#12 of 17 Asheville Things To Do

WNC Nature Center

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Western North Carolina Nature Center: Up-Close and Personal With Native Species
Staff Score:
4.5 / 5
The Bottom Line:

A trip to the Western North Carolina Nature Center feels as though you’re walking into the natural habitat of endangered species. An easy stroll around the center leads past otters, deer, cougars, bears, foxes, and more. It's a great stop for children and adults alike.

- The SmokyMountains.com Local Expert Team

Well-kept, spacious exhibits allow you to see some of your favorite animals from a whole new perspective, to enter their world in a safe way.

Longtime Asheville residents may remember the old zoo, home to wild animals since the Great Depression. Financial problems more than 50 years ago forced the zoo to sell or donate many of its animals and for a short time, Asheville was left without a place for visitors to see wild animals.

Organizers eventually stepped into that void and opened the Western North Carolina Nature Center. The mission was simple: give the public the opportunity to learn more about Southern Appalachian history, particularly the wild animals that once roamed freely.

But this is no ordinary “zoo” with bars and cages. Rather, animals are allowed to live in natural exhibits that mimic the environments in which they thrived in the wild.

The Nature Center is more than a fun place to visit. Through its species management programs, it is also an educational destination that actively works to promote species survival.

Here’s some of the wildlife you can expect to see during a visit:

  • The Red Wolf. The red wolf was officially declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Today, there are 250 captive in the United States. Although that is not a large number, it is a starting point for rebuilding the species. The Nature Center is part of that by being one of 46 breeding sites for the species.
  • The North American River Otter. One of the cutest (and evidently, happiest) species in the Nature Center is the otter. While they’re busy playing in the water – and sometimes, with their food – the Nature Center is busy studying otter genetics in order to help ensure they are able to thrive in their natural environment.
  • The Cougar. Although cougars were once abundant throughout Western North Carolina, they are now extinct in the Appalachian region. The cougars at the Nature Center are part of program designed to rebuild the population.
  • The Hellbender. Most people don’t realize that a hellbender is a type of salamander, and that is precisely the point of allowing the public to see a real live hellbender up close at the Nature Center. Hellbenders became part of the curriculum in 2008 when a local fisherman brought one in. He had no idea what he had on his hook, and in spite of all the Center has learned since that time, the species is still surrounded in mystery.
  • The American Black Bear. Families who have lived in Western North Carolina for decades will likely have a story or two to tell about black bears. Through the years though, the number of black bears has been in decline due to extensive hunting. The Nature Center provides the opportunity for visitors to see the black bear in its natural setting, to learn about its habits, and to be impressed by its survival skills (when not being hunted).
  • The Turkey Vulture (Buzzard). Buzzards may be the species in the Center most in need of a PR agent. As scavenging birds, they have long been seen as dirty, repulsive animals that look for dead animals to pick clean. In spite of their less-than-attractive reputation, buzzards play a vital role as “cleaners” of fields, forests, and roads. Visitors to the Nature Center learn all about their finer qualities.
  • The Nigerian Dwarf Goat. Children love the Nigerian dwarf goat for its cuteness, but everyone appreciates the breed’s sweet disposition and potential as hobby animals. Females are able to produce up to two quarts of milk each day, perfect for making butter and cheese.

Insider Tips

  • You can make it through the nature center in a few hours, but build in extra time to hike down the wildlife and nature trails. It would be a shame to miss such scenic views.
  • Take children to an indoor attraction called Appalachian Station where they’ll get to marvel over small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.