Exploring Asheboro’s Natural Habitat Zoo

August 1, 2019

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Story and photos by team member Jonathan E.

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Almost exactly halfway between the state’s largest city, Charlotte, and its capital, Raleigh, you’ll find the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. The not-so-convenient location is a worthy trade-off for the sizable land area it affords; the Zoo claims that “with 500 developed acres, it is the world’s largest natural habitat zoo.” 

The “natural habitat” setup has its pros and cons, but on the whole, I’ve found it preferable to what you might find in a smaller municipal zoo. Yes, larger exhibits mean that sometimes the animals will be farther away from you, behind trees or other exhibit features, etc., but it also means they have more space to move around and interact within their natural environments, which makes for more interesting viewing. I would think this setup is better for the animals, too, than the sometimes seemingly-cramped exhibits at some other zoos I’ve visited. Here’s a good example of how large the exhibits can be here:

The Zoo is broken up into two halves, North America and Africa, with entrances/ticket booths at either end. I started out with a tram ride from the North America entrance to Junction Plaza, the main waypoint between the two sides, to buy a Zoofari ticket for later in the day (more to come on that later!) before starting the Africa loop. This side has all the standbys you would expect, including gorillas, lions, zebras, and elephants.

Also on the loop are red river hogs, lemurs, baboons, and ostriches, whose smaller size provide the variety needed to break up the sense of awe from the more massive animals.

Coming back up the loop towards Junction Plaza, you come to the Watani Grasslands Reserve, the Zoo’s largest exhibit, at almost 40 acres. This wide-open area houses rhinos, various types of antelope and gazelles, and more ostriches. You get a stunning view from several overlooks, but if you want to get up close and personal to these animals and learn a bit more about them from a zoo staffer, here’s where the Zoofari ticket I mentioned earlier comes in handy.


On your Zoofari, you ride an open-sided, re-purposed school bus around the Watani Grasslands exhibit, stopping as you approach each animal or herd to hear information about it from your guide. I thought this experience was worth its $25 cost for just me, but I’m not sure I’d feel the same way if I was paying for multiple tickets, i.e. for a family. There is a decent bit of waiting around before you get started, too, so younger kids might not feel the payoff is worth the patience.

You do get the chance to get some great photos, though, especially if the ostriches are feeling as inquisitive as this one!

A cheaper attraction on the Africa side – at just $3 per ticket – is the Acacia Station Giraffe Deck. Here, you are given lettuce leaves to break off and feed to the giraffes out of your hand (if they’re at the deck at that time – again, it’s a “natural habitat” zoo!).

For anyone who wouldn’t want to feed them or for kids that might be too nervous to, I’d still highly recommend getting this ticket simply to see the giraffes this close. It’s the closest you can get to any animal at the Zoo, and it’s only $3!

Flanking Junction Plaza on the Africa side is an aviary, included with your Zoo admission. There’s plenty of tropical birds in here if you have the time and keen eye to pick them out from among the also-interesting plants and flowers.

After stopping for some expectedly-high-priced pizza for lunch at Junction Plaza, I started down the North America path – a straight shot this time, not a loop. The aviary’s counterpart on this side is a desert dome featuring lizards, tortoises, cacti, and a porcupine. There’s pretty cool stuff in here, but it is a bit of a visual let-down if you come straight from the vibrancy of the aviary; maybe doing them in reverse order from what I did would be the way to go…

Also on the North America side are ocelots, red wolves, grizzly and black bears, and another sizeable exhibit, the Prairie, with elk and bison. Since I had walked the Africa side first, I didn’t get over to North America until the heat of the day, so the bears and bison were not active and were hiding in the shade; still impressive, but not all that interesting (or good for photos).

You then come to Streamside, a collection of otters, fish, snakes, bobcats, and a few other animals you might find in the nearby Appalachian Mountains.

The real highlight of the North America side is the Rocky Coast and its polar bear exhibit. You can see the polar bear swimming around from multiple perspectives, including at and under the water level! You can see harbor seals and sea lions the same way one tank over. Other interesting finds in the Rocky Coast are puffins and arctic foxes.

North America rounds out with a swamp environment featuring cougars, alligators, and turtles. Finally, you come to a small marsh/pond that gives a nice view on your way out or a nice welcome, depending on which way you walk through the zoo.

A few final tips:

  • The various attractions are offered only at certain times of day, and the Zoofari runs only on specific days of the week. The Zoo hours and some exhibits are also seasonal, so make sure to check into what you want to see and do so you can plan your day accordingly.
  • Be prepared to walk – a lot! Definitely wear sneakers. If you think you’ll only be up for one of the two sides, Africa would be my choice. That being said, I think the Rocky Coast would be worth the free tram ride even if you don’t see anything else in North America.

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For more photos of the area and our adventures and travels,

check out our Instagram gallary @

https://www.instagram.com/yadkinvalleyhome/

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