A hike near the Blue Ridge might mean spotting a brown bear. A boat trip off North Carolina’s coast could lead to a dolphin sighting. But, the best way to guarantee a glimpse of your favorite animal is to visit one of NC’s many aquatic or safari-like exhibits.
Across the state, there are incredible museums, zoos, aquariums, and rescue centers that allow families to get close to wildlife. These attractions feature both animals who are indigenous to NC and foreign creatures. We’re highlighting 12 of the best animal adventures below, broken down by region.
Animal Exhibits in Western North Carolina
Western North Carolina Nature Center
If you’re looking to connect with the wildlife of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region, a visit to the Western North Carolina Nature Center is the ideal spot. This Asheville attraction is open 361 days a year. WNC Nature Center offers children and adults a peek into the history and biographies of over 60 species of wildlife.
The center houses many animals who have been injured and cannot survive in the wild or are part of a protected endangered species group. The wildlife exhibits covering over 42 acres feature animals such as the Great Horned Owl, Gray Foxes, Cougars, Corn Snakes, and Black Bears.
Catawba Science Center
The Catawba Science Center is a popular Western NC attraction that offers a variety of fun, educational exhibits for children. One of the featured, permanent attractions is the aquarium which showcases both fresh and saltwater galleries. There are touch pools, daily shark feedings, and a collection of rare sea creatures found in the Amazon River Basin.
Grandfather Mountain Wildlife Habitats
Grandfather Mountain, NC
Grandfather Mountain is a beautiful place to visit when you want to get in touch with nature. There’s a chance you’ll spot some wildlife in their natural habitat while exploring the area, but a sighting is guaranteed when visiting the Grandfather Mountain Wildlife Habitats.
This attraction offers visitors a chance to see cougars, river otters, elk, black bears, and bald eagles in their natural homes. The exhibit was built around native habitats in Grandfather Mountain. The enclosures provide up-close perspectives on these beautiful, wild creatures.
Piedmont Area Animal Adventures
North Carolina Zoo
As the world’s largest natural habitat zoo, the North Carolina Zoo is a must-see in central NC. This authentic attraction is broken down into four areas: The North America Habitat, the Africa Habitat, the Aviary, and the Desert. The zoo sits on 2,600 acres with 500 acres that are developed. Showcasing over 1,600 species, there’s plenty to see. You might spot a Southern White Rhinoceros, a Ring-Tailed Lemur, an American Bison, or even an African Elephant.
The North Carolina Zoo protects wildlife and has been focused on the conservation of wildlife for over two decades. They also offer educational camps and programs throughout the year.
SEA LIFE Charlotte-Concord
When you’re looking for a family field trip, SEA LIFE Charlotte-Concord provides the perfect day full of adventures. The aquarium offers 10 unique zones ranging from freshwater to tropical ocean. Visitors can also get hands-on fun with the touch pool.
A trip to SEA LIFE goes beyond beautiful fish and underwater creatures. They’re all about educating the public on conservation practices to help keep the amazing sea life safe.
Carolina Raptor Center
The Carolina Raptor Center (CRC) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to rehabilitate orphaned raptors while educating the public about the environment. CRC has been rehabilitating patients in Huntersville, NC for over 40 years! The medical center treats between 900 and 1,000 birds a year.
The raptor trail at CRC is open Wednesday through Sunday each week, featuring over 30 birds of prey on display. Educational exhibits, seminars, and camps are also available throughout the year.
Lazy 5 Ranch
When you’re ready to get up-close and personal with animals, a trip to The Lazy 5 Ranch in Mooresville will do the trick! The park offers drive-through tours where kids and adults can feed and pet exotic animals including giraffes, antelope, goats, deer, and others. Visitors can hop aboard a wagon or can drive through the park in their personal vehicle. The animals walk right up to your window and will snack from the palm of your hand.
This unique attraction is a privately owned animal adventure that works closely with the USDA. Henry Hampton, a member of the Hampton family who owns the ranch, has been raising exotic animals for more than 35 years.
Carolina Tiger Rescue
As a nonprofit wildlife sanctuary, Carolina Tiger Rescue is determined to save and protect wild cats. They believe that all wild animals belong in the wild and deserve to be treated with respect, not exploited for entertainment purposes.
This educational attraction offers views of 10 different species through public and private tours. All of their animals were rescued from captive, dire situations. Their beautiful wild cats include jaguars, cheetahs, lions, and ocelots (to name a few). Public tours run on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and must be booked in advance.
Greensboro Science Center
As an aquarium, museum, and zoo hybrid, the Greensboro Science Center is an incredible spot for family outings. The aquarium offers sightings of everything from penguins and otters to jellyfish and lionfish. Meanwhile, the zoo includes animals such as lemurs, wolves, and monkeys. Though this animal adventure doesn’t have quite as big of an array of species, it does offer plenty of close-up connections with the animals through touch pools and a discovery house which often includes the chance to touch reptiles and small mammals.
Aquariums in Coastal North Carolina
North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
Pine Knoll, NC
The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is an exciting adventure with thousands of aquatic creatures. Visitors can explore a shipwreck in the 306,000 gallon Living Shipwreck exhibit with a replica of the U-352 German Submarine that sank off the NC Coast in 1942. The Loggerhead Odyssey exhibit tells the story of turtle hatchlings in North Carolina and the threats they face.
North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher
Kure Beach, NC
Another incredible coastal attraction, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher gives guests a chance to connect with the underwater world. Touch a stingray or speak with a professional diver while they swim with eels and sharks. Either way, you’ll get a close-up look at marine life. This aquarium also features an albino alligator!
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
Featuring the largest group of sharks in the state, the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is an awe-inspiring attraction. While visiting, you can also learn about the conservation efforts of the aquarium to protect the sea turtle population. This 68,000-square-foot complex dives deep into the aquatic life of the Outer Banks.
Each of these animal adventures offers its own unique experience. Whether you want to have a staring contest with an albino alligator, feed a deer out your car window, or stroll through a trail with birds of prey, you’re sure to find an attraction that will bring lasting memories. And, if you’re looking for animal adventures in South Carolina, check out our South Carolina zoos and aquariums!