12 of the Best Zoos, Nature Preserves and Wildlife Refuges Across the Midwest
Animal worlds have a way of inspiring awe and transforming how we view our vibrant planet. And you don't have to travel across the oceans, or swim beneath them, for up-close encounters with some of the most exotic species. The Midwest's parks, wildlife refuges, zoos and nature preserves offer all of this—and more.
Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Omaha, Nebraska
Even at a cheetah's pace, it's hard to cover this Omaha zoo in a day. More than 900 species of animals live in spacious enclosures, including the world's largest desert dome and zoo aquarium. Ride the Skyfari chairlift for a unique aerial perspective of rhinos, gibbons and ostriches.
Wildlife Prairie Park, Hanna City, Illinois
An easy 1.5-mile hiking trail through woodlands just outside of Peoria passes enclosures housing rescued wildlife native to the Midwest. Bobcats, black bears and bison live in this recreation park, which also offers fishing; wildlife talks; and 20 miles of hiking, mountain biking and running trails.
Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan
A small herd of rare fallow deer is a common sight for locals biking or running around the Detroit River island. (The deers' ancestors were donated to the city in 1937.) Also on this urban oasis, visit the free Belle Isle Aquarium and the domed Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory.
Red River Zoo, Fargo, North Dakota
While a typical eastern North Dakota safari may consist of coyotes, raccoons and perhaps a badger—at Red River Zoo, you'll see an array of animals that thrive in similar climates, like gray wolves, Bactrian camels, red pandas and Pallas's cats (think chunky-cute felines even more elusive than your timid house cat).
Tanganyika Wildlife Park, Goddard, Kansas
Pose for pics with an otter, hang with Chewbacca the sloth and swim with penguins (really!) at this hands-on park near Wichita. Feeding ring-railed lemurs reigns as the most popular experience. Guinea pigs and African tortoises fill the children's zoo.
Horicon Marsh, Mayville Wisconsin
Considered one of the nation's top birding spots, the preserve (an hour northeast of Madison) welcomes an estimated 300,000 birds every spring and fall. See common Canada geese and tree swallows and—if you're lucky—rare trumpeter swans and yellow-billed cuckoos from an observation deck.
Related: 6 Simple Tips to Start Bird Watching
Indianapolis Zoo, Indianapolis, Indiana
Dive into the daily routine of a dolphin without getting wet, thanks to the Indianapolis Zoo's glass dome that offers 360-degree views. Book ahead for an Animal Art Adventure if you'd like to watch an elephant or penguin create a custom painting for you. (And, really, who doesn't need that in their life?)
Related: The Top Things to Do in Indianapolis
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa
Just east of Des Moines, a 5-mile auto tour lets you explore areas where you're likely to see bison, elk and other prairie wildlife. For a closer look, hike trails through the tallgrass to spot sandpipers, meadowlarks, short-eared owls and other grassland-loving bird species.
International Wolf Center, Ely, Minnesota
In the ruggedly beautiful North Woods, observation windows at this interpretive center allow visitors to see the resident wolf pack up close. Thoughtful exhibits and films explore wolf behavior as well as the challenges of wolf-human coexistence.
Johnny Morris' Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, Springfield, Missouri
Allow at least three hours to walk through 1.5 miles of dramatic indoor scenes with preserved big game and live sea creatures from around the world. Don't miss the "bait ball" of 6,000 herring swimming in formation to intimidate possible predators.
Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour, Custer, South Dakota
Open ranges, granite spires and sky-blue lakes awe visitors at Custer State Park, yet bison still manage to steal the show. Daily tours departing from the park's State Game Lodge get you about as close as you want to get to these Black Hills icons.
The Wilds, Cumberland, Ohio
Fall asleep to the sounds of deer grunting, geese honking and who-knows-what splashing in the lake at this 10,000-acre conservation center equipped with luxe yurts, a lodge and cabins. Can't spend the night? Take a guided driving tour of the highlights: zebras, rhinos, giraffes and so much more.