend, various attractions include a mini farm market, a safari-themed corn maze, and face painting.
Nature lovers feed their scaly critter fascinations with the Kentucky Reptile Zoo's collection of more than 80 types of snakes, turtles, and other cold-blooded creatures. Various vipers, cobras, rattlesnakes, and an 18-foot reticulated python entrance snake-charmed visitors. Kids get a kick out of shell dwellers in the Turtle Tracks area, a habitat for both tortoises and aquatic turtles.
Amid the hustle and bustle of the city, Louisville Nature Center offers a tranquil escape from urban sprawl. At its 41-acre Beargrass Creek State Nature Preserve, more than 2 miles of hiking trails wind past a verdant forest populated by 180 species of tree, shrub, and wildflower. The latter blooms in a native pond and garden, and dragonflies and 30 butterfly species in other gardens pay homage to Lord of the Flies by trying to collectively lift a conch. More creatures soar skyward inside one of Louisville's only bird blinds, where visitors can watch 150 species of resident and migratory birds fluttering about.
After exploring on their own, guests can relax on one the picnic tables or beneath the covered gazebo before joining in on special events such as owl hikes. Youngsters, meanwhile, can discover more nature factoids at summer camps, educational programs, or birthday parties, which include guided hikes and live animal presentations.
Discovered in 1883, Marengo Cave, a U.S. National Natural Landmark, is located roughly an hour from Louisville and is open 363 days a year. Showcasing eye-catching speleothems (cave deposits), visitors can browse a wide variety of soda straws, stalactites, flowstones, and draperies. The combo tour melds together a 70-minute Dripstone Trail Tour that’s one mile in length, as well as a 40-minute Crystal Palace Tour that guides groups past eye-catching flowstone deposits. Embark on an exciting mini-journey into the earth’s depths without ending up at its core.