At a vast 100 acres, the San Diego Zoo is a sprawling paradise in the middle of the city. The zoo is a pleasurable outdoor experience that takes all day to properly explore. It is home to more than 3700 rare and endangered animals and a botanical collection with 700,000+ plants. The zoo sits within Balboa Park, a 1200 acre cultural park (the nation’s largest). The San Diego Zoo dates back to 1914 and is a gem in San Diego’s history. Certainly in a zoo this extensive, you could spend many days seeing the sights. But what if you only have one day? Our Day Trips TravelingMom (a native San Diegan) gives you her tested guide on how to cover the San Diego Zoo in a single day.
Navigating the San Diego Zoo
There are several ways to explore the San Diego Zoo (see MAP here). Guests can take a 35-minute guided bus tour on double-decker buses that give a good overview of the zoo. There is also the option of the “Kangaroo” Express Bus that stops at several locations for guests to access different areas. The Guided Bus Tour & Express Bus are included in the 1-Day Pass admission price. Zoo pass members pay extra.
And of course, guests can walk along the many pathways which reach aviaries and enclosures that the zoo does not cover on the bus. I highly recommend that guests take one of the bus tours first and from there plan their own walking tour to more deeply explore other areas.
Start at the Back and Work Your Way Downhill
Please note that many of the trails are quite steep so be sure to take advantage of the Skyfari Aeriel Tram. The tram will transport you quickly across the zoo to the higher regions and you can work your way back downhill.
Have your stroller with you? Not a problem, as the park employees working the tram will send your stroller with you so you’ll have it to use on the walk back. Some of those hills are precipitous so always make sure you set the brakes on your stroller or the stroller (and your baby!) may roll away from you quickly. I love the amazing view of San Diego and Balboa Park museums over the lush treetops of the zoo!
Stay on Your Feet
The zoo offers a few shows and animal presentations. The shows are a nice place to get off your feet for a bit though you will be in the sun. I don’t recommend watching any of the current shows if you only have one day in the park. Your time would be better spent walking and seeing the animals up-close.
Plenty has evolved at the zoo over the years including a move away from isolated cages towards lush, natural exhibits that mimic that animal’s habitat. Panda Canyon has three giant pandas on exhibit and they are so fun and playful to watch as they climb trees and strip bamboo. The hippos have a cool upper and lower exhibit so you can watch them swim (so graceful under water!) Elephant Odyssey is awesome. Last time we were there the elephants were loping around to grab branches from each other! You must take a stroll through Monkey Trails and visit the orangutans, they can be so silly. Many of the animals have live cameras on their enclosure so you can also watch them from home.
Children’s Zoo is a Must See
The Children’s Zoo area is a can’t miss section. There are animals here that you won’t find in other areas including the amusing Naked Mole-Rats. We all love to see the giant loaf of bread that zoo bakers cut into the shape of a house for the mice! My preschooler’s favorite area is the Petting Paddock where he can pet the goats and sheep. Just inside the entrance to this area there is also a playground so we usually spend about 30 minutes letting our stroller-bound son run around. It’s a good place to regroup or have a snack while the kids play for a bit. There are several other play areas around the park where kids can explore.
During the Heat of the Day, Seek the Aviaries
Accessed only by the walking paths, making your way through the cool confines of one of the aviaries is one of the most fascinating parts of a San Diego Zoo visit. If you walk too fast you’ll miss a lot so make sure to find a bench to bird-watch. Many of these birds are camouflaged in the lush trees and bushes and you won’t see them until you pause to look. Keepers set up trays of fruit and the birds stop over to nibble.
Bring Your Own Food
Dining at the Zoo is mostly walk-up with outdoor patio dining. Offerings are wide and include sandwiches, grilled burgers & chicken, salads, wraps and Chinese. Albert’s offers a more elegant selection and full-service dining if you need to take an extended break. You can also bring in any of your own food (which we frequently do) and have a picnic lunch in the Treetops Cafe seating area. Please note that straws are not permitted as they are a choking hazard to the animals.
Make it a Day Trip
Parking in the lot is free. You can purchase zoo tickets in advance online at a discount with Undercover Tourist. Definitely purchase them ahead of time if you’re trying to maximize your time inside the zoo. Hours are extended during the summer months and over the holidays. I highly recommend getting to the zoo early and staying late, especially if you want to see the animals when they are most active.
Make sure to take time and explore all that downtown San Diego has to offer in addition to the World Famous San Diego Zoo including the The New Children’s Museum, the beautiful Balboa Park and Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. Check out this list of fun and free San Diego activities.