ASHA; stunning array of animals; cheap admission; great location; informative website; not too big.
The Bottom Line
We went wild at the Natural Bridge Zoo - and can't wait to do it all again.
Animals. Books. Elmo and the Wiggles. Those are my toddler's best-loved things (with Elmo and the Wiggles running neck and neck for third place), and I imagine the scenario is similar in homes around the world. Kids are inexplicably drawn to animals - and truth be told, I think they're pretty cool too. As long as they're not of the slimy, scaly, creepy-crawly or man-eating variety and in close proximity - that sort of wildlife I can certainly do without.
And so, on a lazy July morning, we found ourselves looking for something to do that was a) fun, b) cheap and c) close to home. Just a couple of weeks earlier, we had spotted billboards for a zoo near Natural Bridge - only about an hour's drive north of our home in southern Virginia - and I decided to take a peek at their website. I was expecting a tiny menagerie, perhaps a medium-sized cat, a couple of monkeys and a few goats and pigs in a petting zoo. Suffice it to say that I was shocked - and thrilled - to log on to Natural Bridge Zoo's website to find a white tiger and a giraffe staring back at me. We had found our destination.
~* About the Zoo *~
I was surprised to learn that the Natural Bridge Zoo is privately owned and receives no federal or state funding. With the variety of animals in residence, this is certainly an expensive operation to uphold. The zoo's website explains that their main purpose "has always been the propagation and rearing of threatened or endangered species." For more than thirty years, this zoo has been breeding several of these species, to include macaws, parrots, lemurs, Himalayan bears, zebras, camels and monkeys.
Wait...what? Thirty years? This means that the Natural Bridge Zoo has been in residence in southern Virginia for my entire life - so why on earth did it take me 26 years to learn of it and visit? It's not as though I was completely unfamiliar with the Natural Bridge area - every kid in our school district was shuttled up there in seventh grade for a natural history lesson. Why the zoo was overlooked - and how I missed the billboards - is entirely beyond me. Nonetheless, the zoo is well-established and a true gem - one that I'll be telling all of my friends about in short order, lest they've missed it as well.
~* Admission & Fees *~
Admission to the zoo is $10 for adults, $9 for senior citizens and $8 for children ages 3-12 (children 2 and under are admitted free of charge.) For groups of 15 or more, discounts are available but you must call ahead to schhedule. Season passes to the zoo are also available at $40 per adult and $30 per child.
Zoo admission is paid inside the Safari Gift Shop, which also offers a wide selection of souvenirs - shirts, hats, magnets, keychains, stuffed toys - all of the typical zoo fare at slightly less than typical zoo prices. Popcorn, snacks and drinks are also available in the gift shop and is allowed inside the zoo; there are no food vendors located in the zoo itself.
The only potential expense once inside the zoo is the popular elephant ride and photo op. The fee for this attraction is $5 per rider, $5 for a photograph or $9 for a ride and photograph.
~* The Fun Stuff *~
Once you've paid your admission and perhaps picked up a small bag of animal feed for only $1 at the register, you enter the zoo through a spacious covered picnic/rest area. (A few tables are located out from under the shelter, for those who enjoy direct sunlight much more than myself.) Heading onto the graveled path, the first cage we came to contained a kookaburra - an Australian bird that I'd previously only heard of on aforementioned episodes of the Wiggles. Already, I was impressed.
Also near the entrance was a mountain lion, ring-tailed lemurs and the tiger cage. Inside were two gorgeous Bengal tigers - both napping in the midday heat, but majestic nonetheless. One was your "common" orange tiger, the other a stunning white - even the largest zoo in our area doesn't have a white tiger!
Just past the animal cage, we saw several tiny pygmy goats that had apparently escaped from their pen...or had they? Upon closer inspection, it was apparent that these cute little guys just preferred to hang out in the grassy area near a few penned larger animals suiting for petting - llamas, goats and donkeys - as well as that handy food dispenser. It was a bit unnerving to find a dozen or so little goats all swarming straight for me and my stroller, but all were friendly (and happy for a snack.) We were surprised to find a few more animals happily wandering unattended down other zoo paths - the turkeys didn't seem very happy to see us heading toward them, but the Vietnamese pot-belled pigs didn't mind us at all.
My favorite section of the zoo (as with most zoos) was the spacious area that is home to the African animals - zebras, giraffes, baboons and, of course, the elephant. Presumedly to make these animals more comfortable, this area of the zoo is less shaded than the other cool, tree-lined paths - but the creatures here are so magnificent that you'll hardly notice the heat, even in mid-summer.
As we neared the elephant house, we heard the announcement that the last elephant rides of the day were about to begin. Excited to have my daughter's picture made with a real live elephant, we hurried to get in line. While we waited, we learned a little about the ride's captain - Asha, a 22-year-old African elephant, who has been giving rides at the Natural Bridge Zoo since she was only two years old. Asha seemed only too happy to amble over to the raised platform from which visitors can climb onto her enormous back, and moved slowly and surely around the well-worn trail. I'm thankful that I wasn't the first in line as I had originally planned only to purchase a picture of my little girl sitting on her back. However, I learned yet something else while watching Asha in action: at a certain spot in the path, this magnificent beast actually stops and poses for photographs, her trunk raised and one massive foot gracefully raised off the ground. I happily handed over $14 for the two of us to ride and have our picture made on her back - and I'd go back to this zoo just to see Asha.
There are many, many more interesting animals at the Natural Bridge Zoo - cute baby bear cubs and the sweetest baby camel, for instance - and yet walking the proximity of the park and stopping to admire each exhibit only took us a couple of hours. The size of the zoo can only be called "just right" - it's large enough to offer a wide variety of animals but small enough to fit comfortably into an afternoon visit. Although our visit ran considerably past my daughter's usual lunchtime, she was so absorbed with the animals that she didn't even think of food - the highest in cranky toddler compliments.
~* Overall *~
My family had a wonderful time at the Natural Bridge Zoo and will definitely visit again in the near future. I'm sad that I've missed out on this zoo for all these years, but thrilled to have 'discovered' it while my daughter is young enough to enjoy it throughout her childhood. Asha definitely hasn't seen the last of us.
~* Location, Location *~
The Natural Bridge Zoo is located off of Interstate 81 between exits 175 and 180 in Natural Bridge, Virginia - approximately 12 miles south of Lexington and 35 miles north of Roanoke.
The zoo is open from mid-March through Thanksgiving weekend, from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m.
~* Contact Info *~
Visit the zoo online at www.naturalbridgezoo.com or call 540-291-2420.
~* Can't Get to the Zoo? *~
Many of the Natural Bridge Zoo's animals are featured on their website, along with details on some of the zoo's residents and facts about many of the different species. I was especially interested to note the gestation periods of some of the animals - 95 days for a mountain lion (I could so deal with that) up to 22 to 24 months for an African elephant (yikes!!) For older (and grown-up) children, the zoo's website is a perfect preface or follow-up to a visit as it allows you to get to know the animals, or remember them fondly after you've met.