America’s Wild Kingdoms

Our guide to some of the best zoos to take the whole family to this summer.

By Jessen O'Brien

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Colorado Springs, Colorado

At the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s interactive exhibits, you can get face-to-face with animals. Reopening in 2015, Down Under Australia lets visitors give a budgie (a small parrot native to Australia) a bite and say hello to wallabies. Or stop by the African Rift Valley to offer lettuce to a large herd of giraffes. Although 17 feet tall, the giraffes stand at eye level because of the exhibit’s unique design. cmzoo.org

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An Amur tiger at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. (Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego, California

Thrilling safari experiences are the main draw at this southern California zoo. Swing through trees across the 1,800-acre park in Jungle Ropes Safari, or camp overnight while looking out at the plains of the East Africa field exhibit in Roar & Snore Safari. The recently opened Tull Family Tiger Trail, filled with Sumatran tigers, transports visitors to the forests of Indonesia. sdzsafaripark.org

Lincoln Park Zoo

Chicago, Illinois

Set on Lake Michigan, Lincoln Park Zoo is the only privately managed major zoo in the States. The kids are bound to love the Lionel Train Adventure, a tour of the zoo on a mini locomotive that passes through a birch forest and over a country bridge. Just north of the redbrick train station sits the new Regenstein Macaque Forest, where snow monkeys have been spotted lobbing snowballs in colder months. lpzoo.org 

Zoo Miami

Miami, Florida

Zoo Miami takes full advantage of Florida’s sunny subtropical climate with several water-play areas. Most exhibits are open-air, moated displays without barriers, giving visitors unobstructed views of Komodo dragons, koalas and more as they stroll three miles of winding walkways. A front-entrance opening this year incorporates a flamingo habitat outside the zoo’s gates, and next year visitors will be able to ride an airboat in the new Florida: Mission Everglades exhibit. zoomiami.org

Saint Louis Zoo

St. Louis, Missouri

More than 18,700 animals make their home in the Saint Louis Zoo’s naturalistic habitats—and you can see them all free. Grown-ups and kids alike can marvel at the zoo’s 569 species, many of which are rare and endangered, including Chinese alligators and snow leopards. Opening this summer, the McDonnell Polar Bear Point includes a walk-through cave so visitors can get an up-close view. stlzoo.org

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Columbus, Ohio

Known for its emeritus director, “Jungle Jack” Hanna, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has an animal celebrity in its midst as well. At 58, Colo is both the first gorilla born in human care and the oldest gorilla on record. While you’re there, check out the 43-acre Heart of Africa Safari experience, in which visitors can ride camels through a re-created savanna. columbuszoo.org

Houston Zoo

Houston, Texas

The beautifully landscaped animal habitats at the Houston Zoo provide immersive and enriching experiences for visitors. Don’t miss the African Forest, which takes you on a trek through a re-created village as traditional drum music plays in the distance. A two-acre expansion scheduled to open in May will house two groups of gorillas and a family of red river hogs. houstonzoo.org 

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A hands-on tour at the Houston Zoo. (Houston Zoo/Stephanie Adams)

Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo

Bronx, New York

At 265 acres, the WCS’s Bronx Zoo is the nation’s largest urban zoo. More than 650 species reside in stunningly realistic habitats just a few miles from Manhattan. Spend your day wandering through an African rain forest on a Congo wildlife safari, exploring the mountaintops of Nepal along with endangered snow leopards and red pandas or roaming across Russian woodlands filled with Amur tigers. bronxzoo.com

Philadelphia Zoo

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Visitors came by steamboat, streetcar and horse-drawn carriage to the opening of America’s first zoo, in 1874. Now they float 400 feet above ground in the Channel 6 ABC ZooBalloon to gaze down at the more than 1,300 animals and take in views of Fairmont Park and Center City. Another highlight is Zoo360, a network of three mesh “trails” that allow big cats, apes and treetop primates to move around the zoo’s 42-acre campus. philadelphiazoo.org

Smithsonian National Zoological Park

Washington, D.C.

It’s hard to know where to head first once you arrive at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. One of four zoos in the country to exhibit giant pandas, the national zoo also has the only Meet a Kiwi program, in which visitors can get up close to these endangered flightless birds. Equally tempting are the zoo’s two Andean bear cubs, born in November and on view for the first time this spring. nationalzoo.si.edu 

  • Published: April 2015