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America's Wildest Zoos

Filed Under: Sightseeing, United States

America's zoos make it possible to trek into the "wild" for those who might otherwise never visit the Serengeti or Himalayan mountains to meet unusual wildlife like zebras and mountain lions in their natural habitats. Even better, outdoors and adventure lovers can traverse recreated environments like a tundra, Asian rainforest and African savanna in a single day, encountering a breathtaking variety of wildlife, including giant pandas, rare bonobos and Komodo dragons. Grab your binoculars and bush hat: We've selected the wildest zoos in America for animal lovers and families to explore.

fortherock, flickr
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo may well be the city's most popular tourist attraction, and deservedly so; more than 4,000 animals comprising over 800 species call the sprawling, 100-acre animal park home. Visitors will encounter all manner of creatures, including giant pandas, polar bears, elephants and cheetahs at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park.

While the animals are the main attraction here, the grounds are also a veritable wonder, having been accredited as a botanical garden featuring more than 1 million plants. To traverse the enormous grounds, jump aboard the San Diego Zoo's 35-minute Guided Bus Tour, which offers a narrated tour covering some 70% of the zoo. Or take the Express Bus, a hop-on, hop-off affair that makes 5 stops throughout the grounds. For a literal overview of the zoo, get sky-high on the Skyfari aerial tram, which gives riders an aerial view of the grounds.

Must-see stops include the Scripps Aviary (filled with 130 African native birds), the Polar Bear Plunge and the Panda Trek, where visitors can wander through a bamboo forest spotting giant and red pandas.
Joey, Flickr
Bronx Zoo
Tourists and locals alike flock to the Bronx Zoo, the nation's largest metropolitan animal park, stretching some 265 acres. Opened in 1899, the Bronx Zoo houses more than 4,000 animals representing 600 species, in an environment that emulates a variety of habitats, like African plains, Himalayan mountains and Asian forests.

The experience is sure to make visitors forget they're a mere subway ride from America's most massive city. Get up close and personal with beastly Siberian tigers at Tiger Mountain, a sprawling viewing enclosure, and meander through the Wild Asia Complex, which recreates Asian rainforests, complete with native birds, leopards, gibbons and lizards.

Catch a gander at a variety of wildlife while taking a load off your feet, with a ride on the Wild Asia Monorail, a safari in miniature, which winds through enclosures housing elephants, rhinos, antelope, horses and deer. To beat some of the zoo’s notorious crowds, arrive as early as possible, or visit on a weekday or during the winter off-season.
Art G., flickr
Philadelphia Zoo
America's oldest zoo opened in 1874 in the City of Brotherly Love, and today entertains visitors with habitats featuring more than 1,300 animals spread across 42 acres near West Fairmount Park. The zoo's relatively intimate size means it's easy to enjoy most of its attractions in a single day.

Highlights include the PECO Primate Reserve pavilion featuring gorillas and orangutans, as well as First Niagara Big Cat Falls, where visitors will encounter tigers, lions, leopards and jaguars -- try to visit here during feeding times. Families will also enjoy the McNeil Avian Center, a rain forest habitat where visitors will discover over 100 bird species from around the world.

Opt for a unique experience riding in the Channel 6 Zooballoon, a 30-passenger helium balloon that rises 400 feet above the zoo, offering glimpses of giraffes, zebras and even the Philadelphia skyline. Finally, pay a visit to the Reptile and Amphibian House, where simulated thunder and lightning "storms," periodically refresh the creatures.
William Clifford, flickr
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
"Jungle Jack" Hanna, the zookeeper whose frequent television appearances on shows like Late Night with David Letterman helped make him an animal-loving legend, is the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and has helped it earn the distinguished reputation as one of the best zoos in America. Hanna helped refurbish the Columbus Zoo's 588 acres, build its bevy of animals to some 7,000, and expand the grounds to include a theme park, waterpark and golf course.

Notable zoo exhibits include Animal Encounters Village, the largest manatee exhibit outside of Florida, a 100,000-gallon coral reef exhibit and an African Forest, featuring rare bonobos, gorillas and apes, including Colo, the first great ape born in captivity, in 1956 -- and now the oldest living gorilla in captivity anywhere in the world.
Disney
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Walt Disney World's largest theme park, Animal Kingdom, spans some 500 acres, and offers guests the opportunity to commune with more than 1,700 animals representing 250 species. The park's habitats are divided into 7 areas, including Africa, Asia, Camp Minnie-Mickey and DinoLand U.S.A.

While Disney’s Animal Kingdom includes an expected assortment of animals such as zebras, elephants and hippos, it's also earned acclaim for its rides and attractions, including the Expedition Everest high-altitude roller coaster, the Kali River Rapids raft ride, the Kilimanjaro Safaris Expedition and the Wildlife Express Train.

Daily performances also make Disney’s Animal Kingdom exceptional: Must-see shows include Finding Nemo -- The Musical and Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade, featuring nearly 60 characters and cast members, including puppets and stilt walkers.

About the Author

Valerie Conners is a freelance writer, editor and producer who has worked with the Travel Channel for more than 14 years, specializing in travel topics including the world's best beaches, outdoor travel and romantic getaways. Her work also appears in many online and print publications including, Aol Travel, Discovery Channel, World Hum, Frommer's Travel Guides, the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer. She's happiest when eating spicy Thai food, snorkeling with sea turtles in Indonesia and bargaining for bangles in Indian markets. She blogs about her travels at PassengerConners.com.

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