Grandfather Mountain is a place of amazing biodiversity and scenic beauty that towers 5,946 feet above northwest North Carolina. A part of the United Nations’ Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve, the mountain is estimated to be 300 million years old — with certain rock formations dating back 1.2 billion years.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination with wild animals. So when Grandfather Mountain invited me to go behind the scene with some of its wildlife experts, I jumped at the chance.
Known most famously for its Mile High Swinging Bridge, Grandfather Mountain also cares for a collection of mammals, each species native – or previously native – to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
You’ll find black bears, elk, otters and cougars. The park also cares for two bald eagles, which aren’t mammals, of course.
On designated days, the park offers visitors a range of “Experiences” that provide up-close encounters with the animals, guided by their human keepers who seem to know every minute fact about the furry inhabitants – from diet to personalities to life histories.
This is no petting zoo. The animals housed there are wild. They found themselves in the care of Grandfather Mountain because of various mishaps that left them unable to survive in the wild. (In other words, they were not captured and brought to the park for human entertainment.)
My first experience was called “Meet the Bears.”
Grandfather Mountain houses six black bears — Kodiak, Yonnie, Carolina, Fanny May , Flower and Smokey — just like the bears you might be lucky enough to see roaming the North Carolina mountains.
I met one of the park’s bear keepers at the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery, and we set off on foot down a short trail that’s off-limits to park visitors. A thick fog hung in the spring air, and my anticipation grew with every step. I had been warned, however, that the bears – and indeed all the animals – have minds of their own and may decide not to show themselves.
Using food as motivation, the keepers called to Yoni and Codi to show themselves. We could see one of the bears lounging in the distance, but it never came close. I learned a lot from the keeper about the bears that live in the park. For example, since the winters in North Carolina are relatively mild, these bears don’t hibernate for as long (or as hard) as bears in other parts of the country.
Tour times for Meet the Bears are 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, offered from April through October. Cost: $20 per person in addition to park admission.
Later that day was a Behind the Scenes Habitat Tour.
This VIP encounter offers a close-up look at the various animal habitats. As with all Grandfather Mountain experiences, I got to ask lots of questions.
We stopped by an enclosure that houses two bald eagles and then swung by the otter enclosure. My favorite part was what came next – a visit with the elks.
Unlike the bears earlier that day, the elk were all too happy to approach the fence line. The keeper paused to give a quick lesson on the history of elk in North Carolina. We also toured the feed room to learn about the dietary needs of the large herbivores.
As for the cougars – well, that was another story; they decided to stay hidden inside a private enclosure, with just a single ear faintly visible. But, again, I asked lots of questions and learned much about what it takes to keep the big cats physically healthy and mentally stimulated in the park. The keepers will give the cougars different types of toys, like large plastic balls or plain wooden bowling pins, for them to play with. They’ll also provide sensory enrichment by spraying various perfumes or urines on cardboard boxes for the cats to discover.
Behind-the-Scenes Habitat Tours are offered on weekends, April through October. Tours last about one hour and are offered at 12:30 p.m. and 1:15 p.m. Cost: $35 per person in addition to park admission.
The next day, I returned to Paint With an Otter.
This is Grandfather Mountain’s newest experience – started just this year. Visitors who opt for this experience will get a close encounter with two frisky otters that – spoiler alert – create a piece of artwork that visitors get to keep. (Mine, created by an otter named Nova, hangs in our office at work.)
The otters are food motivated, so their keeper calls them into a special enclosure, then directs them to walk through various colors of non-toxic, water-soluble paint and onto the canvas, giving the otter a treat each time. (The paint washes off easily from the water-lover otters and does not harm them.)
Although extremely cute and relatively small, otters can bite right through a human bone, so the painting happens as you watch through a gate.
The park sells the otter “paintings” in the Wilson Center gift shop. As with all of the Grandfather Mountain experiences, money raised from the tour and otter paintings helps cover the cost of caring for the animals.
Paint With an Otter is offered Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30 a.m., April through October. Cost: $50 per person in addition to park admission.
The experience I missed
After spending the better part of two days in the park, my time was running short, and there was still one experience – Keeper For a Day – that I didn’t get to experience.
For $120 (park admission included), visitors can spend the day shadowing the human keepers, learning how to care for the animals, cleaning up, preparing food, and observing animal behavior and the inner workings of the wildlife habitats.
That experience I’ll save for a future visit.
IF YOU GO:
- Park Hours (May 14 – Sept. 4): 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Park Admission: Click here for ticket prices.
- Pro Tip #1: If you plan to hike or take a behind-the-scenes tour, wear closed-toe shoes with traction.
- Pro Tip #2: The weather on Grandfather Mountain can be fickle – sun one minute, clouds or fog the next. (But that’s the beauty of experiencing nature at 5,946 feet.)