Taking a trip to Northern California’s Sonoma County? If so, you absolutely can’t miss Safari West, a wildlife reservation in Santa Rosa where visitors can actually experience a slice of Africa without the steep safari tour prices or a plane ticket! In my opinion, this is the best-kept secret of Sonoma County!
I had the pleasure of experiencing Safari West for the first time in my 20+ years of living in Northern California this year. The takeaway? It was an absolute blast and I would do it again in a heartbeat!
In this post, I’ll describe my safari experience in full so you’ll know exactly what to expect on your very own safari tour. So without further ado, let’s get right into it!
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WHAT IS SAFARI WEST?
Although Sonoma County may best be known for its wine culture, it’s also home to Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife reservation. This AZA-accredited safari, located just an hour from San Francisco, has been nicknamed the “Sonoma Serengeti.”
And because they are AZA-accredited, you can rest assured that the animals here are loved, cared for, and allowed to roam freely. The property is home to over 900 exotic animals and offers year-round tours and even overnight stays.
WHERE IS SAFARI WEST?
The Safari West wildlife park is located in the outskirts of Santa Rosa, CA, about 20 minutes outside of the city center. Santa Rosa is located in Sonoma County and is situated just over an hour north of San Francisco, CA.
The park has a private parking lot available for day tour visitors and overnight guests.
WAYS TO EXPERIENCE SAFARI WEST
Most people who visit Safari West will opt for either a classic day tour or an overnight stay.
On the 3-hour wildlife day tour, your adventure will consist of a 2-hour guided safari ride as well as a 1-hour guided walk. During these 3 hours, you can expect to see animals such as cheetahs, rhinos, hyenas, oryx, gazelle, wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, and more.
If you’d like to experience more, Safari West does offer a variety of deeper encounters as well as behind-the-scenes walking tours that take visitors around the preserve and gets patrons up close and personal to some of the animals.
If you’re looking for an even more immersive experience, you can opt for the nighttime safari to encounter all the nocturnal animals.
Lastly, there are luxury canvas tents available for rent on the property. This allows adventurous visitors looking to “glamp” to enhance their visit even more by sleeping to the sounds of the nearby animals.
SAFARI WEST REVIEW: WHAT TO EXPECT
I had been yearning to go to Safari West for years and was finally able to find an excuse to visit this year!
My family and I booked a safari tour to celebrate my sister’s 27th birthday. It turns out, a lot of other patrons had the same idea–in our tour group of 12 people, there were 2 other people celebrating their birthdays as well. I totally get it, what an epic and fun way to celebrate your day!
Since we were visiting in early September, we had decided to book the second tour of the day (a 10 am start time) to avoid having to bear the stifling heat that Santa Rosa is known for. While making our reservations online, we had also made lunch reservations at the on-site restaurant, Savannah Cafe, for 1 pm. That way, as soon as our tour was over, we’d be able to go eat.
Upon arriving on the day of our tour, we were greeted with a large parking lot near the front of the property. Once parked, we headed to the registration office to check in and pick up our tour wristbands. We were directed to hang out in the main waiting area by the tour cars, where there were guest restrooms and a cafe with snacks and coffee for purchase.
Already, we were hearing the vibrant sounds of birds, crossing paths with families of guineafowl, and even caught a glimpse of a few lemurs roaming freely and uncaged in their little environment!
We only stood around for a few minutes before the role call check-ins began. During the second check-in done by the tour guides themselves, we noticed that there were a lot of people. You’ll probably experience the same thing. But don’t worry, there won’t be 30-60 people in your tour group! Our safari vehicle had no more than 12 people on board.
Do note that there are a few different tours happening at the same time as yours so seeing other groups on separate vehicles is common. The Safari West team does a good job of taking different routes as to not step on each other’s toes or get in the way of each other.
Some tours will start with the jeep tour and end with the walking tour while others start with the walking portion first and end with the jeep tour. At no point did we feel like the park was overcrowded, which is a huge plus!
Once we all did introductions and learned the ropes of the safari vehicle, we all hopped in and were off on our ride!
The safari vehicles have three rows of seats in the lower part of the vehicle and one row on the top of the jeep. Each row can fit 3-4 passengers. While only one group was allowed to ride up top at a time, over the course of the tour, our guide did a great job of switching people in and out for the best seats of the house! Every 20-30 minutes, he pulled over and allowed people to reshuffle themselves so that each party would have the chance to ride up top. Seatbelts are required for the top row only.
It certainly wasn’t long before we saw our first large animal sighting! We started off at the giraffe preserve, where we admired these elegant creatures while our guide proceeded to tell us everything he knew about giraffes.
We saw two different types of giraffes side by side, the Masai and the Reticulated subspecies. Being able to compare them while they were right next to each other was not only educational but also really fascinating.
It’s important to note that while the animals can touch you, you can’t touch or pet any of them. Being able to see them so up-close was fun nonetheless!
After what seemed like 20 minutes of staring at the baby giraffes in awe, after our guide answered all our giraffe-related questions, we finally moved on.
We stopped to observe and learn about all the animals we passed by, including the rhinos, wildebeests, buffalo, eland, antelope, gazelle, and even the critically endangered addax.
We learned all about why certain antelope were colored differently, how buffalo typically behave in the wild in Africa, and why some had gigantic horns that were seemingly too large for their heads!
One of the last animals we saw on our 2-hour safari ride was the zebras. They started off pretty docile, then became extremely playful over time and began chasing each other!
I had never in my life seen zebras running freely, and yes they were actually running around and down hills! It was an amazing and unforgettable sight that our car was really lucky to witness.
After the first 2 hours were complete, we made it back to the starting point of the circuit. We hopped out, took a bathroom break, and embarked on the walking portion of the tour.
On our wildlife walk, we saw cheetahs, tortoises, monkeys, lemurs, and even an aviary filled with dozens of bird species coexisting with each other. As with the driving portion of the tour, the guide will share a ton of facts about each of the animals you pass by. You’re also allowed to ask them whatever you want about the animals–they’re so, so knowledgable!
Overall my favorite sights across the entire tour were those of the giraffes, fennec foxes, monkeys, hyenas, lemurs, and the lounging cheetah!
Once the tour had come to an end, we headed for Savannah Cafe, the on-site African safari-inspired restaurant. In addition to carrying a wonderful aroma of barbecued meats, the restaurant area was so adorably decorated and I really did feel like I had been transported right to Africa!
And surprisingly, the food was really good. Each person had the choice of ordering an assortment of foods including salad, barbecued chicken, pulled pork, fresh fruits, potato salad, mac and cheese, a dinner roll, assorted veggies, and baked beans. You can choose to get it all or omit any you don’t want.
We got it all and it was so worth it. Everything was so flavorful and most importantly, the meats were moist and tender!
IS SAFARI WEST WORTH THE MONEY?
In my opinion, Safari West is worth every penny paid! Not only will you get to experience a slice of Africa without having to fly yourself overseas, but you’ll also learn so much about all the different animals from experienced tour guides.
I didn’t get the chance to stay overnight at Safari West but having stayed in a bungalow for a few days in the Amazon rainforest while in Peru, I know firsthand how epic it is sleeping among animals in the wild. Sure, it can be loud at times, but when else would you get the chance to be one with nature and fauna?
Lastly, I did want to mention that because Safari West is privately owned, their only source of income is from guests. When you pay for safaris, overnight stays, and other services at Safari West, you are helping to feed and care for the hundreds of animals you see at the preserve.
With that said, Safari West is 100% worth it.
WAYS TO ELEVATE YOUR SAFARI EXPERIENCE
Safari West offers a few different in-depth experiences for visitors that want more than what’s offered in the day tours and overnight stays. You can:
- Book a private safari
- Book a Sippin’ Safaris wine / beer tasting tours
- Book a Behind-The-Scenes Wild Walk
- Book a Rhino Encounter
- Book a Cheetah Encounter
- Book a Keeper For A Day Tour
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR SAFARI WEST
- Be sure to make your safari reservation at least a few weeks in advance in order to get the best tour times. During the summers especially, the later it is in the day, the hotter it will be.
- You’ll need to show up 15 minutes before your scheduled tour departure time so the Safari West team can do a role call and assign you your tour guide.
- Dress appropriately depending on the time of your tour. Though we went on a hot summer day with temperatures expected around 85 degrees F, we found that we still had to wear jackets during our 10am safari ride.
- If you are cold, they do provide freshly laundered blankets during the safari tour.
- Be sure to order lunch with your package to top off your safari experience. The food was actually pretty darn delicious (not like that low-quality food you can expect at amusement parks at all)!
- Don’t forget to tip your tour guid, restaurant servers, and housekeepers!
- If you’re staying overnight and are a light sleeper, you should pack some earplugs just in case. If you forget them, simply ask the main office if they have any when you check-in.
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST FOR SAFARI WEST
- Reusable water bottle – food is not allowed on the tour, but water is.
- Sunscreen – absolutely necessary for sunny California destinations. Even if it’s overcast or cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply whenever you’re outdoors. No matter where we go, we like a coral reef-safe brand, as traditional sunscreens contain chemicals that damage our environment. For the face, we are absolutely obsessed with Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen.
- Closed-toed shoes – for the walking portion of the tour
- Cash for tipping – You’ll want to tip the staff at Safari West, including tour guides, restaurant servers, and housekeeping.
WHERE TO STAY FOR SAFARI WEST
If you can swing it, we recommend extending your wildlife adventure with an overnight glamping experience right on the Safari West property.
Imported from Botswana, each of their thirty luxury tents feature a private viewing deck, en-suite bathroom with real flushing toilets and showers, polished hardwood floors. You’ll also find a charging port, electric blankets, and a space heater for colder nights.
While some tents come with a king bed, you can have cots added for additional guests. They also have rooms with bunk beds for the kids. You can explore all your room options here.
And because you’re technically camping, you’ll get to listen to all the wildlife sounds of the Sonoma Serengeti! After your slumber, wake up to breakfast at the Savannah Cafe. Breakfast is included with your glamping stay which is really cool!
If staying on the property is not your thing or it is out of your budget, we recommend staying in the following nearby hotels:
Vintners Resort (Santa Rosa, CA) – 13 minutes from Safari West – The ultimate luxury! Located in Sonoma wine country, Vintners Resort is a luxury hotel located on a vineyard trail. Guests are offered a free bottle of wine upon arrival. Each room comes with a private balcony or patio and in-room massage services.
Hotel E (Santa Rosa, CA) – 20 minutes from Safari West – A modern and stylish hotel located inside a historical building, centrally located within downtown Santa Rosa.
Cambria Hotel Sonoma Wine Country, Rohnert Park – 25 minutes from Safari West – We stayed at this new hotel and were blown away by what we got for the price! Along with super clean and modern rooms, there is an onsite restaurant, pool, and wonderful gym equipped with Peloton bikes!
OTHER THINGS TO DO NEAR SAFARI WEST
If you’re looking for additional things to do before or after your safari adventure, you’re in luck! There are a few fun towns to explore including Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Calistoga, and Sonoma, CA.
While these destinations are best-known for their rich wine culture, there are also many shops, spas, restaurants, and bars for those of you who aren’t interested in wine.
Calistoga offers unique mud bath experiences, while Santa Rosa offers lots of opportunities to go thrifting and antique shopping. Sonoma County can be a whole lot of fun for the whole family! Check out some of our favorite things to do in Sonoma County in this post.
IS SAFARI WEST A ZOO?
Safari West is an African Wildlife Preserve and African Tent Camp, fully accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). However, Safari West is not the typical zoo or animal theme park, that you’d expect. They are also not a drive-through park. That means you cannot take your own vehicle through the park.
The wildlife preserve is a privately-owned facility whose primary focus is on conservation through education.
CAN YOU FEED THE ANIMALS AT SAFARI WEST?
No, Safari West does not allow guests to feed the animals while on the safari tours. The only exception is when you book one of their special animal encounters and are under the direct supervision of one of the safari guides.
And that concludes this post! We hope that this post has inspired you to try something new! If you have any questions about the destinations or have your own travel tips to share, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below.