The area in and around Thornton boasts a range of opportunities that make it easy to encounter wildlife. You can visit wildlife refuges, zoos, and more with your family. Whether your kids want to learn more about birds, bugs, mammals, or anything in between, you’ll be sure to find the ideal place close to home. Not sure where to start? Crème de la Crème of Lone Tree has you covered. We’ve put together this guide to exploring wildlife in our local area.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

A brown bison in a field in Thornton, Colorado

brown bison on brown grass field during daytime” used with permission via Unsplash by house_42

You can’t go wrong with a visit to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge when your kids want to check out the local wildlife. Not only is Rocky Mountain Arsenal located super close to Thornton in Commerce City, but it’s also home to more than 330 species of wildlife. Whether you want to see bison or deer, burrowing owls, songbirds, waterfowl, or even bald eagles, you’ll want to put this great place on your list of nearby spots to explore.

Established partly to protect Bald eagle nesting and winter roosting habitats, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge spans 15,000 acres of prairie and lakes. These areas attract species of raptors, migrating songbirds, and wintering ducks and geese while providing habitat for various mammals.

You can start your visit at the Visitor Center, where you’ll find exhibits focusing on the Refuge’s wildlife and history. Other opportunities include guided wildlife viewing tours, nature programs, wildlife photography, and fishing. You can go for a hike on over 9 miles of nature trails, or explore the setting at your own pace thanks to the Wildlife Drive.

Here are some species you might see when you spend time at this amazing (and easy-to-access!) spot.


  • Bison.
  • Black-footed ferrets.
  • Black-tailed prairie dogs.
  • Coyotes.
  • Deer, including mule deer and white-tailed deer.
  • Eastern cottontails.
  • Raccoons.


  • American kestrels.
  • Bald eagles.
  • Burrowing owls.
  • Hawks, including Ferruginous hawks, red-tailed hawks, and Swainson’s hawks.
  • Mallards.
  • Northern harriers.
  • Red-winged blackbirds.
  • Western meadowlarks.

Amphibians and Reptiles:

  • Bullfrogs.
  • Bull snakes.
  • Snapping turtles.

All in all, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge offers the perfect place close to Thornton to visit if your family wants to see a wide range of wildlife, without traveling far from home.

Butterfly Pavilion

Butterfly Pavilion, located in nearby Westminster, seeks to transform the way people think about invertebrates. Put simply, if your kiddos are into bugs, this is THE place to go. In fact, Butterfly Pavilion is the world’s first stand-alone Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited non-profit invertebrate zoo. Unique hands-on experiences, educational programs, and research means this local attraction sets the standards for zoos, all while building solutions for species and habitat conservation across the globe.

The best part? Butterfly Pavilion is so close to Thornton, you can schedule a trip any time the mood to get in touch with crawling critters strikes. You’ll find five exhibit areas at Butterfly Pavilion, including four indoor exhibit halls as well as outdoor gardens and nature trails. Each exhibit boasts a touch experience sure to delight the kids, talented staff on hand to interpret the exhibits, and interactive technology that allows for further exploration of topics in science and conservation.

Of course, the exhibits feature tons of live animals, too. Kids will love being among the 1,600 free-flying tropical butterflies at the Wings of Tropics exhibit, not to mention the chance to hold Rosie the tarantula when it’s time to visit the Crawl-A-See-Em. Water’s Edge lets you check out invertebrates that live in coral reefs and other areas of the ocean, while Colorado Backyard makes getting up close and personal with local bugs more fun than ever before. Oh, and don’t forget to check out the live chrysalis camera to see butterflies emerge from their cocoons!

Denver Zoo

If your own brood is into animals and more, you’ll want to make some time for a visit to Denver Zoo. A huge range of species in one place is sure to make for a fun day out and about as a family. The Denver Zoo prioritizes conservation while offering an educational experience that draws in visitors from around the world. The animals that call the Denver Zoo home also come from various habitats around the world, so you can rest assured your kids will find a new favorite species (or maybe two or three) whenever you visit the zoo.

So, what kinds of wildlife can you expect to encounter at the Denver Zoo? Penguins, tigers, and camels are just the start. From lions to lionfish, tapirs and lemurs to eels and vampire bats, the species at this local zoo will have your family inspired to learn more. Get up close and personal with sea life, explore one of the largest elephant habitats in North America, and stand just inches from majestic tigers. With so many exciting experiences to enjoy, this zoo has you covered when your kids want to see wildlife beyond your own backyard.

Carson Nature Center and South Platte Park

You’ll find Carson Nature Center and South Platte Park in Littleton, offering another amazing opportunity to explore nature and wildlife without traveling far. The 880 acres of open space along the South Platte River and Mary Carter Greenway Trail make the perfect local escape for fishing for small-mouth bass and trout, hiking along the trails, or viewing wildlife. South Platte Park includes wildlife viewing gazebos, and the Carson Nature Center has live animals and naturalists on duty for even more learning.

Urban Wildlife in the Area

You don’t even have to plan an organized visit to a zoo or preserve to encounter wildlife close to home. The area in and around Thornton has a variety of species. Urban wildlife in Denver includes animals like beavers, coyotes, geese, foxes, prairie dogs, and squirrels. You may even find wild turkeys hanging out in nearby Northglenn in the spring. Why not take a walk in an urban area with your family to enjoy the great outdoors and see what local species you come across? That wraps up Crème de la Creme Lone Tree’s guide to local wildlife. Do you have a favorite place to encounter wildlife with the kids that we didn’t include? Drop us a line so we can add your recommendation!