While I’ve been coming to the WNC Nature Center off and on since I was a child, I hadn’t ever thought of it as the unique place it is. As a child, I think I saw it as a zoo that focused on close-to-home animals, a hometown zoo of sorts. Now that I see it through the eyes of a preschooler’s mom, I realize it’s unusually great as a place to take an outing for people of all ages, but especially for the youngest set of Asheville residents and visitors.
While you could definitely call the WNC Nature Center a zoo, it’s not quite what you’d expect from a large zoo. For one thing, it’s fairly small – as far as outdoor exhibits go, there are 10 or so large habitats for creatures like foxes, wolves, and bears, a barnyard with animals like goats, chickens, and donkeys, a few bird habitats, and a building that houses a variety of snakes, turtles, and other small-habitat creatures.
All in all, there are 60 species represented, which is, of course, laudable but not the sprawling variety you’d find at a big-city zoo. So, while you can absolutely make a day of it if you plan right, many people might proceed straight from exhibit to exhibit and be surprised that it’s not larger.
What the WNC Nature Center does exceptionally well, I think, is the environment: most of the paths between exhibits are paved but go through wooded areas, making the walk between animals a bit more like a hike and less like a paved and built-up tourist attraction.
It feels natural throughout. While there are placards and educational elements, the whole space is cozy, inviting, and personal, like it’s been nestled into the mountains where these animals are already found in the wild.
The other big benefit I see is the way that play stations are incorporated throughout the center. There is a climbing playground, areas for making music outdoors on marimbas and drums, and even a spot for putting on puppet shows. It’s not quite enough items to be a children’s museum in its own right, but for kiddos who aren’t busy being entranced by the wildlife itself, this space has more than enough to engage anyone and get some wiggles out.
The first step with the WNC Nature Center is to find parking – there’s a close-by parking lot that might have a spot or two but tends to fill up very quickly in the day. More likely, you’ll be able to park in the overflow lots below, which require a pretty steep set of stairs or you’ll need to take a circuitous route.
The nice thing if you have people who would be better off being dropped off, there’s a convenient roundabout right at the entrance, so you can definitely have one person drop everyone else off and then walk from a farther-away parking spot.
When you first come up to the front entrance, you’ll either pay your admission fee or show your membership card. I’ll suggest that the membership is well worth it if you are in any way a frequent flyer to Asheville. For comparison, when I am writing this, day tickets are $9.95 for a child under 12 and $13.95 for adults, with some potential discounts for being a City of Asheville resident or a senior citizen.
For $89, we bought a full-year membership for our family that includes two adults and up to four children; even though it’s typically just two or three of us visiting, every visit brings the cost per person down a lot, to where we’ve quickly paid for the membership with only three or four visits there.
It’s our go-to on pretty Saturdays and days off school, so we end up there much more than four times a year, and we never feel bad if we end up doing a 30- or 40-minute visit when we just need a little secondary outing during a morning of running errands.
So we show our virtual membership card and head on in, where the first animal my son greets is a set of clucky chickens. They have indoor and outdoor spaces to scratch and peck, and he’s usually tickled by their rustling sounds.
Then there’s the rest of the barn, where animals occasionally are indoors and where a permanent skunk exhibit is popular and nestled into a little semi-secret alcove. The barn opens out into a yard where the goats and sheep spend their time, and an antique tractor that kids can sit on usually has at least one person waiting for a turn – always good to practice a little turn-taking!
There are exhibits here for painting with water on a slate wall, as well as an area where you can pay to pan for gemstones in a flowing water sluice. With a kiddo who loves water play, these were great places to explore even when he was a young walker, just noting textures and colors even when he wasn’t fully engaged with the activity itself. I see lots of families bring babies here, and they seem to find great stuff to do, including getting a nice walk in while the baby snoozes in a stroller.
Beyond the barnyard, though, the fun really gets going. A huge boardwalk allows visitors to view a large black bear habitat from above, but good wire fencing keeps my little guy secure even when he’s in the mood to frolic. From there, you can head for the other large animal areas, viewing wolves and foxes as they nap, roam, or play.
You can also wander past the birds of prey, including owls and vultures that are often perched and peering out at everyone who passes by. Further up, you’ll find trails that take you to see red pandas, some of the cutest animals in the whole place, in my opinion.
In the center of it all is a water exhibit that features two of the most playful otters, and there’s a very fast metal slide in the mountainside next to it. Be aware! My little guy is a clumsy one, so I’m always very vigilant about the slide area. There’s also a huge statue of a turtle that he enjoys climbing there.
Nearby is the reptile building, where many native animals are in glass tanks, and the volunteers and staff sometimes have special activities set up outside. It’s a good place to save on days when the weather is iffy, since you can go look at the snakes and turtles during a rain shower if it’s quickly passing through. There are also restrooms there, in addition to some in the barn.
As you explore the paths that lead to the various exhibits, you’ll stumble across so many fun little activities. By the reptile building, for instance, is an inclined area with lots of half-moon cut pipes and balls for creating ramps and mazes – tons of creativity and problem-solving for a simple game. There are blocks to play with and a puppet show theater available right there as well.
Further up, there’s a station for building a shelter using sticks and other materials, as well as a xylophone and percussion instruments. There’s a balance beam to walk on and other items to explore and read about.
Finally, far back in the nature center, there’s a tall cargo net structure for climbing, a great way to get some energy out – there’s a smaller net section for younger children as well. These structures tend to get crowded on any day that school isn’t in session, but I’ve seen the nature center become a great place for my son to practice sharing and being kind to others.
If your little ones are thoughtful and move at a walking pace, you can probably see everything in 90-120 minutes, but it is typically more like a 60-75-minute experience for us, visiting his favorite spots like the tractor twice or three times and generally running pell-mell to each new exhibit.
While this might be a fast visit for some who are used to making the zoo an all-day affair, I really like it for the under-5-years-old crew, who often are a little loopy after a big day out seeing things for many hours on end. I like fitting it in before lunchtime – one of the best perks, in my opinion, of being a member is getting in at 9:30 am instead of 10 am, the standard opening hour.
I think that getting a WNC Nature Center day pass can be worth more than just the hour or two spent there as well. Consider going to the website ahead of time and reading about the animals. They mention all the featured animals on an educational portion of the website, so you can get kids excited and even make finding each one a bit of a scavenger hunt.
Right beside the nature center is a community pool, a creek area, and a playground, so kiddos who are done with the nature center but not done exploring have more options nearby. There are also a couple of shelters and spots where you can easily set up and eat a little picnic lunch if kids might want to go back and see the animals again.
At the time of writing, multiple animals in the Nature Center have recently had babies, and if you didn’t get a view of the wolf pups or other babies the first time you passed by, it can’t hurt to head back over again.
The center also offers special events throughout the year. They have behind-the-scenes tours that show you how the areas outside the public paths work, evening educational events, fun adult-focused events like Brews and Bears that let you enjoy an evening stroll with a beer while raising money for the center, and so much more.
It’s also possible to rent spaces for corporate gatherings, birthday parties, or school groups, all with the realization that the money they raise this way goes back into caring for the animals.
Like any outdoor activity, I can’t recommend it unreservedly on a very hot or very wet day, but Asheville is rarely super hot by the early hours that the center is open – it might work well to plan to cool off at the pool afterward if it happens to be open.
The other nice thing is that Asheville gets temperate days (or at least “tolerable if you’re dressed correctly” days) in the winter months, making the center an option for getting out and going for a walk even if the animals are a bit less active and visible during the cold months.
Overall, I see this special space as a real treasure for the Asheville community, since we’re not a huge city but are still lucky enough to have a way to get up close and personal with animals.
WNC Nature Center: 74 Gashes Creek Rd, Asheville.