Lions and tigers and bears—oh my! And did we mention monkeys, meerkats, giraffes and pandas?
Just 1.5 hours south of downtown Huntington Beach, there’s a world of wildlife to discover at the San Diego Zoo. Adults and kids of all ages can go on a globe-trotting adventure at this 100-acre park, which is home to 660 species of animals from around the globe.
This year, the zoo is celebrating its 100th birthday, having grown from a small collection of cages in 1916 into the facility we know today. In addition to the centennial celebration, October is “Kids Free” month all throughout San Diego—up to 10 children can visit the zoo at no cost with one paid adult ticket.
When you arrive, make a beeline for the bus depot—there, you can check out the Centennial Theater, opened in honor of the zoo’s milestone year. A short film allows visitors to learn more about global conservation field projects before hopping aboard a 35-minute guided tour that gives you the lay of the land from a double-decker bus.
Make note of the key enclosures you want to revisit, as the zoo is best enjoyed on foot! Four main streets and eight walking trails will take you through the different areas of the park—here, find a suggested itinerary for a self-guided tour.
Panda Trek (relocated)
One of the most popular experiences at the zoo is the opportunity to observe the famous giant pandas. There are fewer than 2,000 giant pandas worldwide, and in the 1990s, the San Diego Zoo became home to two adults: Bai Yun and Gao Gao; four years ago, Xiao Liwu was born. The line gets long quickly to view the endangered animals as they lumber across their enclosure or lounge against rocks to gnaw on bamboo shoots—make this an early stop on your zoo tour! The Panda Trek is currently under construction, so Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu are at a relocated enclosure along Center Street.
Another experience that fills up quickly can be found within the Urban Jungle loop off Center Street, where rhinos and giraffes roam freely in large, open enclosures. Adventurous little ones can get up close and personal with the giraffes; tickets go on sale for $10 at 11 a.m. in a small walk-up structure to the left of the exhibit. It’s cash only and tickets go fast!
Pass by The Outback to say hello to sleepy koalas on your way to visit Asian and African elephants. Stop for lunch at the Sabertooth Grille and enjoy a sandwich or wrap while looking across the way at the main enclosure, where elephants graze and splash playfully in the water. Continue along the path to see the lions—you might get lucky and hear the male roar!
At the northwest corner of the zoo’s compound, polar bears are the stars of the Northern Frontier enclosure. The Polar Bear Plunge provides plenty of entertainment options for kids: The experience wall features glass panels that open up to allow animal keepers to interact with the bears through just a wire fence. Little ones can also crawl through a polar bear den and stand next to life-size statues to see how they measure up.
Next, hop on the aerial tram to catch a ride back down to the front of the zoo. From there, you’ll traverse back up Treetops Way to the Monkey and Orangutan trails, where nearly a dozen different species can be found along the two paths. Watch tiny capuchins climb effortlessly up trees and crack walnuts on thick branches, or stand behind a panel of glass and look up at bonobos napping and playing in an enclosure filled with greenery and hills.
Taking a left to catch the Hippo Trail will bring you past the gorillas and out to the western perimeter of the zoo. Meander along this path to access the Tiger Trail to the south, or continue north and catch the entertaining hippo exhibit. An underwater viewing window with benches allows visitors to rest their feet while observing hippos both in the water and out.
If your feet need a break from walking, there are also a few options for catching performances throughout the day. The Centennial Celebration Show in the Wegeforth Bowl is held daily at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. The show features animal ambassadors, costumed characters and special video clips that throw back to the zoo’s historic moments.
The closes at 6 p.m. nearly every day in the fall, so you’ll be back on the road and in Huntington Beach for dinner. After a day on your feet, treat yourself to a tasty meal by the coast and rest your legs for the next day of Surf City adventures.
San Diego Zoo, 2920 Zoo Dr., San Diego, CA 92101; sandiegozoo.org