Colorado wildlife is legendary, from the bugling elk of Estes Park to the pronghorn on the Eastern Plains. But the state’s animal offerings don’t end with species native to the region – or even the hemisphere.

1. Pueblo Zoo

African wild dog brothers at the Pueblo Zoo. Photo Credit: Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
African wild dog brothers at the Pueblo Zoo. Photo Credit: Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

Start your drive on the wilder side at Pueblo Zoo (pueblozoo.org). Operated by the Pueblo Zoological Society and owned by the city, it’s home to 420-plus animals representing more than 140 species around the world. While in town, be sure to visit the Nature and Raptor Center (natureandraptor.org), where more than 5,000 injured birds of prey have convalesced since the center’s opening in 1981.

2. Mission: Wolf

Guests can channel their inner alpha with a group howl. Photo Credit: VisitCOS.com
Guests can channel their inner alpha with a group howl. Photo Credit: VisitCOS.com

Drive west to Westcliffe, where the volunteer-run Mission: Wolf (missionwolf.org) houses 32 captive-born wolves and wolf-dog crosses on open grounds. Tours on “Big Feed” days, Wednesdays and Saturdays, offer the best chance of meeting one of the center’s residents.

3. Colorado Gators Reptile Park

Colorado Gators Reptile Park Manager Jay Young does some medical work on a gator that has a laceration on its chest. Photo Credit: Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette
Colorado Gators Reptile Park Manager Jay Young does some medical work on a gator that has a laceration on its chest. Photo Credit: Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

Gather the pups and head on to Mosca and Colorado Gators Reptile Park (coloradogators.com). What began with 100 baby alligators purchased in 1987 to dispose of fish remains from a tilapia farm is now a family-oriented educational center and sanctuary for unwanted exotic pets, including Nile crocodiles and the park’s famous albino alligators.

4. Leadville National Fish Hatchery

Some 120 miles due north is Leadville National Fish Hatchery (fws.gov/leadville). Established in 1889, the second oldest federal fish hatchery in operation focuses on trout production for stocking recreational waters and offers self-guided and volunteer-led group tours by appointment.

5. Westminster’s Butterfly Pavilion

The 7,200 square foot Butterfly Pavillion is home to about 1,200 different butterflies from over 50 different species. Reis photo
The 7,200 square foot Butterfly Pavillion is home to about 1,200 different butterflies from over 50 different species. Reis photo

Westminster’s Butterfly Pavilion (butterflies.org) is the next stop on the itinerary. The 30,000-square-foot center houses more than 1,600 butterflies and 5,000 animals, including sea creatures and Rosie the tarantula.

6. The Wild Animal Sanctuary

The Wild Animal Sanctuary, Keenesburg, Colorado. Photo Credit: The Wild Animal Sanctuary
The Wild Animal Sanctuary, Keenesburg, Colorado. Photo Credit: The Wild Animal Sanctuary

Only a short drive away, in Keenesburg, is The Wild Animal Sanctuary (wildanimalsanctuary.org), the world’s oldest and largest nonprofit refuge dedicated exclusively to the rescue and lifelong care of captive exotic and endangered large carnivores. It’s home to more than 450 lions, tigers, bears and more.

7. The Denver Zoo

Photo Credit: Denver Zoo

Head to downtown Denver for the final stop of the trip, the Denver Zoo (denverzoo.org), founded in 1896 when an orphaned black bear cub named after politician William Jennings Bryan was handed over to the keeper of City Park. The zoo today is an 80-acre facility housing more than 4,000 animals.

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