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Our 2014 Family Vacation - Day One Wild Wilderness Drive Through Zoo and Ft. Smith, Ark,

Updated on July 13, 2015

We Head Out

For several weeks, I had researched where we were going to go, how we were going to travel, what we were going to see, what the costs were going to be and how much fun we could possibly jam into a four day vacation. Would we go north, possibly to Minnesota for a day or two? Maybe west to Colorado to visit the mountains? Or south into Texas or Arkansas? Which would it be? A good bit of talking went into what would be best, a decision was made and finally it was time to leave. 8:00 AM Sunday morning June 29, 2014. The day was going to be nice, the temperature warm but not too hot and the open road called to me. Let's go!

We were taking our youngest daughter Bailey, who had just turned 17 and youngest son Caleb who was 10. The plan was to first travel south to Gentry, Arkansas and visit Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari before heading on to Ft. Smith, Arkansas and spending the night there after seeing some of that city. All in all, a good, full first day.

Liger (Lion/Tiger cross)
Liger (Lion/Tiger cross) | Source
Camels wanting a handout
Camels wanting a handout | Source

Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari

The plan was to leave at 8:00 AM, arriving at the safari location around 9:30 AM. We were a bit off but still close enough to not throw the entire day's schedule off by more than a few minutes which were easily made up later.

A leisurely drive down Highway 43 in Missouri and then Highway 59 in Arkansas brought us to Gentry. I have been to this zoo a couple of times before but always have trouble finding the easy way to it; this was no different. After driving through the town we finally hit upon the right road and drove the few moments north to Wild Wilderness. We paid our modest entry fee, parked our car and began to wander around. There are a good number of animals to see right up front including a large petting zoo separated into several different areas. Kangaroos, goats, llamas, and donkeys compete for your attention and all are deserving of it. In addition there are numerous small enclosures which hold any number of species, those both familiar and not.

We began by wandering around these smaller enclosures, peering at the animals there. Turkeys, chickens, and various pheasants and even peacocks were housed here and all were fun. We then moved on to the various simian exhibits. Gibbons, spidertail monkeys, and other monkeys vied for our attention as we wandered along. We were approached by an attendant as we moved along and asked if we would like to pet the lemurs. Of course, we said yes!

Once inside the lemur enclosure we were able to talk with and pet the lemurs. They were so lovable! Their fur is soft and their little hands grasped ours in a gesture of friendship. After a few minutes a small group had gathered around the enclosure watching us interact with these small creatures and waiting their turn. We finally said goodbye to them and allowed others a turn.

We meandered along, looking at the exhibits here and there. At one point there was a small group of baby tortoises, all less than 8 or 10 inches in size. They were of a type which often grow to giant size, some reaching close to 3 feet across, so these were just little ones. Tina was taken with them (she loves turtles) and really enjoyed them. But across the way she was in for an even more fun time.

We entered a small barn which housed other babies. Kittens, emus, lambs, and even tortoises. Little bitty tortoises no more than a couple of inches in size. As she and the kids oohed and aahed over them, they noticed one in the corner on his back. I went in search of an attendant and returned with a young girl who worked there. She reached into the large aquarium housing the tortoises and righted the little fellow, then allowed Tina to hold him. She was in heaven! He was small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of her hand and his head was out looking at her. After a few minutes she reluctantly gave him back to the attendant but not before learning they sometimes sell these to individuals to be kept as pets. Hmmm, I wonder if we will have a new family member sometime soon? Can you imagine having a pet that you could pass on to your children, then they on to theirs? A pet that lives for close to a hundred years?

We went back out and wandered around the exhibits, seeing a Turken. Never heard of that? Me neither. Turns out is was a cross between a Turkey and a Chicken. Strange looking bird, I will say that.

There was also some Capybaras in a very nice area; complete with bunny rabbits hopping all around. Caleb was hopping around just as happy as can be. We entered the Kangaroo enclosure and everyone petted these wonderful creatures as we moved along. From there we went into another enclosure and petted a donkey, some goats and even a Llama. Caleb loved this Llama! It followed him around, nibbling at his shirt if he stopped paying attention to it. He would hug it's neck time and again and it was one of the cutest things I have ever seen. It was with reluctance we left this area and moved on to the main attraction.

On To The Drive Through Area

We got back into our car and headed for the drive through area. Crossing a cattle guard, we slowly drove along the dirt road, eyes looking ahead for whatever lay before us. Caleb spotted the first animal a Fallow Deer and its baby. Almost immediately we spotted more and more of these beautiful deer with more babies.

We then came to an enclose housing a pair of Black Leopards. They are truly gorgeous creatures. When the sunlight hit them just right you could see the pattern of spots against their black fur, proving they are not a solid color but just a darker phase of the standard pattern of spots found on all leopards.

We then came to see Mountain Lions, Tigers, and even a pair of Ligers, Lion and Tiger crosses. The road curved this way and that, leading us to more animals lounging alongside, and even on the road. Emus were everywhere, peering at us with their strange eyes through the windows of the car. We had been warned to keep the windows up and I think if one were down a head would have been inside before we knew it.

Water Buffalo waded and enjoyed a small lake while ducks and geese swam alongside. Bison were feeding on an area beside a lake, but were different from the normal bison. These were pale, almost white in coloration. While on our drive we saw zebra, camels with their babies, gnu, and various members of the deer family. The drive is roughly four miles long and you see animals all along that distance. According to the website there are some 85 different species to view.

Near the end of the trek we saw a male antelope chasing a female and they ran all the way around a small lake there. Their bursts of speed were amazing to witness, as they glided through the tall grasses there on the prairie. There were also a large family of prairie dogs scampering alongside the road, entering their burrows and then popping out again, standing up to watch us watching them.

All too soon we were at the end of the road and it was time to leave. We stopped off at the concession stand to purchase a few mementos of our trip. One thing which bears our attention: the prices. In most tourist areas the prices are jacked up to take advantage of tourists and separate them from their money. Not here. Prices are reasonable, even low. We purchased a small white tiger stuffed animal that elsewhere could run $20 to $25 dollars but paid only $12. Well worth it and of a good quality.

1908 Fire Engine
1908 Fire Engine | Source
Native American Artifacts
Native American Artifacts | Source
Old Time Soda Fountain
Old Time Soda Fountain | Source
Judge Parker's Courtroom
Judge Parker's Courtroom | Source

On To Ft. Smith

We left Gentry and headed south to Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Our plan was to drive to Ft. Smith, enjoy a relaxing evening and bed down for the night. We entered the low rolling mountains of central Arkansas, driving along the Oklahoma border. It was an easy drive to Ft. Smith and we arrived shortly before the 3:00 PM check in time for our motel. They allowed us to check in anyway and we unloaded the car and relaxed for a bit before making our way to our next destination. The Museum of History sat alongside the Arkansas River and held some interesting items for our viewing pleasure. It closed at 5:00 PM so we didn't have much time.

We arrived and parked across the street, then entered the museum. It has two floors of artifacts from history including a real, working old time soda fountain where you can have a soda made just for you the way one was made a hundred years ago.

Inside also houses a hundred year old fire engine and other vehicles to view. As I am a history nut this was fascinating to me. I particularly enjoyed the items on display representing Judge Isaac Parker, often known as the Hanging Judge. He was said to have hung over a hundred outlaws, including women. Prior to his arrival it was common for convicted murderers to not be punished. But when Parker arrived he brought the hammer down, and hard.

Ft. Smith was featured in movies such as True Grit featuring John Wayne and Hang 'Em High, about a fictional judge based upon Parker. We left the museum and headed out to the adjoining grounds alongside the Arkansas River, intent on visiting the gallows Parker used in the old west days and the courtroom he presided over. As it was almost closing time, the attendants allowed us inside without paying the normal fee (thank you!) and we made our way downstairs to where the prisoners were held while they awaited trial, then upstairs to the actual courtroom itself. It was something to behold, I can tell you.

From there we took a walk along the river, which is a part of the Trail of Tears. In the 1830's the Five Civilized Tribes were forcibly removed from their land in Georgia and surrounding areas, and forced to walk the trail to Indian Territory, which is now Oklahoma. This is one of the blackest times of our country, one forced upon a people who were striving to fit in with the Whites by creating a government, farming, and accepting White Laws and way of life. But the Whites wanted land and President Andrew Jackson asked for and received support for the Indian Removal Act and forced them from their homes. Thousands died along the trail thus earning the appropriate term Trail of Tears. This area particularly moved me as through family history a portion of my ancestors traveled the trail both before and during this turbulent time. We reached an overlook, where across the river was Indian Territory and the realization that someone related to me had stood where I stood was overwhelming.

We continued our walk, ending back at our car and then drove through the old portion of Ft Smith, taking in the sites. An actual Dining Car restaurant sat beside a Ferris Wheel and Carousel, the carousel being Italian in build. Both were closed on this day so no rides for us. As I drove through the town I searched for something to jog a memory some 35 years old, made with my father as he returned to his birthplace. He became an orphan here when his father died at the untimely age of 27 years young from black lung. His mother would remarry in the near future and remove he and his brothers after two years, only to die herself and the three brothers return to an orphanage, this time in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. They would each grow up and graduate from this location, but it was here in Ft Smith that a connection was felt by me; one with two distinct sides. First, the Trail of Tears and second the original orphanage my father lived in. Try as I might I was unable to locate this orphanage and while the day was a resounding success from a family standpoint, this failure was near at hand. But as it is stated in that classic film Gone With The Wind, "tomorrow is another day". And tomorrow we would head to a more central location in the State which would bring this line even closer to home.

Some Advice

We used Trivago to secure our hotel rooms for this trip. However, we did not fully understand just how to effectively utilize this site. The hotel we chose was part of a chain which frequently has commercials detailing how good they are, yet the truth was seriously short of the advertisements. We were promised a new(er) room; one clean and cozy. It was not clean; nor cozy, nor new. In fact it was dirty, with stains on the carpeting and things you don't want to see in the bathroom. We spent a less than restful night in the beds and awoke ready to leave this hovel. So, some advice to you.

Raise your expectations to not coincide with your costs. Pay more in order to get more. Naïve that we are, we thought that paying $80 a night for a room using this Trivago service would net us a decent room. The motel had a rating of 78 out of 100 which was in the upper levels of hotels in the area. If this was a 78, I don't want to see a 50. Would paying another $20 for a room with a rating of 82 or 84 been better? I suppose next time we will find out.


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    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      5 years ago from Central Florida

      Mike, this sounds like a fun family trip. I can only imagine how heavy your heart must have been standing on the Trail of Tears. Then again, standing where your ancestors once stood must have been amazing.

      Too bad about the Trivago deal. That must have been disappointing, not to mention gross! Can't wait to see what day 2 brings!


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