Meet the most unusual animals in Colorado, including llamas, gators, camels and tarantulas

Sure, you can see deer, bighorn sheep, bald eagles and maybe elk or a bear on your summer explorations in Colorado. But did you know that you can also picnic with a llama, or “wrestle” an alligator? Or dive with sharks, or meet a wolf? Add adventure to your summer road trip with one or more of these unique animal encounters offered throughout the state.

Dive with sharks

If you’re seeking a feeding frenzy of sharks à la “Jaws,” you won’t find it at Denver’s Downtown Aquarium. Instead, the staff allow guests to view the animals in their calm, natural state to promote marine-life education and conservation. There’s no chumming the water here. View a variety of animals, including blacktip reef and zebra sharks, butterfly and unicorn fish, and the scene-stealers, three green sea turtles.

Details: After shimmying into a wetsuit, visitors receive a 20-minute tutorial about the animals in the tank before being outfitted with SCUBA gear. Then you’re lowered into the water for roughly 20 minutes. The Shark Cage Experience is available every Saturday and Sunday, with three groups each day, up to five guests per group (six if a single family).

Dive experience is not necessary; minimum age 8 years; $100 per person includes all gear. Private sessions are available. Kids age 6 and older can snorkel in the Under the Sea exhibit, and other snorkeling and diving experiences are available.
700 Water St., Denver; 303-561-4450

Feed giraffes

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo boasts one of North America’s largest — and most prolific — giraffe herds. Get eye-to-eye with one of the animals as you feed them lettuce from the elevated boardwalk. But watch your hats: One hungry giraffe snatched a straw hat off my friend’s head!

Details: Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. in the African Rift Valley Exhibit; $3 per lettuce bundle, or two for $5. Visitors also can sign up to feed rhinoceros, chickens, elephants and other animals.
4250 Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Road, Colorado Springs; 719-633-9925

Fly falcons

The only adventure of its kind in Colorado, The Broadmoor’s Falconry Experience allows visitors to see several birds of prey where they’re housed at the “mews,” including owls, falcons and hawks.

Learn about the 4,000-year-old activity known as “the sport of kings,” from terminology like “fed up” to rules about which royalty was allowed to fly certain types of birds. Then take a short walk with the falconer and a trained bird as it follows commands. Perhaps you’ll even experience a “hawk slap.” (It doesn’t hurt.)

Details: Open to the public. Beginner class $149 per person; advanced, $199. Or combine both for $285 per person. About 90 minutes for each class; must complete beginner course first. Kids age 5 and older. Daily, 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. Reservations required.
6 Lake Ave., Colorado Springs; 719-471-6168

Handle reptiles

Started near Mosca in 1977 as a tilapia farm, the owners of the Colorado Gators Reptile Park found a natural remedy for the stench of any fish that died: 100 baby alligators, which were added in 1987. The park has since become a refuge for unwanted, illegal, and abused reptiles from around the world.

Visitors can feed gator chow to the alligators and handle several of the animals, including baby alligators, tortoises and snakes. Adults can sign up for the “Gatoraid” class, where they learn to wrestle one of the animals so staff can administer first aid or needed medicines. $100 per person. Call for reservations at least one week in advance.

Details: No extra charge for animal handling outside of admission. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
9162 Lane 9 N. (about 17 miles north of Alamosa), 719-378-2612

Search for wild horses

The Sand Wash Basin, located about 18.5 miles northwest of Maybell (about 30 miles west of Craig) isn’t just a popular recreation spot; it’s also home to one of the country’s few remaining herds of wild horses, comprising roughly 250 animals. (The herd was culled in September 2021 from nearly 900 due to drought conditions.)

You can go on your own, taking Colorado 318 north for about 15 miles, then turning on Moffat County Road 67, where the Herd Management Area begins. But the roads are unpaved and unmarked, so finding the horses can be tricky.

Details: Take a drive with Wild Horse Warrior Tours led by Cindy Wright (up to four visitors, private tours only). Check the website for possible dates or e-mail [email protected] $175 per adult, $50 for children ages 12-18 with an adult. Kids age 11 and younger are free (car seats not provided). Price includes water, snacks and a light lunch. (You may want to pack your own food.)

Take a llama to lunch

Few activities will top the day my two boys got to be llama wranglers, leading them up the mountain on a half-day trek toward a picnic lunch as passersby gasped with surprise. “Oh wow! Llamas! Do you ride them?” Um, no.

These docile animals are ideal beasts of burden for backcountry adventures, able to lug up to 80 pounds of gear. They’re also eco-friendly, with padded hooves and articulating toenails that leave less trace than a hiking boot and scat that’s similar to an elk’s, which is easily processed in a mountain environment.

Details: Based out of Arrowhead Ski Area. Backcountry llama hikes also available. Transportation to site not provided. $575.00 for first two people, $95 per additional person; $55 per child 12 years and under; kids 3 years and under are free. Reservations required. Must cancel within 48 hours of trip due to popularity of this excursion. Available July 1-Sept. 30.
paragonguides.com

Tour for tarantulas

Each year in late-August through early September, tarantulas known as the Texas or Oklahoma browns emerge from their burrows in search of a mate. Mislabeled a “migration,” the animals are easier to spot during their “walkabout” just before sunset, particularly around Lamar, Springfield, and Comanche National Grassland.

Details: You’re on your own for this one. But a good resource is the Timpas Unit of the Comanche National Grassland in La Junta. 1420 E. 3rd St., 719-384-2181. Don’t want to make
the trek? Visit the Butterfly Pavilion any time of year to hold Rosie the Chilean rose-hair tarantula.

Train a flippered friend

Ever wanted to see what it’s like to train a sea lion? During a 30-minute meet-and-greet and training session at the Denver Zoo, get tips and tricks from some of the zoo’s keepers, finishing the encounter with you as the trainer.

Details: Minimum 12 years, maximum four people. $200 per group. Sundays and Fridays at 1:30 p.m. Reservations required. The zoo offers encounters with several other animals including sloth, flamingo, llama and giraffe. Prices and age limits vary.

Wake up with camels

Stay in a yurt set on 35 acres in Trujillo Canyon (about 25 miles southwest of Alamosa) and wake up next to a field where the camels and donkey roam.

Pet a few of the friendly
animals — six camels (Big Mama and Anita are the friendliest), four donkeys, and barn cats, for starters — during a complimentary farm tour.

Details: The yurt sleeps up to four guests and features two beds, a wood stove, coffee and tea, and a picnic table. Potable water and toilet available. Fires and pets allowed. $110 per night. To book, visit hipcamp.com and search for “Camels and a Yurt.”

Walk among wolves

The Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center, a nonprofit sanctuary in Divide, offers a one-hour tour to see wolves, coyote, and fox while learning about their history, biology, and more. It ends with a signature group “wolf howl.”

There are several other tour options, including VIP and up-close encounters, full-moon tours, feeding tours, and a photo session with Ringo the coyote-dog or a fox. Times, costs, and age limits vary.

Details: During peak season, May 1-Oct. 31, standard tours are offered Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m. Arrive 15 minutes early. General admission (ages 12 and older), $25; children ages 3-11, $15. Reservations required.

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