Did you know that Virginia is home to pelicans and alligators? What about bobcats, beavers and otters? With a total land area of over 42,000 square miles, Virginia is only the 35th largest state, yet is comprised of many different ecosystems from the Great Dismal Swamp in the Tidewater area to the hills and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains. During our two-week road trip through Virginia, we were planning to explore many of these areas, so what better way to start off than an introduction to Virginia’s living creatures?

When we travel, one requirement that I have is to focus on activities and attractions that are unique to an area, that really give a sense of place, and aren’t things that we can easily do at home. The Virginia Living Museum checks these boxes. With a goal to “protect what’s precious,” the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News uses living exhibits to depict Virginia’s diverse natural heritage, from the mountains to the sea.

This family-friendly museum is part aquarium, part zoo, and part hands-on exploration with exhibits to engage all ages. But the nice thing is that, unlike many zoos, all of the animals here have been rescued or were born here, versus being captured for display. Altogether the Museum houses over 250 living species, including 12 that are listed as endangered or threatened.

What to do in Newport News, VA with kids: Visit the VA Living Museum

While the museum first opened in 1987 as the first living museum east of the Mississippi, it has been in its new facility since 2004, which covers over 20 acres, including a one-mile trail.

The indoor exhibits and habitariums walk visitors through Virginia’s different regions, while the outdoor trail introduces guests to native wildlife and plantlife. And each exhibit tells a story, from camouflage to interrelationships, to predator-prey relationships. Together, its living exhibits bring visitors in contact with wildlife that it might take a lifetime to happen upon in the wild.

We started off our visit in the Coastal Plain Gallery, which explores the life in and around the Chesapeake Bay. From individual tanks to the 30,000-gallon Noland Chesapeake Bay Aquarium, we saw everything from seahorses to salamanders to giant lobsters. We were able to get up close to starfish and other creatures at the touch tank, manned by some of the museum’s 530 active volunteers.

What to do in Newport News, VA with kids: Visit the VA Living Museum

From there, we moved on to the Piedmont and Mountains Gallery, with its slice of the James River, filled with smallmouth bass, catfish, wood turtles and other aquatic creatures. In the larger Appalachian Mountain Cove and Cypress Swamp exhibits, we were able to see a slice of the Blue Ridge Mountains and meet a gator of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Inside the Virginia Living Museum

Inside there are plenty of opportunities for hands on activities for younger children, including the opportunities to be a veterinarian or work in the science lab. Outside, more fun awaits for younger children in the Children’s area with climbing structures and a little Hobbit hole.

Children's Play area at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News

For us, the main attraction was the mile-long boardwalk with plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities. It was hard to pull ourselves away from the frolicking otters and even tougher to move on from the beavers. Beavers are one of my bucket list animals. I REALLY want to find a beaver in the wild but since that hasn’t happened yet, this was pretty close. We watched as one beaver steadfastly pushed a log through the water and up on shore, its dam building instincts kicking in strong.

On the trail we found baby snowy egrets, pelicans and heron in the aviary, along with a pair of bald eagles. We were also a bit taken with the red wolves, coyotes, fox, and bobcat. Not only did we enjoy seeing these animals at play or at rest, but it was so much cooler in the shade! Truly a great way to spend a hot summer day.

Animals at the Virginia Living museum

If you want to see everything the Virginia Living Museum has to offer, including the planetarium, Virginia’s Underground Gallery, and its special exhibits, you should plan on spending half a day here. At a minimum, plan for at least two hours to explore inside and out. If you get hungry, there is a small cafe on property.

If you haven’t gotten enough of an animal fix at the Virginia Living Museum, you can head across the street to the Petting Zoo at the Peninsula ASPCA Animal Shelter. For a $2.00 admission, and some coins for animal feed, you can feed goats, donkeys, and the most adorable alpacas. Some of these animals have been rescued, like the 17 year old black panther, but most have been brought in for these petting zoo purposes.

Baby alpacas at the Peninsula Petting Zoo in Newport News, VA

Baby alpacas at the Peninsula Petting Zoo in Newport News

The Virginia Living Museum is located at 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd. in Newport News, Virginia. They are open daily 9am-5pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day and 9am-5pm Monday through Saturday and Sundays noon through 5pm otherwise (closed January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 24-25.) Admission is $17 for adults and $13 for children ages three to twelve. As always, check the website for the current information.

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When visiting Virginia Beach or Williamsburg, Virginia, you should make a side trip to Newport News, and stop in at the Virginia Living Museum. You will encounter 250 types of wildlife, including 12 that are on the endangered species list!

Note: Our visit was hosted by the Virginia Living Museum and Newport News Tourism. All opinions are our own.

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