Central Texas Road Trips: Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch Edition
I recently decided I’m ready to start taking family road trips.
Being a native Austinite (yes, I belong to that rare breed), I have fond memories of heading down to the Texas coast, visiting family friends in the Hill Country or spending a few days in Dallas as a kid. Playing Travel Bingo, stopping for kolaches in La Grange and waiting for my dad to make what seemed like the twentieth phone call to check in at his office (yes, at a pay phone) were par for the course.
Somehow, we have yet to start a road trip tradition with my almost six-year old son. I think part of the reason is that he has never really enjoyed being in the car, and we are lucky to live in an area where we rarely spend more than 20 minutes in transit. As a result, he just isn’t used to hours and hours in the backseat (and of course, living in Texas means road trips can involve hours and hours). I think another reason is that my husband’s family is in Virginia, so we squirrel away vacation time and money to make visits there twice a year. I’ve also found that my zeal for planning trips has gotten somewhat buried under what seems like a mountain of mundane realities of modern life (have you recently experienced the joys that are a broken fridge, sick kid or the overwhelming desire at the end of the day to sit in front of the TV with a glass of wine instead of planning that next mini-vacation?)
I’m ready to change that. Over Spring Break, my mom and I are going to take my son on his first trip to Sea World (I told you, we have been depriving this kid!) and do some other fun stuff in San Antonio and the Hill Country. As a warm up, my parents, my son and I took advantage of the Friday he had off before Presidents’ Day to check out the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch.
My neighbor had recently visited the Ranch with her grandson and family and showed me photos on her phone of zebras sticking their heads into the car, so I checked it out online. First off, I will say that the Ranch’s website puts some other Central Texas attractions to shame, with videos, maps and kids’ activities. The Ranch is 400 acres and has been owned by the same family for over 100 years. Originally home to cattle and goats, since 1984 the Ranch provides a habitat for 40 native, exotic and endangered species.
We left Austin in the mid-morning and it took us an hour to get to the Ranch from the IH35/Ben White interchange (50 minutes on IH35 and 10 minutes traveling west on Natural Bridge Caverns Road — despite Google Maps estimating it would take an hour and a half). Here’s how it works: you pay at the entrance (by the person, not the carload), get a bag of feed and you are immediately greeted by giraffes, kangaroos, crown cranes and turkeys which are in roadside enclosures. A restaurant, a learning center (for group educational activities), a “walk about” with animals, the gift shop, Lemur Island and the Petting Barnyard are all within walking distance of the main gates.
Just past the Learning Center is the entrance to the 4-mile drive through safari area. You can go through as many times as you like and have a different experience, although one trip through was enough for us. As promised, we spent about an hour driving through, with many stops to feed the animals, attempt to coax some over to the car or to observe them locking horns or playing. Some of the animals living at the Ranch include endangered rhinoceroses (we never spotted one, sadly), buffalo, zebras (content to congregate in a stand of trees instead of coming to the road), elk, wildebeest, camels, emus, llamas and ostrich (the most eager for the animal feed). The Ranch has a successful breeding program and visitors have been known to arrive when an animal is giving birth (alas, not us). When you enter the Ranch, you receive an Adventure Guide Book which has information on all the species and is really helpful since many of the species aren’t familiar.
The Ranch opens at 9:00, and we happened to visit on a day that it was drizzling on and off and somewhat chilly (in other words, a great time to drive through). We were very lucky, as when we stopped at the gift shop at the end of our visit, it started pouring. The weather, and the fact that it was a holiday for Austin schools but not schools near the Ranch made it seem like we had the Ranch to ourselves (come to think of it, there was a school group, but other than sharing the restaurant with them at lunch, we didn’t see them). In fact, it wasn’t until the last area of the drive through safari section that we even saw any cars. Since this was the first time we visited, I can’t compare it to how the experience might be if the Ranch were more crowded or if it were a hot summer day.
By the time we made it through the safari, we were ready for lunch, so we headed to the Safari Camp Grill. The menu had more variety than I expected and the food was good. After lunch, we checked out the animals in the “walk about” and tried to spot some inhabitants at Lemur Island (alas, they weren’t a fan of the weather).
Although we all enjoyed the safari, my son said his favorite part of the day was the Petting Barnyard. I hadn’t realized you could feed the petting barnyard animals, so I was glad we had food left over. The barnyard had lots of goats eager to help you part with any leftover food, a sheep and a pair of llamas in a fenced enclosure. I did get jumped on a fair amount with little hooves covered in red dirt, so I’d just recommend wearing pants you don’t mind getting dirty.
According to Tiffany Soechting, the Ranch’s Marketing Director, the peak times to visit the Ranch are from 11:00am-3:00pm, the busiest time of the week are the weekends and the holidays and summer are the times of year the Ranch has the most visitors. Tiffany added that the animals are the most active on hot days in the early morning or later in the afternoon and that the Spring is the best time to try to catch a baby animal being born. Lemur Island is the Ranch’s newest attraction and plans are in the works to expand the education portion of the website.
In a nutshell, here is how I would describe our experience:
What We Liked
- The animals looked happy and healthy and the facilities appeared to be almost new.
- Up close opportunity to see many different species of animals — some familiar, and some not-so familiar.
- The chance to see animals outside of traditional zoo-like enclosures.
- It’s a nice place to visit with grandparents or guests from out of town who might prefer the drive through experience to the amount of walking you would do in a zoo. This probably also applies to kids who aren’t fans of walking long distances.
- The Ranch provides a habitat and breeding program for animals which are threatened and endangered.
- The costs can add up. Compared to other San Antonio attractions, the admission is not unreasonable, but it is more expensive than many Austin-area family outings.
- Some animals were happy to come up to the car for food, but many were content to relax by the side of the road.
- The kids’ drinks were primarily sodas (no juice or milk that I saw), so we opted for hot chocolate since it was a chilly day.
- You will see a wider variety of animals at a zoo, but it will be a different experience, of course.
For my animal-loving kid, the Ranch was a hit. My parents loved seeing him squeal with excitement when an animal came up to his window and I found a goat who really enjoyed being brushed. I would definitely consider going again, although now I have decided to start a board on Pinterest of all the places we need to go. Road trips, here we come!
Have you visited the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch? If so, what were your impressions? What road trips are on your list for the coming year?
Written by: Nicole Basham
Disclosure: The Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch waived the admission fee and gave us animal feed when they learned we wanted to check out the facility and review it on LiveMom. No compensation was offered for this post and the opinions are my own.