Chestatee Wildlife Preserve
469 Old Dahlonega Highway, Dahlonega
Hours: Open seven days a week, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Admission: $10 adults, $5 ages 1-11; children younger than 1, free.
Dahlonega made a name for itself in 1828 for having gold “in them thar hills,” but the North Georgia town’s hills are also alive with lions, tigers, bears – and zedonks! Luckily for visitors and hikers, these and more wild animals are not wandering around loose. They live safely within the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve, a 25-acre “family zoo” where families can meet some 200 creatures.
Some of the animals – horses, alligators and brightly colored parrots, for example – will be familiar to many. Others are more unusual.
One of the preserve’s White Siberian Tigers, a female named Georgia, gave birth to four female cubs in August. It was an incredible event, according to property owners C.W. and Kim Wathen, who had thought Georgia was too old to be a new mother.
Georgia seemed a bit overwhelmed and the Wathens helped care for the cubs. They are thriving today. When they were just a couple months old, visitors were able to play with them; now they are too big for that.
Watching the cubs as they played was “a dream come true,” says Marcel Mendoza, 13, of Marietta, who recently visited the Chestatee preserve with his 4-year-old brother, Benny.
A zedonk, by the way, is the offspring of a zebra and donkey. The zoo’s two zedonks, Pippi and Pippa, are sisters whose parents are a female donkey and the zoo’s late male zebra. While some zoos intentionally breed the two species (often with a zebra mother and donkey father), the Wathens were completely surprised when Pippi was born in 2010 – and just as surprised again when Pippa was born last year, only a few months after the zoo’s male zebra died. These zedonks have the striped legs of their father but are otherwise brown like their mother. Constant companions, Pippi and Pippa are often the first to greet visitors inside the zoo.
Other animals living among Chestatee’s rolling hills include wolves, lions, spotted and black leopards, and two grizzly bears. Cannon, 6, of Dahlonega enjoyed watching the grizzly named Mojo, “chilling and doing his thing.” The boy’s uncle, Carl Gibson, has been a weekly volunteer at Chestatee for five years. He says, “It’s a joy on the faces of children when they see a tiger for the first time, or hold a baby alligator.”
Besides meeting zedonks and other exotic animals, weekend visitors can enjoy free education shows where they learn how to handle birds, snakes, coatimundi (a raccoon-like mammal) and lizards known as bearded dragons.
– Jan Hickel
If you visit in December, expect an “Old-Fashioned Christmas.” Downtown becomes a life-sized Christmas Village, with thousands of lights outlining the Victorian architecture. Merchants wear period costumes, and horse-drawn carriage rides are available.
Events include Santa’s arrival during the Dec. 1 parade and the tree lighting at the Visitors Center, caroling along the Square, and performances at the Historic Holly Theater. dahlonega.org.
Gold was first discovered in the United States in this area in 1828, more than 20 years before the California gold rush of 1849. Visitors to the Dahlonega Gold Museum (the former Lumpkin County Courthouse) can learn about the area’s mining history. Two nearby gold mines, Consolidated and Crisson, are open for modern prospectors to tour and try their luck panning. Museum hours: Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; $3.50-$6. As part of the town’s holiday celebrations, admission will be free on Dec. 9. 1 Public Square, Dahlonega; 706-864-2257, or visit gastateparks.org/DahlonegaGoldMuseum.