Millie tucks her long brown hair behind her ear as she scans the enclosure, then spots what she’s looking for. “Mom, look! There’s an eagle!” the 12-year-old exclaims as she
Millie tucks her long brown hair behind her ear as she scans the enclosure, then spots what she’s looking for. “Mom, look! There’s an eagle!” the 12-year-old exclaims as she points to the impressive bird that she has heard much about but is seeing for the first time today. Her excitement spreads to an approaching family, and they gather around to look at the regal creature that lives in the wildlife habitats at Grandfather Mountain.
“Any time you get kids or adults into nature, it’s opening their eyes to something new,” says Cassie Petrilla, education specialist at Grandfather Mountain. “If we want our environment to be protected and cared for, we have to foster that love before anything else.”
Although best known for the Mile High Swinging Bridge, where families have been making memories since 1952, the mountain’s newly expanded nature museum, wild animal residents, and innovative programming make visits more than just a thrilling walk across the bridge. For kids, it provides a way to unplug from the day-to-day routines and inspire curiosity that can develop into a love for the natural world.
Plus, with the record-high temperature a comfortable 83 degrees, it provides respite from summer’s sweltering heat. Here’s what to look forward to upon your arrival.
The Wilson Center for Nature Discovery blends learning with fun as it highlights the natural world on Grandfather. Inside the museum, visitors young and old surround the glow of a three-dimensional map of the mountain. “It really catches your eye,” Petrilla says. At the touch of a screen, you can project all kinds of images onto the map, from views of hiking trails to the landscape in different seasons.
At the Flora and Fauna Walls, a large hand lens allows visitors to inspect the species that make up the rich web of organisms on the mountainside. The museum details the 16 natural communities, each with its own unique ecosystem, that these plants and animals comprise.
Other exhibits focus on the mountain’s ecological history, extreme weather, birds and their migrations, and more. You can even duck into the Mineral Cave or peer through the viewfinders at the Viewing Towers to see 3-D photos of the surrounding terrain, the Mile High Swinging Bridge, animal habitats, and more.
Here, you can also take part in the park’s newest program, Random Acts of Science. “It has more of a science focus, using instruments like a microscope and stereoscope to look at things more closely from nature,” Petrilla explains. Each day, these sessions focus on topics like minerals, tiny organisms, or weather.
For lunch, stop by Mildred’s Grill, named for a much-loved black bear — who was the first resident in the mountain’s Wildlife Habitats in the late 1960s. The menu in this casual eatery includes burgers, wraps, sandwiches, and salads.
Indoor and outdoor seating on the grand deck and patio come with views of the botanical garden, bird feeders, and squirrels performing acrobatics to get their share of bird seed. “I’ve seen a lot of children just sitting outside, watching the squirrels on the feeders,” Petrilla says. “They get a kick out of that.”
At the Pollinator Garden, just outside the Wildlife Habitats, you can walk up to programs during the summer season. At 11 a.m., become a citizen scientist when you record weather data for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research.
And from 11:30 a.m. to noon, find a naturalist educator leading children through a Junior Naturalist activity. Even if the educator’s plan is to, say, help children use animal tracks to investigate a “nature crime scene,” a child’s interests will guide their experience, Petrilla says. “If they were looking on the ground at the tracks, saw a really cool centipede crawl by, and were really stoked about that, we would give them a hand lens and make observations about the centipede.”
In addition to participating in daily activities, find free Junior Naturalist booklets at the information table in the Wilson Center. When children complete the activities in the booklet, they can recite a pledge and receive a badge.
At 2 p.m. every day, you and the crew can Ramble with a Naturalist. The best-known of these walk and talks are the late-spring rhododendron rambles and the fall colors rambles, but Petrilla encourages guests to check them out during the summer as well. “Between spring and fall, the rambles are about whatever the naturalist is passionate about, so it’s something different every day.” Recent rambles have focused on fun topics like squirrels vs. chipmunks and lichen exploration.
In the Wildlife Habitats, Keeper Talks are held every half hour from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. during peak season. Here, you’re likely to hear a zoo educator explain how the keepers add interest and excitement to the animals’ days. “An enrichment is an item we provide our animals to stimulate their minds,” says Petrilla. “It gets them thinking; it gets them doing something. It’s also a fun treat for them.”
Fanny May, the youngest and newest addition to the black bear habitat, might be seen trying to extract crumbled cookies from a barrel with holes in its sides. Or you might catch an elk enjoying treats like bananas or peach slices.
Other animals at the Wildlife Habitats include sibling cougars Logan and Trinity, and otters Nova, Oscar, and Uno. “The otters swim right up next to the glass,” Petrilla says, adding that when the busy critters shake their tail-end while doing a potty dance, it’s hard not to giggle.
Beyond engaging programming and the famous Mile-High Swinging Bridge, the woods and trails of Grandfather Mountain are beautiful places where families can get to know the natural world in intimate ways. “Down at Woods Walk, a picnic area with a quarter-mile nature loop, parents can let their kids be kids and explore nature,” Petrilla says.