Maybe my daughter, Mika, chose Flagstaff, Ariz., as a college destination because she thought it would be a chance to get away. Wrong. But as much as we enjoy spending time in the woodsy town with its amazing restaurants and nearby natural attractions, we always brake for wildlife.
Three stops along Interstate 40 nurture our love of animals by offering close encounters with wolves, bison, tigers and other gentler creatures. Two are ideal for an hour or two visit. The third is large enough to explore for three hours or more. And all three offer plenty for your Instagram feed.
Keepers of the Wild
Last year Keepers of the Wild, aided by PETA and Lions, Tigers & Bears in Alpine, Calif., rescued five black bears from a Texas traveling show, where they sat in chairs for photos with visitors and performed tricks, said Lara Kraft, the sanctuary’s vice president.
Today, they lounge in hammocks, swim in a natural pool and forage for hidden treats at this nonprofit 29 miles east of Kingman, Ariz.
Keepers of the Wild cares for about 135 rescued animals, including lions, Bengal tigers, leopards, wolves and even a blind great-horned owl on 175 acres in the desert. About 70 acres are accessible to visitors on a nearly two-mile path you can stroll in less than an hour, with shaded areas throughout.
My family spent a long time observing the animals, but the desert heat eventually wore us out. On our next visit we’ll take the guided safari tour ($10) before revisiting our favorites. Take the 3:30 p.m. tour to watch the animals being fed.
If you’re pressed for time, head for the popular big cats, wolves and bears. They’re most active in the afternoon, said Kraft, because they know the feeding schedule too.
The gift shop sells animal-centric items (check out the giant puzzles) as well as prepared food, snacks and drinks.
Info: Keepers of the Wild, 13441 E. Highway 66, Valentine, Ariz.; (928) 769-1800, keepersofthewild.org. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays, weather permitting; closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $20; $15 for seniors 65 and older, military and veterans; $12 for children 3-12. Tours depart at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Grand Canyon Deer Farm
Count on getting amazing closeups at the 10-acre Grand Canyon Deer Farm nestled among ponderosa pines 8 miles east of Williams, Ariz. The privately owned attraction houses animals that were born there, brought in as babies or rescued.
A paved path winds past enclosures of mini horses, llamas, alpacas and a kissing camel, Gracie. Signs offer details about animals such as Zoolander, a zonkey whose dad was a zebra and mom was a donkey.
Bold fallow and sika deer will approach you; buy a cup of feed ($4 and $6), and you’ll get rock-star attention. Hold on tight to that cup — the deer aren’t afraid to help themselves. They even know to nudge the coin-operated feed dispensers for a few stray kernels of corn.
Two marmosets, Pharaoh and Cleopatra, are rescues. I couldn’t stop staring at Cleopatra’s sweet face, but as the sign warned, she started screaming — in my face. She was being protective of her guy, explained Patricia George, who, with her husband, Randy, have owned the park in 1987. People buy them as cute babies, she added, but as marmosets mature sexually, they become aggressive and can bite.
The mule deer, coues deer and Stormy the elk also are rescues. One mule deer fawn was found in the jaws of a large dog, George said. She’s fine now.
Mozart the cockatoo is quite the talker, making him a favorite with visitors. Also popular are reindeer Dasher, Blitzen, Holly, Mistletoe and Rudolph, George added. Some visitors are surprised to find reindeer aren’t mythical creatures.
The park offers a hands-on experience with coatimundi, wallabies and porcupines, and a zookeeper program that will take you behind the scenes to learn about animal husbandry. Both require reservations and additional fees.
Info: Grand Canyon Deer Farm, 6769 E. Deer Farm Road, Williams, Ariz.; (928) 635-4073, deerfarm.com. Winter hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (2 p.m. on Christmas Eve), weather permitting; closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $14; $12.50 for seniors 62 and older; and $8 for children 3-13; free for kids 2 and younger. Gift shop with snacks and souvenirs. Picnic table out front.
For a longer outing, head to Bearizona for a three-mile drive through the habitats of bears, wolves, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, bison and more. The 160-acre wildlife park is set in the Kaibab National Forest and is a regular stop for my family.
Winter is a good time to see the animals sporting their thick full coats. Wolves and bison love the cooler weather and are active all day, said Erica Parlaman, Bearizona’s drive-through supervisor. Bears usually don’t start stirring until the afternoon. In the summer, early mornings and late afternoons are the best times to catch the animals in action.
You can also leave the driving to someone else. A free bus tour travels the loop four times a day, weather permitting. The open-air vehicles have no window glass to obstruct your photography, and guides feed the animals to lure them near the road, making close-up photos possible.
After completing the loop — you can drive it as many times as you want — head to walkable Fort Bearizona, 20 acres of animal exhibits, shows and a petting zoo.
Fort Bearizona is home to bobcats, javelinas, red foxes and more. For a closer look, take advantage of the animal talks and shows throughout the day. We loved the birds of prey show featuring owls, hawks and falcons.
Info: Bearizona, 1500 E. Route 66, Williams, Ariz.; (928) 635-2289, bearizona.com. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last car admitted to drive-through) daily; walk-through area until 6 p.m. Admission is $25; $23 for 62 and older; $15 for children 4-12; free for children 3 and younger; a maximum of $120 per private car. $2 off for military/veterans and Arizona college students with ID. Food stands, picnic area and the Canyonlands restaurant with hickory-smoked barbecue and a full bar. Huge gift shop.