Giraffes, zebras, moose, bison – oh my! If your travel bucket list includes an exotic African safari, yet your pocketbook doesn’t match your dream, consider trekking closer to home on these affordable wildlife safaris across the United States.
Global Wildlife Center, Louisiana
More than 4,000 exotic, endangered, and threatened animals from all over the world roam the 900 acres of Louisiana’s Global Wildlife Center, one hour north of New Orleans. On your 90-minute guided Safari Wagon tour, you’ll come face-to-face — literally — with bison, giraffes, zebras, camels, and more. These animals poke their noses into your covered wagon searching for treats (available for purchase). Yes, it’s slightly disconcerting, but an exhilarating (and safe, according to the center) experience when you discover first-hand how long and rough a giraffe’s tongue is!
Open seven days a week, Safari Wagon tours are offered daily.
Continue your adventure in one of four secluded accommodations at Little River Bluffs, a nature preserve and retreat located on a cool, artesian-fed river in 50 acres of woods. With a minimum stay of two nights, rates start at $225.
Vision Quest Ranch & Wild Things, California
Lions and tigers roar yards from your South African-themed bungalows during your ultimate safari experience. Your wake-up call is a continental breakfast, special delivery by the staff and a resident African Elephant. Your magical safari adventure is in a gated community located deep in Steinbeck Country, minutes from Monterey, on 50 acres at Vision Quest Ranch, offering eight “chic” canvas bungalows.
Vision Quest is next door to Wild Things, an exotic animal training facility. Lions, tigers, lynx, bears, elephants, reindeer, and camels are all part of the more than 100 safari-worthy residents. B&B guests are invited to stroll with the Wild Things trainers on evening walks, or enhance their safari experience with optional tour packages (discount for B&B guests), including the two-hour Pachyderm Package; full-day personalized Walk with Animals Tour; and Animal Training Course, two to 10 days. Prices range from $225 for one to two people to $5,175 for a 10-day Animal Training Course.
Vision Quest Ranch accommodations range from $175 – $265 (double occupancy). No Children under 4. No onsite dining, but it’s a short drive to Monterey restaurants. Wild Things daily public tours are $10 adult/$8 children (14 under).
African Safari Wildlife Park, Ohio
Perhaps a more unlikely setting for a wildlife preserve is the Midwest at the African Safari Wildlife Park located in Port Clinton, Ohio, between Cleveland and Detroit. Roaming the more than 100-acre preserve are hundreds of rare, exotic, and endangered animals, including alpacas, bison, bongos, camels, zebras, and white zebras. Although this facility mirrors a zoo in some ways, get that expedition experience with their drive-through safari. See and feed more than 300 exotic animals. Add to the wildlife encounter with complimentary camel and pony rides, educational animal shows, and pig races.
Open March to December. Free Parking. Hours vary. Admisssion ages 7 and up: Spring/Fall $15.95 and Summer/Pre Season $21.95.
Yellowstone National Park
America’s first national park (established in 1872), Yellowstone National Park often tops the bucket list of travel experiences any time of the year. On the park’s 2.2 million acres stretching across three state lines, herds of elk and American Bison roam free; bald eagles soar; grizzly bears wander; wolves hunt; and the list of animal life continues. This is truly the home of wildlife. Entrance fee is $10 per person.
Visitors can certainly explore the park on their own, but for a truly unique, all-encompassing experience, all aboard Yellowstone’s Historic Yellow Bus tours, departing in a restored 13-passenger bus. Choose from more than a dozen itineraries, such as Wake Up To Wildlife ($83 adults) and Picture Perfect Photo Safari ($90 adults).
To truly experience Yellowstone National park, in-park lodging is a must-do. An array of accommodations are available, courtesy of Xanterra Parks & Resorts. My personal favorite: Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Rates and packages vary.
Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Many consider Alaska to be North America’s Africa, and once you experience Denali National Park and Preserve, you’ll agree. These six million acres of rugged land and wildlife are only accessible by one ribbon of road. Wildlife roams free on unfenced lands with a stunning backdrop of Mount McKinley. Looking for grizzly bears, caribou, Dall’s sheep, and moose? Feast your eyes on the diversity of wildlife: 39 species of mammals, 169 species of birds, 14 species of fish, and one species of amphibian (the wood frog).
The only way to access the heart of the park is via bus rides on the 92-mile Denali Park Road. Choose from complimentary courtesy buses, shuttle buses (allowing you disembark and explore), and tour buses with guides.
Park entrance fee is $10.00 per person (youth aged 15 years or younger are free).
It’s an adventure getting to Denali from Anchorage or Fairbanks. Cheaper and faster is to rent a car; it’s a four-and-a-half hour drive from Anchorage and two-and-a-half hours from Fairbanks. The Alaska Railroad is also another scenic option, and it’s relaxing to sit back and watch the scenery. Yet the train ride does double your on-the-road time, and it is pricey: Anchorage to Denali is $146 one-way for adults; from Fairbanks, $64.
Of the seven hotels near the Denali park entrance, I’d recommend these four: McKinley Chalet Resort, McKinley Village Lodge, Denali River Cabins, and Denali Princess Lodge. Please note that two-night minimum stays are usually required.
Wherever you roam, make it wild and wonderful!
Photo Credits: Author, Vision Quest Ranch, African Safari Wildlife Park/Pam Papadakiss, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Denai National Park.