10 Best Zoos in California from San Diego to Oakland

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Photo courtesy of Sacramento Zoo

Looking for the best zoos in California? From San Diego Zoo in Southern California to the Oakland Zoo in Northern California, and several amazing ones in between, California claims some of the best zoos in the USA. Feed giraffes. Pet stingrays. Observe gorillas, sea lions, black bears, penguins and kangaroos. You can see them all at one or more of these, the 10 best zoos in California.

When you’re roadtripping through California, it’s easy to plot a zoo adventure:

  • Kids begging to see exotic animals like tigers, hippos and zebras? Check.
  • Teens demanding glamping on an overnight rhino safari? Done.
  • Someone worried about saving an endangered species? No problem. These California zoos specialize in animal conservation and hands-on nature learning activities.

Read More: 25 Best Zoos in the USA

Panda at the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Michal Lech from Pixabay)

1. San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Safari Park, San Diego

San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Safari Park is the place to see more than 4,000 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies on 100 acres of the beautiful Balboa Park.

Getting around the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Safari Park is easiest by downloading the San Diego Zoo app. With the San Diego Zoo app, if you want to linger with the leopards, spend hours with the giant pandas, or visit San Diego Zoo in one day, you decide your zoo destiny!

From savannas to mountain-like enclosures to icy waters of the polar bear and penguin, experience several types of habitats. Enjoy a demonstration with zookeepers. Book a safari and view African animals up close.

Highlights of San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Safari Park

  • 4-D Jungle Theater Experience
  • Wildlife Learning Activities
  • Botanical guided tours
  • Play areas
  • Children’s zoo
  • Several different types of dining options, including vegan

2. Oakland Zoo, Oakland

From nature hikes to biodiversity, there’s so much eco-adventure in Oakland! No visit is complete without a stop at the Oakland Zoo. Make sure you ride the ADA-certified gondola to the zoo’s newest expansion: the California Trail. Enjoy unique animal exhibits, such as bald eagles, bison and black bear. Learn the connections between humans and ecology in the state of California.

Stroll around the Tropical Rain Forest habitat with a tiger enclosure and an array of exotic birds and reptile species. Then head to Wild Australia and check out the koala bears and kangaroos.

Plan on 2-3 hours to see everything at the Oakland Zoo.

Highlights of Oakland Zoo

  • Theme park rides, including the Tiger Trek roller coaster, Conservation Carousel and the Oakland Zoo Express Train.
  • Collect unique zoo trading cards that commemorate your family’s visit. Includes otter, lemur, condor and jaguar.
  • Urban camping, hiking paths and stroller rental are available
Photo credit: Pixabay

3. Los Angeles Zoo, Los Angeles

Known for its Hollywood charm, LA is also home to endangered species conservation and wildlife restoration. Located in Griffith Park, the Los Angeles Zoo is spread over 133 acres, hosting a botanical bounty of local and global flora and fauna and home to more than 2,100 animals, 58 of which are endangered.

Enjoy a tour of the Red Ape Rainforest, where the orangutans live. Then, head over to the LAIR (Living Amphibians, Invertebrates and Reptiles) exhibit and explore the diverse species of turtles, snakes and more. Finally, end the visit with the Elephants of Asia and learn how elephants are part of Thailand’s economy.

Plan on a stay of 2-3 hours.

Highlights of Los Angeles Zoo

  • Guided tours and talks by zookeepers, with titles such as Flamingo Mingle and California Condor Rescue Zone
  • Ample walking paths, family picnic and food stalls
  • Children’s play areas
  • Special events such as Zoo Friday Night and Brew and the Zoo

Emailed nancyc@sfzoo.org on 12/12

4. San Francisco Zoo, San Francisco

With views of the Pacific Ocean on one side and city skyline on the other, the San Francisco Zoo is home to more than 2,000 endangered exotic and rescued animals. Enjoy the diversity of animals like the American white pelican, African lion and gorillas in the Primate Center.

While viewing the animals in natural enclosures, take notice and enjoy the bountiful plants that make up the different botanical gardens. From individual plants that are native to California to international plants, master gardeners are on hand to give guided tours.

Soak in the atmosphere and plan a visit for 2-3 hours.

Highlights of San Francisco Zoo

  • Grizzly bear and penguin feeds
  • Extensive playground for children includes River Play and Banyan Tree climbing
  • Unlimited ride pass option on children’s train and carousel rides
  • Several dining and zoo package options for an all-inclusive visit
Condor at the Santa Barbara Zoo
Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Zoo

5. Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara

Whether hanging out or heading out, the Santa Barbara Zoo is a must-see in Southern California. Take the sightseeing train around 30 acres of diverse landscapes and natural enclosures.

Bring your camera to snap shots of 600 animals, including gorillas, lions and elephants. Take a peek into the California Condor Recovery Program. The species was once endangered but now being restored in the wild.

Santa Barbara Zoo can be toured in 2 hours.

Highlights of Santa Barbara Zoo

  • Overnight zoo safari for adults and children
  • Feed the giraffes or enjoy ample children’s play areas
  • Observe food-prep for 500+ animals at Ridley-Tree Animal Kitchen
things to do in Santa Rosa - Safari West jeep
Ready to roll and see some animals at Safari West. Photo credit: Kim Orlando

6. Safari West, Sonoma County

Visiting Sonoma County means a stop at Safari West to view up close African antelopes, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, zebras and giraffes. From wildlife conservation to child’s eco-education, plan on staying the whole day to explore the 400 acres of the natural wonder of the “Sonoma Serengeti.”

With several types of safaris to choose from, sit back, get comfortable and discover the beauty of wildlife in action. Not to be missed are the memorable overnight safaris and children’s safaris.

Plan on spending a couple of hours or even overnight.

Highlights of Safari West

  • Several types of safaris
  • Spend the night Safari Glamping
  • Dine in Wild, Wine Country with an African twist

7. Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Fresno 

From petting the stingrays to a nose-to-nose view of sea lions and otters, Fresno has it all. It’s easy to get around, with ample play areas and exotic animals.

Don’t miss the African Adventure to watch lions strut in the sun and elephants bathe in cool waters. Not to be missed is the endangered white rhino.

Plan on a half to a full day of fun.

Highlights of Fresno Chaffee Zoo

  • Giraffe feeding station and interactive animal exhibits
  • 360-degree views of the savanna and expansive enclosures
  • Play areas and a dine-in restaurant called the Kopje Lodge

Read More: How to Visit Zoos, Aquariums and Children’s Museums for Less

8. Sacramento Zoo, Sacramento 

After doing all the free fun things in Sacramento, rev up the fun without breaking the bank at one of the most budget-friendly zoos in California.

With 14 acres of thoughtful nature exhibits, there are easy-to-access child play areas and rest spots. Don’t pass up the lions, the pride of Africa, swimming penguins or the sleeping jaguar on your way there.

Plan on staying at least 2 hours.

Highlights of the Sacramento Zoo

  • Overnight safaris and teen club activities
  • Children’s play area and extensive education center
  • More than 400 native, rare and endangered animals

9. The Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert 

Palm Desert drives the fun and family adventure. But when kids want to explore more, take them to the next level with a trip to the Living Desert Zoo.

Exotic species abound. Rhinos, mountain lions and gorillas roam in enclosures one TripAdvisor reviewer noted were “thoughtfully built to allow the best viewing.”

The Living Desert hosts interactive attractions like a children’s petting zoo and the exotic animal carousel.

The Australian Adventures exhibit is a must-see and one of the best in the USA. The Living Zoo shares a similar ecosystem to Australia’s desert. Join in and jump with kangaroos or wave to kolas. Don’t miss the wallaby hiding in the tree.

Stretch out your visit for 2-3 hours.

Highlights of the Living Desert Zoo

  • 4-acre rhino savanna with natural habits and expansive enclosures
  • G-scale model train and exotic animal carousel
  • Go behind the scenes with trained animal caregivers at Tennity Wildlife Hospital to learn about exotic animal care
Redwoods in California. Photo credit: Pixabay

10. Sequoia Park Zoo, Eureka

Discovering the California Redwoods is a breathtaking experience, so why not extend it and enjoy a day at Sequoia Park Zoo? Families can walk on the Redwood SkyWalk and birdwatch, including the bald eagle. Soon to open are the coyote and black bear exhibits.

The oldest zoo in California, the Sequoia Park Zoo is part of a 60-acre mature second-growth coast redwood forest park that offers a nature garden and duck pond. Be sure to check out the big playground.

Plan for 1-2 hours of tree-walking fun.

Highlights of Sequoia Park Zoo 

  • Forest bathing, guided bird walks and forest lectures
  • EcoCafe offers dining with a to-die-for view
  • An extensive gift shop that supports animal conservation
As an educator, creative writer and Digital Media Specialist at Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange (CCRx), I apply my M.Ed. in Curriculum and Development and my passion for eco-social justice to create and manage impactful content that promotes the reuse of creative materials for education and community benefit. I have over four years of experience in developing, executing, and overseeing communication and writing strategies that support the values and goals of CCRx and its partners, such as Books on Benches and Green Literacy.org. I have a proven track record of identifying and resolving communication challenges, fostering a collaborative mindset, and initiating change management plans that enhance the effectiveness and appeal of CCRx’s content. I also provide thought leadership and best practices for content development, optimization, and alignment with educational institutions and environmental stewardship. Additionally, I have published multiple books and teaching units on the inspiring story of environmentalist Wangari Maathai and the importance of green literacy for young readers.
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