The Centre Piece of San Diego’s stunning Balboa Park is the Iconic San Diego Zoo. This World-class Zoo has been delighting crowds for over 100 years with its stunning displays of exotic animals and wildlife. But the Zoo is far more than just a collection of animals in cages and has grown, expanded, and developed over the years. With Our San Diego Zoo Review, we took a trip to the World Famous Zoo to check it out and see if the San Diego Zoo is still worth Visiting in 2021 and what there is on offer at this century-old attraction!
Is the San Diego Zoo Worth it in 2021
We absolutely think so. We loved our trip to the Zoo and would heartily recommend it to anyone. In fact, we have to put it as the Number 1 Attraction in San Diego. It really is something not to miss when you are in the City and the Fact the Zoo is over 100 years old has no bearing on the attractions at all.
The Zoo is a thoroughly modern and updated experience. Animal enclosures are world-leading and resemble the natural environments of the inhabitants as closely as possible. Its position in Balboa Park is enviable and even without the animals, the area is beautiful to visit and just amble around. We simply couldn’t imagine coming to San Diego without visiting Balboa Park and the Parks best feature is the Zoo.
San Diego Zoo Pricing
- San Diego Zoo 1-Day Pass: $60.00 – Including Zoo, Guided Bus Tour, and Skyfari Aerial Tram
San Diego Zoo Parking is FREE!!! – Rejoice!
Go San Diego Pass – The San Diego Zoo is included on the Go San Diego Pass and can help save a ton of cash when visiting several San Diego Attractions. Check out our full review here to see if the Go Pass is for you!
Booking the San Diego Zoo
The Zoo has made several changes to ensure safety and compliance with State Covid-19 regulations. This includes wearing masks, extra screens, sanitization and hand Gel Stations, limited numbers controlled through a reservation system and health screening.
The health screening is simply a few questions and a temp check. This is no issue really however at busy times there have been long queues reported. up to an hour at busy weekend times.
The Biggest Drawback of the Covid restrictions is the closing of several attractions and shows. While disappointing it’s unavoidable and hopefully improves as the year and vaccine roll-out continues.
Also during busy periods, there can be bottlenecks around certain enclosures. Some viewing points are through small windows that can naturally only accommodate small numbers while social distancing. If you are particularly sensitive to crowds at the minute we would suggest avoiding weekends as the numbers can feel on the high end, especially around these pinch points.
San Diego Safari Park
As you will see there a lot of animals and exhibits at San Deigo Zoo, but if after getting your fill at the Zoo that is still not enough then consider checking out the San Diego Safari Park. This is the sister Park to the Zoo and is basically the Overflow for all the Zoo’s animals. Here you can take a safari around the different habitats and experience the creatures in an even more natural setting with even more space to act as they would in the wild.
Also Included on the Go San Diego Pass.
San Diego Zoo Conservation
As a Society, our Social conscience has grown and grown in recent decades. Things we once did routinely are now considered abhorrent and for some Keeping animals in captivity falls into this category. In our SeaWorld review, we discuss this at length and while we find ourselves in the against camp overall, especially where Orca are concerned, Attractions like the San Diego zoo are very different.
SeaWorld operates primarily for profit, Zoo’s such as San Diego operate Primarily for conservation (that is not to say SeaWorld does nothing for conservation). The Work they have done has some staggering success stories and shows outright visiting and contributing to places like this has a profound positive effect on the world’s wildlife and ecosystems. Here we list just a few examples.
California Condors – A few decades ago there were only a few examples of the California Condor left in the wild. These few birds were no longer breeding and were destined for an early bath in the game of Evolution. The extraordinary step was taken to catch ALL wild birds and begin a Breeding Program, before beginning a return to the wild. Today there are strong populations all over California and Arizona and we ourselves have been lucky enough to see a bird in the wild that should have died out. All thanks to San Diego Zoo and the other zoo’s in the Program!
Sea Otters – Another California Resident that had little hope of survival, now thanks to the efforts of zoos and institutes up and down the east coast Sea Otters are prevalent. Take a trip to Monterey California and you will see hundreds of the (not so) little beasts frolicking and hunting in the kelp forests of the coast.
Giant Panda’s – these are now only considered a vulnerable species when once they were considered on the verge of extinction. The incredible efforts of places like the San Diego Zoo helped put the Panda on the mind of everyone involved with conservation and the recovery has been remarkable. With numbers in the wild and in captivity soaring.
White Rhinoceros – Another story of a miraculous recovery. Once the most threatened species of Rhino the Southern White Rhino, despite a limited range in Africa, has become the most numerous species of Rhino and has dropped off the endangered list altogether. While the Northern White Rhino hasn’t faired so well and only remains on the planet due to efforts by zoos worldwide. There are only 2 left alive, both female and both the subject of a desperate struggle to save the species using frozen sperm.
If the Northern Species is saved, it is likely once again that the San Diego Zoo will have lead the way in developing the techniques to achieve this!
We are a strange species, capable of the most barbaric and horrendous treatment of our planet and each other, but also capable of incredible compassion and care as people donate their lives to protecting these threatened species, that we ourselves have put under threat. SeaWorld Makes us struggle with our conscience but San Diego Zoo is a wonderful example of entertainment and culture helping save the world! We hope one-day zoos all go out of business and the animals all released. As there is just no need to protect them as they are no longer threatened. We also doubt this can happen in our lifetimes and with all probability things will get worse. But the above does show there are plenty of good news stories along with the bad.
San Diego Zoo has one of the biggest and most expensive Conservation programs and departments of any Zoo worldwide and we are proud to support their efforts!
Sand Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda’s
San Diego Zoo has been famed for its incredible Giant Panda Exhibition and Breeding Program. The First US Zoo to Successfully breed the endangered creatures in captivity. Unfortunately for one reason or another the Panda’s have now all returned to China and there are no Pandas on display at San Diego Zoo.
While this is seriously disappointing and some people want to blame Donald Trumps Trade war for the Action the truth may just be that the San Diego Zoo is a Victim of Its own Success. Sure the Chinese may have been acting in partial retaliation for the ongoing trade war, and while this would be a shame it has only been allowed due to the fantastic recovery the Panda’s have made. No longer considered endangered and “only” Venerable their recovery is great news and the fantastic work the Zoo has done, has been a big part of this recovery. In the past Panda’s in captivity refused to breed, but the efforts of the Zoo have meant many cubs have been brought into existence, and the awareness they brought to the Panda’s plight has focused efforts on conserving the animals in the wild.
We are a Travel Blog and don’t want to get bogged down in politics so whatever your opinion on the Ex-President, we don’t think it’s helpful to just blame him for everything, and in the case of the Panda’s we like to focus on the Amazing Recovery! The agreements were in place prior to the presidency and while the Zoo hoped to renew them, China decided it was time for the pandas to come home.
San Diego Zoo Attractions
While the Main Draw of the Zoo is the diverse and amazing creatures housed here there a few additions that can help make your day a bit more varied and exciting. All of these are included free of charge with basic entry.
Guided Bus Tours – Temporarily Closed
One of the first things you should do is hop onto the Guided bus tour. If you can grab a seat upstairs on the open-top deck you will have a great view as the bus does a loop of the perimeter of the Zoo, while the Guide points out all the main attractions and animals on exhibition at the Zoo.
As the Bus sticks to the perimeter road the views of some exhibits are pretty poor, others completely missed, but what these bus journeys do are give you a great idea of the layout and location of the different exhibitions and Animals. This helps you plan out where to go and what you want to see first. On top of this, it is generally a very fun and pleasant intro into the Zoo and is a perfect first thing activity to get you started. Buses run regularly and queues do not normally get horrendous, worst case can be 2-3 buses until you are seated. However on our last visit, we got straight on the next bus, and that is the norm.
Skyfari Aerial Tram – Open
The Skyfari Aerial Tram (Or Cable Car) runs from one end of the park to the over offering fantastic views of the Zoo, Exhibits, Belmont Park, and the San Diego Skyline. It is a fabulous ride that really shouldn’t be missed. However, It is pretty high and very wobbly, anyone with a fear of highlights would do well to skip this.
We tend to use the Skyfari at the end of the day, as we find ourselves at the far end of the Park and jump on to catch a ride back to the beginning. If the Guided Bus Tours are a great way to open your day we find the Skyfari is a great way to say goodbye, with a whole host of animals in between.
Kangaroo Bus – Temporarily Closed
The Kangaroo Bus is less of an attraction and more a helpful amenity. This Bus hops around the park stopping at various locations and can seriously help cut down on walking time!
4D Shows – Temporarily Closed
The Zoo has it’s very own 4-D Theater and has shows running daily, costing $7 each. We do not really tend to enjoy these and we prefer to spend our time with the Animals, but if you are looking for a distraction for the kids they can help out.
Shows – Temporarily Closed
The Wild About Animals show hosted at the Wegeforth Bowl is a fantastic and iconic show where the Skilled animal handlers display various animals a let you know a little bit about why they are so special – 3 pm Daily
The Doctor Zoolittle Explores Africa Show is a kids show hosted at the Africa Rocks show late o in the day and is great for your little ones.
Obviously, the main part of any Zoo is the Animals. San Diego Zoo has one of the best collections anywhere in the world and houses over 650 different species! We can’t possibly mention all these here and even if we did we are pretty sure, even if you tried to follow it you would fall asleep, instead, we will take a tour of the Zoo and point out the creatures that jumped out to us as the most unique and impressive!
The First Zone you hit after the entrance is Discovery Outpost. This is my favorite zone as it’s the location of all the creepy crawly cool stuff. The Reptile House is fantastic with a huge selection of colorful and amazing Snakes and Lizards. Reptile Walk is home to Alligators, Crocodiles, Komodo Dragons, and Giant Galapagos Tortoises.
The Insect House has loads of Tarantulas, Spiders, Stick insects ants, and even Robber Crabs, the largest Crabs in the World. A Must see if you want to be creeped out. The Outpost is also home to the Petting Zoo, a cute aviary featuring smaller birds such as hummingbirds, and the Wegeford Bowl which hosts the Wild About Animals Show.
The Name for the Lost forest section is VERY misleading. It is not the Forest that is lost…it is you! Or at least you will be soon. This is by far the most confusing and complicated part of the Zoo. This is not helped by housing some of the most incredible animals in the Zoo!
There are two main trails to start off with the Monkey Trail and the Tiger Trial. But also features the Hippo Trail, The Scripps and Owens Aivairies, the Treetops Way, Treetops Cafe Area, and a whole host of other smaller trails aviaries and exhibits. It is a Massive part of the Zoo and is very easy to get lost as the whole area is built into a very steep valley. The Signage and maps of this area really poor and it encourages you to explore the area and see what you come across.
The Monkey trail is first on the list and takes you through the treetops at Monkey height through various exhibits of different monkeys and Primates, Along with various other animals, such as Pygmy hippos and Crocodiles. It is a fantastic trial as you really are in the trees with the monkeys and the whole area is very well planted and natural in appearance.
Next up is the Tiger Trail. The Tiger Exhibit is a whole quarter acre and features natural settings such as a waterfall and clifftops for the cats to explore. Tigers must be the most majestic creatures on earth and seeing them sunbathing on top of their hillside perches is about as good as you will get apart from seeing them in the wild, and here you are unlikely to get your face eaten off! Again there are various other exhibits such as wild pigs, Tapirs, and a fantastic Fishing cat!
From here you can follow the Hippo trail round to the Hippos, Okapi, Buffalo, More Monkey, Otters, and Crowned Eagles, Or you can pick-up the Monkey Trial or Treetops way and head towards Gorilla Falls. Gorillas are insanely fascinating, it is so obvious when you look at them, they look back and are definitely thinking. No other creature on earth is so strikingly human-like, despite chimpanzees being a closer relative, it’s the Gorilla that really stands out as being most human-like to us. We certainly get an uneasy feeling being around them, a Good uneasy feeling, like staring back into our deep past.
The Entire Lost Forest area covers nearly half the Zoo and can take a good portion of the day to explore From here we dropped down to Aisain Passage.
Asian Passage / Panda Trek
Since the removal of the Panda’s, there is less to see in this area than in the others but there are still some good animals here. Leopards, Snow Leopards, Sichuan Takins (sort of an antelope/buffalo cross), and red pandas that are really cute. But without the main attraction, it’s a bit of a letdown. There are lifts here that take you from the valley floor to the Bahor Bridge that connects the two halves of the zoo.
If you continue up the Asian Passage you get to Sun Bear Forest. Sun bears are not the only bears in this exhibit which share their home with Grislies, Brown Bears, spectacled bears, Otters, hyenas, Hornbills, and various species of Monkey, Gibbon, and Macaques.
The Northern Frontier houses all the arctic creatures in the Park in a State of the art Arctic Habitat. The Headline exhibit is the Polar Bears, they have a huge plunge pool to swim in with an underwater viewing area. The bears are incredible to see and really imposing and not something to stumble across in the wild.
On top of the Bears, there are a whole host of other arctic animals in the area, Wolves, Arctic Foxes, Caribu, Deer, Raindeer Cougars, and more. It is a wonderful part of the zoo and not to be missed. Unfortunately, we missed it! The area was under renovation and all animals off exhibit! Bummer. This happens from time to time and you are never guaranteed any particular animal. The Welfare of the Animals is paramount and if they need to come off exhibit the Zoo Ensures this! So From here, we carried on down to Elephant Odyssey.
While the Stars of the Show are obviously the Elephants, in their gigantic 2 and a half-acre exhibit. Where once a herd of 10 roamed an exhibit half this size, so roam is probably fanciful, now only 4 share this much larger space. Two of the elephants are African with two smaller Asian elephants present too.
There are a whole host of other great creatures on show here. Their area is more accurately the African Savanah Exhibit. many of the Great continent’s BIG-game are found here. The First Exhibit being the Lion Enclosure, followed by the Elephants then numerous species from the great plains follow. Jaguars, Camels, Tapiers, Sloths, Burros, and Wild Horses. There are various smaller creatures such as Tarantulas, Dung Beetles, Frogs, and Turtles.
At the end of the Odyssey is the most African of creatures, the CALIFORNIAN Condor…Well, they had to put them somewhere! Joking aside these are seriously amazing creatures and one that really shouldn’t be here. If you find yourself questioning the Work zoos do these magnificent birds are proof they do amazing work. See our Conservation section above.
The Final Section is everyone’s favorite and a real example of how being the biggest, baddest, or most impressive creature is no match for personality. The Meerkats! We spent far too long watching these wonderful little critters hang around, play, and get into mischief. It’s a great habitat, one where you really wonder why they can’t and don’t escape. This puts you right up with them only a foot or two away from them!
The Outback is the Zoo’s small Australian section, almost exclusively Koala’s or Evil Drop Bears to go by their scientific name! There are a few other Species here, Possums, tree Kangaroos, Kookuburos, and Tasmanian devils, but the area is dominated by the koalas chilling out in the various artificial trees. It is a small area that only takes a short detour to visit.
We are a bit unsure about Urban Jungle. It is mainly the old elephant enclosure and seems a bit small and unorchestrated for the huge animals living there, one of the smallest parts of the Zoo yet home to Giraffes, Rhino’s, Kangaroo, Cheetahs, and Camels. It’s a bit of a mess really but the Animals living there are well worth checking out.
The final section is the state-the-art Africa Rocks section. This is a fantastic Exhibit that the Zoo is very proud of. It lacks any real showcase species and instead focuses on mixed enclosures where multiple species all live side by side in a natural setting.
There are several sections all featuring animals from various parts of Africa, From Lemurs of Madagascar to the Penguins and Leopard Sharks of the Southern coasts and everything in between. It is all about the incredible diversity of the amazing African wildlife.
From here we head back down Asian Passage, to the lifts back up to Bashor Bridge where we head away from the exit to catch the Skyfari Back to the beginning.
How Long Do I Need At the Zoo?
We saw the entire Zoo in an afternoon. You could certainly spend a lot longer here but you would end up pretty tired and exhausted. Our original plan was to arrive early Max out on the Zoo then visit Balboa Park to check out a few Museums as we were using a Go San Diego Pass. In the end, the weather intervened and the morning was awful, torrential downpours rained off any outdoor activities in the area. So we flipped our plan and visited the Museum in the morning and then hit the Zoo, until close. 3-4 Hours is certainly enough to see all the highlights with hours needed to get through every exhibit. A full day would be needed to see everything in minute detail but we would be too exhausted to really take anything in by the end of that.
Overall we loved our latest Visit to the San Diego Zoo. There really is an incredible amount to see and do here. While we are bitterly disappointed the Giant Panda’s are gone, there is the hope they will return in the future and at least on the plus side, they are doing better in the wild. It is still not enough to detract from the Zoo, The setting in Balboa Park is really stunning and the Habitat’s far better and more natural than many Zoo’s. The Monkey and Tiger Trails, for example, are so lush and well planted you really could be wandering through a wild forest.
The Work the Zoo does is exemplary and we are happy and proud to support this organization as they continue to help bring species back from the brink.
This World Class and Iconic Attraction should be at the top of everyone’s MUST see list in San Diego!
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Have Your Say
Let us know your thoughts on San Diego Zoo! Have you been recently or are you planning on going soon? Let us know any questions or queries you have about the Zoo or give us any feedback about your trip! Did you enjoy a particular exhibit, or was something not as you expected. We would love to hear from you about anything related to the San Diego Zoo.