Call of the Wild
Refuges offer vacation, education opportunities
By Sydni Ellis
Happy tigers bask lazily in the sun. Cougars roll around in the soft grass. Bobcats play among the fallen logs and thick grass. Brown bears cool off in the water — sounds like a dream, right? At the 567 national wildlife refuges in the U.S., this type of relaxation and fun for exotic animals happens every day. We don’t often get the opportunity to see big cats, alligators, exotic birds, or other wild animals outside of local zoos, so take advantage of the beautiful spring weather to explore nearby refuges and learn more about the amazing work they’re doing! Visiting any one of these refuges (or taking a road trip to all three!) would also make for a fun and educational spring break trip with your kids.
A 2021 Travelers’ Choice winner on Trip Advisor, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge (TCWR) in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is one of the coolest nonprofit wildlife refuges in the country. At 459 acres, TCWR is also one of the largest facilities of its kind open to the public and a safe home for nearly 100 abandoned, abused, and neglected tigers, lions, leopards, cougars, bobcats, bears, ligers, servals, a coatimundi, and a macaw. Unlike a zoo, all the animals here live in large, grassy habitats with 61 naturally enhanced areas.
Want to see the rescued big cats for yourself? Schedule a guided tour at Turpentine Creek for $25 for adults, $20 for teens, $15 for kids, seniors, and military, and free for infants 0-3. These tours are the only way to see the majority of the large cats’ habitats.
Afterward, you can wander around the Discovery Area to see the smaller animals, visit the bear tunnel, and check out some of the big cats. For guests wanting to learn even more — AKA, for anyone who was obsessed with Netflix’s “Tiger King” — sign up for a behind-the-scenes tours on Saturdays ($100-$150 per person), where you can learn more about what they do at the refuge and see areas not open to the public.
Of course, the best way to get an authentic TCWR experience is by booking an overnight stay. Yes, you can actually sleep near the animals at one of the many adults-only or family friendly lodging options or an RV hookup spot on-site. The 18+ safari lodges start at $175 a night. Stay in the African-inspired Kilimanjaro Suite at the Zulu Lodge, an intimate cabin adorned with beautiful art, carved African masks, and luxurious amenities like a walk-in shower, plush robes, and a private back deck. Or book the Serengeti suite, decorated with vibrant colors inspired by the beautiful sunsets in the Ozarks. Your stay includes access to the shared deck with a hot tub and gas-lit fire pit to help you unwind every evening.
The family friendly lodges start at $125 a night and include everything from a tent to a bungalow in the trees. The Tigris Tent sleeps up to five guests with real beds, electricity, and a shared bathroom for an upgraded camping experience. Stay in the Siberian Suite, which sleeps up to four guests and has a view of a liger habitat from your room! For a truly unique experience, book a stay in the Tree House Bungalow — located 15 feet in the air among the beautiful trees. This comfortable lodging sleeps up to four people and features one-of-a-kind views and the sounds of lions and tigers calling to each other during the night (your kids will love it!). It also has a wraparound deck to truly feel at one with nature.
Plan your trip to the “Natural State” around one of the unique spring events coming up. March 26 is the 30th Annual Kite Fest: Art with an Altitude Festival. This popular event is back for the first time since 2019, where visitors enjoy live music and entertainment, shopping with vendors, and seeing tons of kites. You can bring your own kite, buy one there, or make one to fly with everyone else. Also, since May 1 is the 30th anniversary of TCWR, the refuge is hosting a huge celebration on April 30. There will be plenty of food, games, and music to enjoy that weekend. Learn more at TurpentineCreek.org.
Next on your itinerary, head to Keithville, Louisiana, to visit Chimp Haven, the world’s largest nonprofit chimpanzee sanctuary on 200 forested acres in the Eddie D. Jones Nature Park. More than 300 chimpanzees, most of whom were formerly used in biomedical research, are living their best lives at this amazing place. Chimp Haven believes humans and chimps aren’t that different — as we both have personalities, emotions, and relationships — and they are working to connect these wonderful animals to the happy, healthy lives they deserve.
The chimpanzees get to choose how they spend their time, whether that’s hanging out in indoor bedrooms or roaming the multi-acre forests or large habitats. There are plenty of opportunities for chimps to play, explore, climb, and be mentally stimulated.
Be sure to check out the brand-new Brunch in the Wild program, which just started this year. This three-hour experience gives you a private tour of the sanctuary, one-of-a-kind demonstrations and activities, a Q&A with the staff, a private opportunity to view the chimps in their forested habitats, an opportunity to paint with a chimp, and a delicious brunch with mimosas. Other activities include Chimp Chat, which includes a behind-the-scenes tour and in-depth conversation with expert staff members; private sanctuary tours; and photography tours led by Chimp Haven’s resident photographer. Find out more at ChimpHaven.org.
Finally, get to know unique animals at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Delray Beach, Florida. This 2021 TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Award winner is located at the northernmost end of the Everglades. It has alligators, the endangered Everglades Snail Kite, and up to 257 different species of birds that visit the refuge each year.
You can visit the park every day during daylight hours for just $10 and enjoy nature walks on the 50 miles of trails. For a more active adventure, check out the 12-mile biking trail, the 5.5-mile canoe trail, or go bass fishing or bird watching.
Behind the Visitor Center, stroll along the 0.4-mile boardwalk to see one of the last remaining cypress swamps in the area. You can also sign up for self-guided or guided tours of different areas of the refuge, like the marsh, an open wetland with tree islands and sawgrass, or the cypress swamp, a shady, wet forest of impressive cypress trees. You may just see unique reptiles, butterflies, birds, alligators, raptors, and exotic plants! On Sunday mornings, sign up for a 2-hour Sunrise Photography Tour to capture beautiful photos of the refuge. There are also weekly bird walks on Wednesdays at 7:30 a.m. and Marsh Trail Guided Walks on Fridays at 1 p.m. For more information, visit LoxahatcheeFriends.com.
All these refuges are run with the help of donations, so be sure to factor in a little extra to give back in your trip budget. Visiting one — or all— is the perfect vacation for animal lovers, those looking for exceptional Instagram pictures, and families wanting to give back this spring. It’s sure to be a wildly fun time!