Experience the wonders of faraway lands without leaving California at its amazing zoos. From the graceful pink flamingos to the majestic lions, charming prairie dogs, and captivating elephants, these zoos offer a fascinating array of wildlife. While the entertainment value is undeniable, there’s much more to zoos than meets the eye. They play a crucial role in protecting endangered species and raising awareness about our impact on the planet.
Among the multitude of noteworthy zoos in the state, there are a few that truly stand out as must-see destinations. These zoos are the largest and most impressive in California, offering unforgettable experiences for visitors of all ages.
Let’s discover the 15 best zoos and aquariums in California:
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There are fantastic zoos and aquariums to explore here. They are spread out and offer unique experiences. The San Diego Zoo is considered one of the best zoos in California, and possibly the world. It’s in Southern California, along with the famous San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is a popular attraction because it’s conveniently located in downtown San Diego and spans over 100 acres of land. What sets it apart is its cageless model, which creates natural habitats for the animals. It’s not just a zoo but also an accredited botanical garden, boasting over 4,500 plant species, including rare and endangered ones, which add to the beauty and provide shade in some areas.
There are several must-see exhibits, such as the koalas in the Australian Outback, the thrilling Polar Bear Plunge, the fascinating hippos, and the state-of-the-art elephant enclosure and care facility. Keep an eye on the schedule for free Keeper Talks, where you can learn more about the animals cared for at the zoo.
For one of the best views in San Diego, hop on the Skyfari Tram that takes you from the bottom of the zoo near the entrance to the Northern Frontier where the polar bears reside. Don’t forget your camera to capture stunning views of Balboa Park and planes landing at the airport. The Guided Bus Tour is another great way to get acquainted with the zoo before exploring it on your own.
What’s even better is that every dollar spent at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park goes towards their worldwide conservation efforts and operating costs, so you can feel good about supporting their important work.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido is a sister park to the renowned San Diego Zoo. Here, guests have the opportunity for up-close animal encounters, with upgraded safari tours and exhibits that eliminate barriers between you and fascinating creatures like lorikeets, wallabies, and lemurs. It’s also home to the only platypuses outside of Australia, as well as a delightful petting corral that younger kids adore.
With its impressive collection of larger animals, the park attracts many visitors. To get a sense of the entire area, guests can take advantage of the free 25-minute Africa Tram tour. This allows them to familiarize themselves with the layout and choose which exhibits they’d like to explore further. The most popular tour is the Caravan Safari, which offers an up-close encounter with rhinos and giraffes in the African Plains. For a unique perspective, visitors can also choose to observe the animals from above by participating in a thrilling zip line or helium balloon experience.
One of the park’s highlights is the Tiger Trail habitat, where visitors can observe the majestic Sumatran tigers, learn about conservation efforts, and find respite from the sun under the shade. Another must-see event is the popular Cheetah Run, which is typically scheduled daily. During this exciting show, a cheetah demonstrates its incredible speed while accompanied by a companion dog.
SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is renowned for its thrilling rides and captivating live shows starring seals, sea lions, dolphins, and more. However, it’s important to recognize that SeaWorld is not just a theme park—it is also an accredited zoo. While it shares its name with the facility in Orlando, the San Diego park offers unique rides and exhibits.
As one of the top theme parks in the area, SeaWorld San Diego attracts visitors from far and wide, with many choosing to spend multiple days exploring all it has to offer. However, even if you only have half a day to spare, you can still have a memorable experience.
A must-visit is the Penguin Encounter, where you’ll find the only breeding colony of Emperor penguins in the Western Hemisphere. Another popular exhibit is Wild Arctic, showcasing magnificent beluga whales, northern sea otters, and Pacific walruses. The park’s Animal Encounters provide opportunities for personal interactions with dolphins and even sloths, allowing you to create unforgettable memories.
The Aquarium of the Pacific
The Aquarium of the Pacific, situated along the picturesque Long Beach waterfront, holds the distinction of being the largest aquarium in California and the fourth most visited in the United States, attracting 1.7 million visitors annually.
With an impressive collection of 12,000 animals and 100 world-class exhibits, this institution immerses visitors in the wonders of the Pacific Ocean. Enchanting floor-to-ceiling windows provide captivating views of diverse oceanic ecosystems, ranging from vibrant coral reefs and serene lagoons to the chilly waters of the North Pacific.
Interactive exhibits abound, offering hands-on experiences for guests of all ages. Explore touch pools brimming with fascinating tidal creatures from the Southern California coast, or feel the gentle touch of rays at the Ray Touch Pool. The Shark Lagoon, Penguin Habitat, Seals, and Sea Lions Habitat are cherished by families and offer unforgettable encounters with these captivating creatures.
The Aquarium of the Pacific is committed to conservation efforts, garnering numerous awards for its sustainable practices and environmental efficiency. Its Premier Watershed Classroom holds the distinction of being the first Long Beach Building to achieve LEED Platinum certification, showcasing its dedication to environmental stewardship.
The Living Desert Zoo And Garden
Nestled in Palm Desert near the vibrant city of Palm Springs, lies a remarkable facility that holds the title of the largest zoo in California. Spanning an expansive 2,819 square miles in the breathtaking Coachella Valley, The Living Desert Zoo And Garden is solely dedicated to desert species from around the world, with a special emphasis on showcasing the remarkable plants and animals found in California’s Sonoran and Mojave Deserts.
Prepare to witness desert animals in an up-close and personal setting, allowing you to truly appreciate their beauty and unique characteristics. Encounter roadrunners and coyotes, creatures whose real-life appearance may surprise you compared to their cartoon portrayals. For the best experience, plan your visit during the morning when many animals are active before the heat of the day sets in, or in the evening when nocturnal creatures like owls and bats come to life.
In addition to exploring the zoo, your admission grants you access to its captivating nature preserve and three scenic hiking trails. Immerse yourself in the captivating desert landscape as you encounter an array of cacti and plants, including palo verde, smoke trees, desert willow, desert scrub, and creosote bush. When the little ones need a break from walking, head over to Gecko Gulch, an interactive play area featuring exhilarating slides and engaging climbing features.
Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens
Los Angeles is an ideal destination for families with young children because it offers an abundance of exciting activities and attractions. Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, one of the finest zoos in Southern California is a hidden gem, boasting lush vegetation that showcases a remarkable collection of 7,500 plants from diverse habitats worldwide, making it a dream come true for horticulture enthusiasts.
While the zoo’s animals are undoubtedly captivating, the plant life is equally enticing for many visitors. You’ll encounter extraordinary and unique species like bald cypress, cycads, and the Chilean wine palm, all set in natural environments.
The zoo’s exhibits are designed to replicate the animals’ natural habitats, with 15 distinct collections to explore. Among the impressive lineup of over 1,100 animals, you’ll discover 29 endangered species. One highlight is the kid-friendly California Condor Rescue Zone, where you can learn about the zoo’s efforts to save this majestic bird from the brink of extinction.
Santa Barbara Zoo
Situated on a scenic 30-acre property that was once the Child Estate, the Santa Barbara Zoo has garnered a reputation as one of the finest small zoos in the United States. Nestled near the ocean, this charming park showcases over 146 species residing in spacious, natural habitats that offer breathtaking views of the San Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Among the zoo’s beloved inhabitants are its anteaters and a captivating flock of native California condors. As you explore the zoo, which serves as a delightful break from visiting other Santa Barbara attractions, you’ll appreciate its natural beauty.
One of the highlights at the zoo is the opportunity to participate in animal feeding using specially formulated food. Don’t miss a visit to the Ridley-Tree Animal Kitchen, where you can observe the zoo’s food preparation process for its diverse range of animals. Enjoy a leisurely ride aboard the Zoo Train or conquer the thrilling 26-foot rock wall.
Whether you’re visiting the San Francisco Bay, exploring Sonoma’s wine country, or venturing further south to Monterey’s scenic coastline, Northern California boasts an array of thrilling zoo and aquarium exhibits that are among the best in the state.
San Francisco Zoo
Located by the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Zoo is a special place to visit. It’s a certified zoo that houses over 2,000 animals from 250 different species, many of which are rare or in danger. The zoo is also surrounded by beautiful plants and trees that create a calming atmosphere in the middle of the city.
When you visit the zoo, you can choose to explore on your own or join one of the guided experiences. There are plenty of attractions to see with your ticket. Don’t forget to visit Penguin Island, where adorable penguins live, or meet the unique Mexican grey wolves. You can even have breakfast with grizzly bear sisters named Kachina and Kiona. Make sure to visit the Lipman Lemur Forest, the largest outdoor habitat for lemurs in the country.
Oakland Zoo is home to 660 animals and offers exciting themed exhibit areas representing different regions like the African savannah, the veldt, wild Australia, and the rainforest. These areas not only showcase animals but also feature native plants. Kids will enjoy the children’s zoo area where they can learn about their favorite animals.
Don’t miss the special events at Oakland Zoo like Glofari and Illumination Lantern Festival, where you can explore a family-friendly experience with larger-than-life animal lanterns. From towering penguins to lantern elephants, giraffes, lions, and beautiful butterflies, the festival creates a magical atmosphere.
Take the opportunity to get up close and personal with Oakland Zoo’s interactive exhibits. Explore the fascinating world of sea turtles, jellyfish, and other marine creatures, or discover diverse ecosystems from around the globe. And for a journey back in time, don’t miss the brand-new Glowfari exhibit, featuring interactive and glowing animals, including prehistoric dinosaurs. With three distinct worlds showcasing aquatic creatures, land animals, and dinosaurs, it’s a thrilling experience for all.
Aquarium of the Bay
If you’re a shark enthusiast, you can’t miss the Aquarium of the Bay. It’s home to over 50 different shark species, out of the impressive 20,000 animals that call this place their home. Located on San Francisco’s Pier 39, the aquarium offers a range of family-friendly activities. It focuses on showcasing the diverse marine life of San Francisco Bay, which has a shallow depth of only 10 to 15 feet.
One of the highlights of the aquarium is a massive tank with 300 feet of underwater tunnels. Walking through these tunnels, visitors feel like they’re immersed in an underwater world, with various creatures swimming above them.
The Aquarium of the Bay is particularly great for kids, as it features hands-on exhibits that allow children to get up close and personal with sea creatures. The facility is designed to take visitors on a journey from shallow to deeper waters, offering a unique underwater experience.
Safari West is not your typical zoo in northern California. It offers a unique adventure experience, nestled in the beautiful wine country of Sonoma County. It’s a perfect place to visit with your kids. And if you’ve ever wanted to try glamping, this is your chance!
One of the main attractions at Safari West is the opportunity to spend a night with the animals in a luxurious tent. These Safari West tents come with private viewing decks, en-suite bathrooms, and polished hardwood floors. Combined with a safari tour, you’ll truly feel immersed in the African wilderness.
With over 900 animals from 80 species spread across 400 acres, Safari West provides plenty of opportunities to experience the African savannah. You can embark on private excursions through the park, where you’ll encounter wildebeests, rhinos, zebras, and giraffes.
Please note that guests at Safari West must be at least four years old to participate in the activities.
The Monterey Zoo
The Monterey Zoo is home to a collection of exotic animals, many of which have retired from television and film or have been rescued from dangerous situations. This unique zoo offers an up-close experience with animals that you won’t find in many other places.
To make the most of your visit, you can stay at the Vision Quest Safari Bed and Breakfast located within the zoo. The zoo offers specialized tours tailored to your interests, which include a variety of animal exhibits, including their renowned elephants.
One of the highlights is the elephant meet and greet at the zoo’s elephant play yard, where you can even have the opportunity to feed these magnificent creatures. If you’re looking for a more interactive experience, you can book a full-contact encounter with some of the zoo’s animal residents through their website.
The Monterey Zoo offers various tour experiences, including customized options for small groups, to cater to your preferences. They also have educational programs that provide valuable insights. For added fun, you can try riding one of their Rydables, which are motorized vehicles with animal faces. They offer a 30-minute zoo tour or are available for private rental, enhancing your overall experience at the facility.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium
When you and your kids are ready to explore marine life, head to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in northern California. Set aside a full day to fully immerse yourselves in the captivating wonders of the deep sea at this special place.
During your visit, make sure to grab one of the aquarium’s Seafood Watch cards, which can help you make sustainable seafood choices and avoid consuming species with endangered populations. The aquarium also offers behind-the-scenes exhibits that provide insights into how these creatures are cared for and how they thrive in their natural habitats.
A visit to the sea otters is a must-do as these adorable, playful creatures never fail to bring joy and laughter. If you’re lucky, you might even witness a female otter giving birth. Don’t miss the opportunity to marvel at the magnificent kelp forest, which stands over three stories tall.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is renowned for its research and conservation efforts related to jellyfish. Take your time exploring the mesmerizing jellies gallery and get a glimpse into the extraordinary world of these colorful and ethereal creatures. Near the Kelp Forest area, you’ll encounter two exhibits showcasing giant octopuses.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps is an exceptional educational destination, making it a strong contender for the best aquarium in California. With over 3,000 animals from 380 species, this aquarium goes beyond the ordinary. As the public outreach center for the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, every exhibit has a focus on conservation.
Families in San Diego with kids interested in oceanography shouldn’t miss this must-see attraction. Visitors of all ages, from babies to adults, will discover fascinating exhibits here. To fully explore the aquarium, plan for at least two hours, and consider spending more time if you want to participate in the various programs.
As you wander through Birch Aquarium, you’ll be amazed by the breadth of experiences it offers. Some highlights include the Preuss Tide Pool Plaza, where you can safely touch a variety of sea creatures, the Oddities Exhibit showcasing the cool and unusual aspects of the ocean, and Growing Up Seahorse, where you can learn about the institution’s seahorse breeding program.
Sea World San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is often seen primarily as a theme park due to its thrilling rides and captivating live shows featuring seals, sea lions, dolphins, and other marine creatures. However, it is also recognized as an accredited zoo. While it shares its name with the SeaWorld in Orlando, the San Diego park offers unique rides and exhibits of its own.
As one of the top theme parks in the area, SeaWorld San Diego attracts visitors who specifically come to experience its offerings, sometimes spending multiple days here. However, even if you only have a half-day to spare, it can still be worthwhile.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit SeaWorld’s Penguin Encounter, where you’ll find the only breeding colony of Emperor penguins in the Western Hemisphere. Another popular exhibit is WildArctic, showcasing beluga whales, northern sea otters, and Pacific walruses. Engaging in the Animal Encounters program is another fantastic way to get up close and personal with dolphins and even sloths.