Bearizona is as fun for adults as it is for children.
A drive-through wildlife park featuring North American animals, Bearizona enables visitors to get close to animals in a woodland setting from the safety of their car.
The facility in Williams, Ariz., covers 160 acres of ponderosa pine forest. Animals are separated by large fenced enclosures with smaller and baby animals found in Fort Bearizona, a 20-acre walk-through area.
My husband, Richard, and I start the drive-through portion of the park at 9:30 a.m. Morning turns out to be a great time to visit because the just-fed animals are close to the road.
A sign indicates that the first enclosure holds American burros. I am busy scanning the trees, looking for animals, when Richard points out several burros ahead of us in the road. We slowly cruise past within 2 feet of the sleepy-eyed animals.
The next animals are much bigger. Two bison bulls park themselves in the middle of the road, forcing us to come to a halt. After a couple of minutes of staring at us, the pair slowly saunter over to the rest of the small herd.
Three white Alaskan timber wolves are waiting for us as we cross the extra-wide cattle guards into their enclosure. I assume that they have already had their breakfast and aren't looking for a midmorning snack.
We have to stop again while the wolves look us over. They are just as curious about us as we are about them. They finally cross right in front of the car and trot out into the forest. We get great photos.
The wolves look healthy and well-cared for. More than half of the animals in Bearizona are rescued or rehabilitated animals. Once they arrive, they've got it made. They spend their lives in large, naturalistic enclosures with others of their kind.
I notice an old, dilapidated trailer out in the trees and ask a worker about it. He explains that Bearizona recycles more than 50 tons of scrap metal and steel. The park uses the waste material to form the foundation for its waterfalls, man-made rock sculptures and some buildings.
The Dall sheep are the first animals we see that aren't right by the road, but a ram with an impressive set of horns is about 60 feet away. Farther down the road, though, the ewes and yearlings are munching hay at their feeder.
As we round a corner, a small lake comes into view with three white bison at the water's edge. While they don't appear as big as the bison we saw earlier, their white coats make them unique.
They watch as we slowly drive into the bighorn sheep enclosure. Conveniently, a ram and three ewes are only 20 feet away, and we pause to take more photos. A small boy in one of the cars ahead of us is pointing excitedly at the sheep. This would be a great family trip.
At the next entrance we are stopped by a Bearizona staff member. He warns us to keep our windows rolled up. This is the black bear enclosure, the prime attraction. We're instructed to keep our car slowly moving if a bear approaches it. There are several loop drives within the bear enclosure, and we can spend as much time as we want driving around.
I'm focused on the four bears ambling down the road ahead of us, when a movement off to the right catches my attention. Two large male bears come up to the road. Even though one is black and the other is cinnamon colored, they are both considered black bears. These bears are incredibly strong, weighing as much as 600 pounds.
We see why the guard says to keep the car moving if a bear approaches. The car ahead of us stops and a momma bear with last year's cubs sniffs the car. Getting braver, she puts her paws on the hood. Dropping down, she wanders around the side of the car, where she suddenly stands up on her back legs, puts her paws on the roof of the car and peers in the window.
With cameras covering the entire park, staff members quickly arrive. I don't hear any noise, but somehow they scare the bears, who lope off into the woods.
Finished with the drive-through portion, we stop at the gift shop and examine the "bear" car. It has plenty of muddy bear prints on it but no scratches.
We are surprised to find three tiny bear cubs living in a cage in the gift shop. One is a rescued cub, and the other two, already weaned from their mother, are kept inside for safety. Older bears can sometimes kill cubs.
Fort Bearizona, the walk-through educational center, houses a variety of small animals along with juvenile bears not quite old enough to go into the regular enclosures. Right off, I spot Cocoa and Kong, twin bear sisters, one black and the other cinnamon colored. They are practicing their tree climbing skills, not too successfully. An older cub scampers to the top of a pine, where it drapes itself over some branches to catch a midmorning snooze, oblivious to all of us gawking at him.
A wide, winding path leads to a man-made cave where windows enable visitors to observe resting bears.
I'm curious about whether the bears hibernate. A staff member explains that the bears hibernate for several months during the winter.
In the drive-through enclosures, cement dens are covered with logs or dirt, providing a cozy home to spend the winter. Since Bearizona is closed between Dec. 31 and March 1, the bears can sleep peacefully.
I like the fact that Bearizona is "sensible green," utilizing solar electricity and saved rainwater. Last year, more than 120,000 gallons of water was collected in barrels to use for irrigation. This does not include the water gathered in retention ponds throughout the park.
Bearizona opened in May 2010 and is expanding daily, with more animals being added as their enclosures are finished. At the junction of Interstate 40 and State Route 64, a popular pathway to the Grand Canyon, it is easy to reach.