12 Must-See Zoos and Aquariums VCW_SI_T5_Zoos&Aquariums_AquariumofthePAcific_TeddyFotiou_Flickr_1280x642_1
Teddy Fotiou/Flickr

12 Must-See Zoos and Aquariums

From rainforest canopies to luminous kelp beds teeming with sea life, California’s zoos and aquariums give you unforgettable glimpses of amazing animals in naturalistic habitats. Watch giant pandas amble through a miniature forest before they kick back with a snack of bamboo. Or look through underwater viewing windows to watch endangered California sea otters swim and dive. You can easily spend a full day at these outstanding attractions, many with special programs and behind-the-scenes experiences. Attractions here are listed south to north.

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Courtesy of San Diego Zoo

Spotlight: San Diego Zoo

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See rare and endangered species

Visiting this expansive zoo in San Diego’s Balboa Park is more than a chance to see animals from all over the world: it’s a chance to see one of...

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Dave Lauridsen

Birch Aquarium

Birch Aquarium
Learn about the Pacific’s undersea world

Catch a glimpse of Pacific Ocean habitats, from the Northwest’s frigid waters to the tropical ecosystems of Mexico and beyond at La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. High on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, 20 minutes north of downtown San Diego, this aquarium offers exhibits on a wide range of marine creatures, ranging from big whales to bizarre weedy sea dragons, a type of seahorse. Coral reef exhibits shimmer with tropical fish as well as chambered nautilus and lionfish. Get a closer look at sea stars, squishy sea cucumbers and other near-shore marine life in the aquarium’s outdoor touch pools in the Preuss Tide-Pool Plaza.

Thanks to its affiliation with the adjacent Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the aquarium presents plenty of cutting-edge scientific discoveries too. It’s a great way to get a deeper appreciation of that beautiful ocean stretching to the horizon.

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Alexa Miller

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Find out where the wild things are

Like a journey to Africa, a day at this spectacular park lets you see some of the world’s most magnificent—and endangered—animals at close range and in expansive naturalized enclosures. A tram ride leads you past roaming groups of rhinos, gazelles, giraffes, and other species ranging freely through savannah-like expanses. African lions wrestle with their cubs in specially designed enclosures that look like part of the whole, but are safely contained from other animals. There’s plenty to see on foot too: the amazing Tiger Trail exhibit lets you get remarkable underwater views of Sumatran tigers swimming in the Tiger Trail exhibit.

"Static-line hot-air balloon rides and a long, long zip line ride offer great views of the park and surrounding region."

For even more up-close looks at the park’s animals, including premium behind-the-scenes tours, plus unique experiences such as the Cheetah Safari, where you can watch as these amazing cats reach speeds up to 70 mph/113 kph. Special Jungle Ropes Safaris are a great way for your little monkeys to burn off some steam. Static-line hot-air balloon rides and a long, long zip line ride offer great views of the park and surrounding region. And for a California-style hint of what sleeping in the African bush might be like, Roar & Snore Safaris let you spend the night in large tents (some even have beds and electricity) at a campground overlooking the African Plains exhibit.

Come for the animals; then take time to see the plants. The park has extraordinary landscaped areas, all worth strolling. Especially beautiful in spring is the Nativescapes Gardens, focusing on drought-tolerant species adapted to the region’s sunny, dry climate. Free, guided tours are offered at 10 a.m. the second Saturday in April and May.

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VMiramontes/Flickr

Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens
Close encounters with exotic animals

No time for an African safari or Amazon adventure? Then take a walk on the wild side at this remarkable—and remarkably varied--attraction in L.A.’s Griffith Park. Explore tropical habitats at Rainforest of the Americas, and observe chimps in a natural setting of waterfalls, palm trees, and rock formations in Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains. (World-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall praised the chimps’ digs as one of the world’s outstanding zoo habitats.)

The L.A. Zoo is home to more than 1,100 animals, including 29 endangered species. Get close-up (but safe) looks at spectacular Sumatran tigers, deadly Komodo dragons, and bright orange orangutans. The zoo is also a horticultural paradise with more than 7,500 individual plants. And, as you’ll discover in the kid-friendly California Condor Rescue Zone, it has played a key role in bringing the iconic California condor back from the brink of extinction.

Insider’s tip: Go nose-to-nose with a rhino at the zoo’s Indian Rhino Encounter.

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Tracie Hall/Flickr

Aquarium of the Pacific

Aquarium of the Pacific
Marine life from around the world shine in this gem of an aquarium

A secret gem along the Los Angeles County Coast, this expansive complex along the Long Beach waterfront showcases marine life from around the world. Banish the thought of little square tanks with plastic labels identifying puny schools fish; this aquarium joins the ranks of the world’s best, with enormous floor-to-ceiling windows letting you peer into entire underwater ecosystems. Step inside to walk beneath life-size whale models hung from the ceiling, or to peer into the room-size, neon-bright coral reef exhibit, swirling with colorful fish. Exhibits continue outside, including a Magellanic penguin enclosure, where can watch the comical birds swim underwater as well as waddle on land. Touch pools filled with tidal creatures let kids get a closer look at native creatures living along the Southern California coast.

Special events include guest lectures on everything from global warming to saving sea turtles. Check ahead for free, open-to-all-ages Friday evening events around the Shark Lagoon, where you’ll be able to touch harmless bamboo sharks and bigger species as well as rays in the aquarium’s Shark Lagoon. Nightlife in the Long Beach area gets a boost from the aquarium’s monthly Night Dive event, open to ages 18 and over, with live bands, DJs, and other activities. 

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Courtesy of The Living Desert

The Living Desert

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The Living Desert
See cool desert critters from around the world

Talk about survival skills. The animals and plants on show at the extraordinary Living Desert Zoo & Gardens shed light on the amazing adaptions that make it possible to survive in the desert’s harsh environment. Observe an incredible array—more than 1,400 species in all—of cacti, yucca, and other desert plants that grow in California’s Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, as well as other deserts around the world. You’ll see—and learn about—desert animals too, some of them undeniable charmers. African meerkats rise up on their hind legs, swaying as they pivot their heads and sniff the air. Desert foxes, with enormous bat-like ears, curl up tight for afternoon naps. And giraffes crane their necks and stretch out extraordinarily purple tongues to nibble on grasses outside their enclosures.

This isn’t your typical zoo, where little ones have to strain to see the animals tucked deep inside their enclosures. Here, the wildlife can walk right up to the fence! For an extra charge, your courageous kiddos can ride camels or let the giraffes lick food right from their palms.

Cool morning tends to be the best time to see animals in action, so come early if you can. That’s not to say afternoons don’t have their merits: As the day heats up, tortoises and lizards come out to absorb the sun and, in the late afternoon, the zoo’s nocturnal animals, like owls and bats, start to stir. Evenings are also a pleasant time to stretch your legs on The Living Desert’s trail network, which leads into the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for native roadrunners dashing among the desert shrubs, looking for lizards and other prey.

For education on desert terrain, head to the model train exhibit. Its 3,300 feet of track winds past miniature versions of desert landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. Or let kids loose in the one-acre Gecko Gulch playground, where they’ll slide through a replica of a saguaro cactus, scale a lizard sculpture, pan for gold, or dig in a sand dune.

This is a sprawling 100-acre complex, so unless you plan on lugging your little ones through the Palm Desert heat, purchase tickets for the park’s shuttle service. It’s free for kids ages 3 and younger. If you will be walking with stroller-aged kids, bring a jogging or all-terrain ride because many of the paths are dirt.

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Tai Power Seeff

Monterey Bay Aquarium

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Monterey Bay Aquarium
Come nose to nose with otters and more

The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. This unparalleled facility, with soaring, glass-walled tanks letting you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for aquariums. It’s also one of the best makeovers on the planet: in the early 1900s, the main building was a bustling canning facility for sardines, all chronicled in fascinating historical exhibits near the entrance. (Excellent behind-the-scenes tours shed more light on the aquarium’s history, as well as its remarkable inner workings.)

Intriguing history or not, this is one big wow of a place. Mesmerizing tanks and exhibits showcase more than 35,000 animals and plants representing over 550 species—a large number of them California natives. Watch a giant Pacific octopus unfurl its tentacles, stand in the center of a swirling school of sardines, have hammerhead sharks swim inches away from your face, and see how trainers do daily health checks of the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, California sea otters. A host of special activities, including junior diving programs, sleepovers, and custom romance tours (nothing like a little undersea light to make things dreamy) are also available. Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.

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Rex Boggs/Flickr

California Academy of Sciences: Nightlife

California Academy of Sciences: Nightlife
Weekly after-hours party heats up the park

Stilettos, short skirts, craft cocktails—and an albino alligator. San Francisco tends to push the envelope, but this Thursday night event has its own unique twist. The city’s premier science museum presents themed Nightlife events, ultra-popular with the city’s young and hip. Each week, the Academy’s savvy staff figures out new ways to shed light on cool topics, such as the secrets of animal migration, or how creatures see in the inky dark of night. Exhibits give you a rare chance to chat with academy scientists or see animals up close. Live music keeps things thumping, and designer drinks that are matched to the theme are served at different locations.  As for that alligator, that’s Claude, a natural albino morph who lives in the Academy’s swamp exhibit. 

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Sarah Sammis/Flickr

Oakland Zoo

Oakland Zoo
A haven for animals in the East Bay hills

Watch tigers wrestle in a naturalized enclosure and elephants chill out in a their own splashing pond at the Oakland Zoo, home to more than 660 animals. Creatures are grouped in unique habitats, so you see giraffes and zebras roaming together in African savannah enclosure, or wander through a simulated tropical rainforest filled with acrobatic white-handed gibbons.

At the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, there are fun ways to explore. A wooden rope bridge gives the kids a perfect perch for watching river otters swimming and playing below. Tiger Trek kiddie coaster amps up the excitement. For great views of tule elk and bison in their expansive enclosure, (as well as great Bay Area views), take a ride on the elevated Sky Ride.

But it’s not all fun and games at the zoo—in fact, there’s serious science going on here too. A special focus is the zoo’s efforts to help save the yellow-legged frog, an endangered Sierra Nevada species that has experienced a 90 percent decline in recent years.

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Tai Power Seeff

Safari West

Safari West
Take an African-style adventure in the Sonoma Valley

The sheer amount of African wildlife at this park will amaze even seasoned safari-goers. Giraffes, rhinos, zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, bongos and other incredible animals roam rolling hills and woodlands in this expansive park, a 1½-hour drive north of San Francisco. Dozens of birds also call the park home, including cranes, flamingoes, ostriches, and storks. Guests board small vehicles to tour the park with informative guides, and you really don’t know what will be around the next corner. Visitors of all ages also enjoy closer encounters with some of the park’s animals. For an unforgettable experience (families welcome), consider an overnight stay in an ultra-tricked-up safari-style tent, with plush beds, private bathrooms, and a natural soundtrack outside that’s straight out of the Serengeti.

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Dawn Ellner/Flickr

San Francisco Zoo

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San Francisco Zoo
Explore animals from around the world at this urban oasis

Whether you’ve got children in tow or you’re on a grown-up getaway, this local favourite on the city’s south-west side makes for a fun way to spend a day, especially when combined with playtime or strolling along nearby Ocean Beach. The urban oasis originally opened in 1929, back when animal enclosures were mostly cages or concrete pens and it has come a very long way since. Today, expansive enclosures recreate a range of global ecosystems, populated by over 1,000 animals representing more than 250 species. Spectacular plantings also feature rare, indigenous plants from around the world. 

Must-see sites abound. At the Jones Family Gorilla Preserve, you can watch the startlingly human-like interactions of a family group of Western lowland gorillas. The Australian WalkAbout lets you watch kangaroos and wallaroos, look closely for joeys peeking out of pouches. Penguin Island features highly social and highly entertaining, Magellanic penguins—squawking, flapping, preening, swimming and even breeding. Ultra-popular is the Fisher Family Children’s Zoo, a mini-zoo-within-a-zoo where children can get their fill of petting goats and ponies in the Family Farm area. There is also a special exhibit with close-up views of prairie dogs and meerkats, plus a historic 1927 Dentzel carousel, a miniature steam train ride and a children friendly nature trail.

Check the daily schedule for special events and animal interactions, ranging from grizzly bear feeding time to talks with big cat keepers.