Bearizona: Getting Wild in Williams
Did you know that bear cubs are messy eaters that keep up a steady stream of rumbling and grumbling? Nor did I, until we visited Bearizona. Williams, Arizona is home to about three thousand people (that’s only sixty-nine people per square mile) but it wasn’t human company I was seeking. Instead, I stopped in this town, which is best known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon, with bears on the brain.
To reach the drive-thru wildlife park, we passed under an arch carved with the word ‘Bearizona’ and decorated with a fake bear and wolf—it felt like I was entering the Flintstones cartoon. While the park doesn’t have any free-range purple dinosaurs, it is home to bison, dall and big horn sheep, mountain goats, Arctic and gray wolves and, of course, black bears.
The best times to visit are late in the day, when the animals are fairly active, or early, so that you can watch them chowing down on their breakfast—we opted for the latter. The mountain goats and burros were certainly tucking in with gusto. The GPS audio tour chatted away to us, sharing surprising information about Bearizona’s inhabitants.
Lane pressed her face against the window (which must stay up at all times in Bearizona) to check out the bighorn sheep. The horns of an adult male weigh 30lb, which is heavier than all the other bones in his body combined!
Cattle guards divide up the different sections of the park. We drove slower than honey trickling from a jar, in part because we didn’t want to miss any of the sheep or goats ambling by, but also because we were concerned about accidentally hitting one of the bison that kept crossing the road.
I learned that bison (also known as buffalo) can weigh up to 2000lb and can be as tall as Michael Jordan! As one of these beasts lumbered by the car, it was hard to believe that it could sprint at thirty miles per hour! Driving past a white bison was even less believable. Only one in every ten million buffalo is white! Bearizona is in the process of creating a large plain to be shared between several animal species, one of which will be the bison.
As the park is only a few years old, there was also some building work taking place in the Arctic wolves’ area. It was surreal to watch workers constructing fences, while these wild creatures watched from a few feet away, or sometimes from right behind the men. Given that the wolves were completely unrestrained, we wondered if this caused any problems. One of the keepers explained that the workers ‘keep an eye on them [the wolves], but kind of become buddies.’
In fact, if every employee in the U.S. were as enthusiastic about their job as the keepers and volunteers at Bearizona, the nation’s productivity would go through the roof. The same keeper told us that she felt like part of the park. She explained that most of the bears are rescues or animals confiscated from individuals. Local restaurants donate day old food to the bears, which are natural scavengers. The keeper concluded that the animals dine better than some people and that, one time, she watched a bear receive a rack of ribs. “I’ll fight you for them,” the keeper joked. My money would have been on the bear.
It’s impossible to drive through Bearizona without encountering one of these namesake creatures. Bears are busy scratching at trees, snacking on vegetation (or ribs) and ambling across the road. In case you were wondering, they always have the right of way!
At the end of the driving tour, hurry on foot to Fort Bearizona. Why hurry? Bear cubs. When these little furballs are born, they are only the size of a stick of butter! The litter we saw was two months old. A keeper was in the middle of feeding them a special combination of oatmeal, applesauce and lactose-free milk. Bears this age are klutzy and we watched as one face planted into the bowl, while another tumbled off a low log, landing belly up.
The cubs were a vocal group, presumably critiquing the food, and demanding attention from the keeper. He explained that they were bad tempered prior to breakfast and were prone to biting and scratching—he had the marks to prove it. After dining, it was a different story. One bear hugged the keeper’s leg, while another was lifted into his arms like a puppy. We could see the cub better from this angle and realized that it had eyelashes that a supermodel would envy.
Although the park has a breeding program, I can’t guarantee baby bears cubs but, as there were also young bears in the ‘kindergarten,’ births seem like a regular occurrence—call and check if you want to know for sure, (928-635-2289). The kindergarteners were all between one and three years in age. These bears spend their time learning important life skills such as how to keep their den clean, that if they come when keepers call they get a treat, and to respect their bigger elders. Only then can they be released into the general bear population.
Other inhabitants of Fort Bearizona include two lynx, which had bizarrely big feet and made noises at each other as if they were having a conversation. Another adorable duo was a swift fox and a red fox, which have been friends since they were cubs, although they would never have associated in the wild. Two bobcats stalked birds clueless enough to land in their enclosure, a javelina hurtled towards the edge of the moat, (which stops the animals from escaping) demanding breakfast, and peacocks sashayed along the paths.
We ended at the Barnyard, a petting zoo—be sure to use the hand sanitizer on both the way in and out. I stroked the head of a friendly goat. Then two pigs waddled up and one flopped on its back, belly up like a dog, and waited for the scratching to begin. Fyi, it’s hard to tell a pig when your arm gets tired—they can be a little pushy about affection.
I’m not the kind of person who buys T-shirt from every tourist spot I hit, as I’m not into being a billboard. But I bought one here, because I loved the park enough to advertise it with pride. Bearizona’s goal is ‘to promote conservation through memorable and educational encounters with North American wildlife in a natural environment.’ Mission accomplished. Both actual kids and big kids will be totally charmed by the park. If I had to devise a slogan for this region of Arizona, it would be as follows: come for the Grand Canyon, stay for the bears!
- Bearizona is located at 1500 E. Route 66, Williams, AZ 86046.
- The park is open seven days a week, however opening hours vary based on daylight and it does sometimes close in bad weather. It’s best to check Bearizona’s visitor information page for the most up-to-date information.
- Please note that Williams, AZ is in mountain country and sits at an elevation of 6800 feet. Between November and March, temperatures regularly drop below zero at night. Williams also ranks at number forty-nine on the list of the 101 U.S. cities with the highest average snowfall.
- Surprisingly, you can bring your dog into the drive-thru park. Car windows have to be kept up at all times anyway. However, if you have Fido in tow, you can’t take him into Fort Bearizona.
- Should you encounter car trouble while in the park, turn on your hazard lights and beep the horn. Never exit your vehicle.
What’s your favorite wildlife park?
Lane & Juliet
The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.