Long before we looked to go to Africa for safari, I had my eyes on a little known place in Northern California called Safari West. The Sonoma Serengeti as some call it, is unlike any wildlife preserve you will have visited before. Experiencing Africa-esque glamping style tent cabins and wild animals dotting the rolling hills of wine country is pretty extraordinary, especially so close to home.
But I know you are wondering, how can there be wild African animals just outside of San Francisco? Does it feel authentic? Is it really worth it or is it just a glamorized zoo? My thoughts exactly. Read on to find out more and hear all about our experience.
I will start with the reality. Having been on safari in South Africa, I have to say, Safari West is not the same, but it is pretty close! In my opinion, the biggest thing missing from the experience at Safari West are predators mixing with prey. And really, that is about all. If you have animal obsessed family members, but know that a trip to Africa for a safari is not in your future, this is your next best option. It really is almost Africa, conveniently located just outside of a major metropolitan area.
How It Works
The main attraction at Safari West is a three-hour walking and riding adventure in their 400-acre preserve. On your journey, you will meet a variety of animals including cheetah, giraffe, zebras, cape buffalo, wildebeests, lemurs, flamingos and many more beautiful birds and exotic animals.
When you first arrive you will see a large bird enclosure and a few animals in cages off to the left. Don’t let those smiles go upside down just yet! I will admit as I saw the enclosures, my mind started to think “Darn, this is just a zoo.” But that is actually far from the truth.
Your tour of the animal preserve begins in the caged areas, which admittedly does feel a bit like a zoo. However, I will say the bird enclosure is really cool with some spectacular looking birds, many of which will just walk right up next to you to say hi! In this way, Safari West was a little better than being on safari where you see a bird whizzing past as the guide tells you what it is (but that you never actually could tell for yourself!).
We loved being in the bird enclosure, getting up close to some really cool looking birds. One of the great things about this adventure is how close you will get to many of the animals. Regardless, this is not a petting zoo, so do not go expecting to touch the animals, even if they are inches from you. In many instances, I actually found that my high powered zoom lens was too zoomed in since we were so close to many of the animals. Hence a lot less photos than I would normally have come away with.
Following along past the bird enclosures, your guide will take you to see more animals behind fenced off areas. These animals are here for their own safety as well as the safety of others (in the case of the cheetah!). The animals looked well taken care of and were given much more space than you might see at a local zoo, which was refreshing.
And then it’s time for everyone’s favorite part – the jeep portion of the safari adventure. Once you see your safari jeep arrive, the excitement swells as you realize perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye. Questions of where you will sit start buzzing around the group. Will you sit on the top above the driver or stay on the bottom seats? Note: Kids below a certain height are not allowed to sit on the top row.
Loading up into the jeep, you soon set off into the gated area with roaming giraffe, impala and other animals. This is when the fun really starts and what most resembles an African safari adventure. At this point, you are mere feet from giraffe, some of who will come right up to check you out. Venturing out from grassy plains, you head deeper into the hills where you will find rhino, buffalo, wildebeest, zebras and more. For those of you who have never been this close to wild animals in open sided cars, it is exhilarating.
The drive moves on through the hills for a while as you search out the animals who are free to roam around. Just like on a real safari, you will start feeling sad as you see familiar sights, signaling you are heading back home. Luckily it’s not on the other side of the world, so you can visit again to satiate your safari dreams.
While staying the night at Safari West is not imperative, it definitely does add a bit more to your safari adventure. It is not cheap, but I would suggest staying over for a first time visit or particularly for special occasions. Accommodation options range from $260 to $425 depending on the season and location of the tent cabins.
If you are staying the night, our recommendation would be to drive up in the afternoon in time for the afternoon safari or spend the afternoon pottering around the grounds, hanging out in your tent cabin and soaking up the sounds of the African plains, err I mean Santa Rosa! Reserve your spot for the boma style dinner, relaxing by the outdoor fireplace chatting with other guests all while surrounded by the calls of wild animals. If you didn’t do the afternoon safari, have a quick breakfast the following morning before heading out at 9 a.m. for the first ride of the day.
For animal enthusiasts, laying in bed while listening to the sounds of wild animals as your lullaby will be unforgettable.
A safari guided tour at Safari West runs from $45 (for children) to $93 (for adults). Reservations are required, so make sure to call in advance before heading out.
Meals and accommodation are charged in addition to the safari guided tour. Set buffet style meals are offered for lunch and dinner, ranging in price from $15 for lunch to $29 for dinner. If you want to have a meal at the park, you will need to inform the staff well in advance as reservations are required. No other food is available at the park, so bring all snacks and drinks required during your tour.
In order to get the most out of your experience, we recommend waiting until all of your children are at least 4 or above. Exceptions are made at times, but ideally for the safari drive to be enjoyable for your whole family and others on the tour, 4 and up is required. Three hours is a long time for smaller kids, who begin to get wriggly and fussy being forced to sit and stay a bit quiet.
Depending on the weather, I would bring a variety of clothes. During our visit in December, it was quite chilly out even with the blankets provided by Safari West. If you sit on the top of the jeep, you will be exposed to the elements, so hats, sunglasses, scarfs and other items to protect you from potential weather is advised.
Cameras are a must! I say that, with a small caveat. If you are bringing a safari-esque zoom lens, bring other lenses as well. We ended up being so close to the animals at times that my zoom lens as wide as it could go, got me a close up of a giraffe’s tongue! If you plan to take video, consider bringing a stabilizer as the jeep and roads are bumpy.
In addition to be an amazing place to see and learn more about some of Africa’s most impressive animals, Safari West is also dedicated to raising awareness for conservation of some of these endangered species. Our guide was impressive with his knowledge on the animals here, efforts around the world to help preserve them for future generations as well as providing us more information to seek out on our own. Having come head to head with rhino bones in South Africa, we became intimately aware of the poaching situation and how desperate these animals need our help. Safari West aims to help expand that knowledge and help develop a love for all of these animals even further. I highly recommend taking the time for a visit with your family.
Have you been to Safari West? What did you think of your experience? Share your comments, thoughts and tips below.
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