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Right across the United States of America there are some fantastic zoos and wildlife parks that never fail to amaze those who visit. These zoos have managed to assemble incredible collections of animals from across the globe and celebrate and conserve the world’s wildlife. Now, while answering the question of what is the best zoo in the U.S. is kind of tricky, it’s not hard to show you a shortlist of some of the best.
A list of just the top ten zoos in the United States wouldn’t quite be enough, so here is a list of the top 25 best zoos in the US, in no particular order.
- 1 Philadelphia Zoo
- 2 Bronx Zoo
- 3 Oakland Zoo
- 4 Zoo Miami
- 5 Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
- 6 Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
- 7 San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
- 8 Denver Zoo
- 9 Fort Worth Zoo
- 10 Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
- 11 Brevard Zoo
- 12 Saint Louis Zoo
- 13 Audubon Zoo
- 14 Woodland Park Zoo
- 15 The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
- 16 Alaska Zoo
- 17 Bear Country USA
- 18 Brookfield Zoo
- 19 Indianapolis Zoo
- 20 Lion Country Safari
- 21 Memphis Zoo
- 22 Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
- 23 Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
- 24 Houston Zoo
- 25 Smithsonian National Zoological Park
- 26 Reader Interactions
Declared the “nation’s first zoo”, Philadelphia Zoo is a much-loved institution that is easily one of the top zoos in the US. That honor is partly due to the fact that it is one of the oldest zoos in the US. Philadelphia Zoo opened in 1874, but was not actually chartered until 1859, before the Civil War – making it the first zoo. History isn’t the only interesting element of this zoo though, with many endangered animals counted among its nearly 1,300 animals. On its 42 acres you’ll find black and white ruffled lemurs, Amur tigers, and giant otters.
Recommendation: Gain free admission to 30 attractions and tours in Philadelphia, including the zoo, with the Go Philadelphia All-Inclusive Pass.
New York is home to quite a few impressive zoos, but Bronx Zoo is without a doubt among the best zoos in NY. Found around the Bronx River, within the Bronx Park, the zoo covers 265 acres which makes it one of the largest metropolitan zoos in the country. Bronx Zoo opened in 1899 and began its long-established legacy of animal welfare and conservation when it created the first modern zoo animal hospital in 1916. Visiting today you’ll be able to see over 6,000 animals across 700 species among its exhibits, from typical favorites like tigers, lions, and gorillas, to smaller creatures like lemurs and reptiles.
To see all manner of animals native to California at one of the best zoos in America simply head to Oakland Zoo. Recently, Oakland Zoo introduced a new California Trail exhibit that focuses on native species like grizzly bears, grey wolves, and bison. But there are other exhibits and facilities as well across Oakland Zoo’s 100 acres, including a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital and a large butterfly garden. Oakland Zoo is now home to over 700 native and exotic animals, such as sun bears, reticulated giraffes, and hamadryas baboons. Although now found within Knowland Park in the Oakland Hills, the zoo was originally located in downtown Oakland when it was first established in 1922.
Of the countless number of zoos across the country, Zoo Miami is the only subtropical one in the continental United States. If that doesn’t make Zoo Miami special enough, it also happens to be the largest and best zoo in Florida. Officially known as the Miami-Dade Zoological Park and Gardens, this zoo was opened in 1948 before it was relocated to its current location in 1980. The reason why it’s important that Zoo Miami has a subtropical climate is that it provides a natural warm and humid environment for the zoo’s animals which originate from across Asia, Australia, and Africa. These animals include exotic species like Malayan tapirs, komodo dragons, and Matschie’s tree kangaroos, as well as old favorites like gorillas and lions.
Purchase your general admission ticket to the Zoo Miami here!
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
When it comes to the biggest zoo in the USA Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo can easily lay claim to that crown. That is if you take its combination of land area and number of species into consideration. This Nebraskan zoo, which started out in 1894 as Riverview Park Zoo, holds well over 900 different species on its 130 acres. Over its many years, Henry Doorly Zoo has made a name for itself as a leader in wildlife conservation and research. Visiting this beloved zoo you’ll have the chance to see rhinos, tigers, lions, and elephants, while its on-site aquarium lets you get up close to sharks and sea turtles.
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Whether or not it’s the best zoo in Ohio, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is certainly one of the largest zoos in the United States thanks to its 580 acres of land. Found in Liberty Township north of Columbus, this non-profit zoo first opened in 1927, although it has expanded over the years to include its very own 18-hole golf course. The sprawling grounds of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is divided into eight groups of exhibits that each reflect a different geographical region of the world. This means you can see everything from leopards and bobcats to penguins and kangaroos among its 7,000 plus animals that represent over 800 species.
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
Easily the best zoo in California, if not the world, is the famous San Diego Zoo. Founded in 1916 over in Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo has become a headline attraction for the city and is actually the most visited zoo in the United States. One of the reasons that this zoo is so incredibly popular is its wonderful diversity, with 650 species amounting to over 3,500 animals. To support its diverse wildlife population, the zoo is separated into eight exhibits, each with its own geography or habitat. In recent years one of San Diego Zoo’s more popular exhibits has been the Outback exhibit with its Australian creatures, including koalas and Tasmanian devils.
Purchase your entrance ticket to the San Diego Zoo here!
What started as a gift of an American black bear to the mayor of Denver in 1896 has grown into Denver Zoo, a groundbreaking Colorado institution. Denver Zoo was the first of its kind in the U.S. to introduce naturalistic habitats to improve the welfare of its animals. Since then, the zoo has worked hard to extend its conservation efforts beyond its animal population and runs global conservation programs on four different continents. Visitors to Denver Zoo help support these efforts and get to see more than 3,500 animals from 400-plus species. The zoo is still known for its bear population, but also for its Amur tigers, Asian elephants, and special Stingray Cove exhibit.
Fort Worth Zoo
In Texas you’ll discover quite a few great zoos, but it’s fair to say that Fort Worth Zoo is the state’s contribution to the best zoos in the United States. While it had a very modest selection of animals when it first opened in 1909, Fort Worth Zoo has grown considerably since, and now features 7,000 animals of over 540 species. Two of its most popular exhibits are the 2.5-acre World of Primates exhibit where you can see all four species of great apes, and the Museum of Living Art (MOLA) which is home to many endangered reptiles and amphibians.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Another zoo that calls the state of Colorado home is Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. Sitting at an elevation of 6,800 feet above sea level, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo holds the title as the highest zoo in America. Founded by philanthropist Spencer Penrose in 1926 as a place for his personal collection of exotic animals, this zoo has grown to hold 800 animals from more than 200 species. Out of those species, over 30 are endangered, including black rhinoceroses and lar gibbons. Visitors can also enjoy a different perspective to view the animals from by taking the Mountaineer Sky Ride ski lift that runs over the grizzly bears and Amur tiger enclosures.
For one of the best east coast zoos in the U.S., check out Brevard Zoo in Florida. Situated in the city of Melbourne, Brevard Zoo puts an emphasis on interaction and novel approaches to interacting with the animal residents. Over 900 animals, belonging to more than 195 species, live on this 75-acre property full of Florida landscapes. Creatures here come from all over the world, but there are also native species from Florida like the Florida black bear and the American alligator. Activities at Brevard Zoo range from kayak tours and zip-lining, to hand-feeding giraffes and walking with kangaroos.
Saint Louis Zoo
Given that it has free admission, it’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t visit Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri. This zoo, within Forest Park in the city’s west, also happens to be one of the top zoos in the country. Saint Louis Zoo is formally known as Saint Louis Zoological Park and is free thanks to public subsidies. This means everyone can visit and experience the zoo’s 13,000 animals from 555 different species. Exhibits at the zoo include red pandas, polar bears, two-toed sloths, puffins, and all kinds of reptiles and amphibians.
New Orleans has no end of things for visitors to do, with Audubon Zoo being one of its most adored and enduring attractions. Although the zoo didn’t open until 1914, the site it’s on has been home to animals since the 1884 World Exposition. The grounds of Audubon Zoo cover 58 acres and include the only genuine swamp you’ll find in Uptown New Orleans. The most popular exhibit at the zoo is the Louisiana Swamp exhibit which showcases rare white alligators and Louisiana black bears, but also highlights the interplay between Cajun and Native American culture and local wildlife.
Woodland Park Zoo
With a lengthy history of wildlife conservation, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle is another great American zoo worthy of notice. Woodland Park Zoo is found in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle and dates back to 1899. Exhibits at the zoo are broken up into different bioclimatic zones, but in total there are over 900 animals representing 250 or more species across its 92 acres. This means you’ll need to explore different exhibits to see the zoo’s most incredible creatures like the snow leopard, flying fox, and hippopotamus. In true Seattle style, Woodland Park Zoo hosts an annual Brew at the Zoo event involving beer tastings of different local breweries.
Recommendation: Get free admission to the Woodland Park Zoo, as well as four other major attractions in Seattle, with the Seattle CityPASS. It’s the perfect pass for tourists spending a couple of days sightseeing.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
Covering a massive 1,800 acres, it’s hard to argue that the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is one of the largest zoos in the US. Located out near Palm Springs in California, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens has been showcasing desert flora and fauna since 1970. Much of the zoo’s grounds have been left in their natural state, providing an environment for over 450 animals. The zoo’s creatures come from desert environments the world over and include wallabies from Australia, Mexican wolves from North America, and cheetahs from Africa and Iran. Besides visiting animal exhibits, visitors can also experience animal encounters, feed the giraffes, and take to nature and hiking trails.
Since Alaska is so famous for its nature and wildlife, it only makes sense that it has an excellent institution like Alaska Zoo to showcase its native wildlife. Alaska Zoo is located in the city of Anchorage and has been the only zoo in the state since opening in 1969. Interestingly, while the zoo features many native animals to Alaska like the Canadian lynx and polar bear, it actually started with a baby elephant which was won in a contest by a local grocer. Among the 100 or so animals at Alaska Zoo you can see plenty of non-native creatures including snow leopards and Tibetan yaks.
Bear Country USA
Offering a completely different experience is Bear Country USA wildlife park. What makes this attraction in Rapid City, South Dakota distinct is that it’s a drive-through wildlife park where you’ll have the chance to spot creatures from the comfort of your car. A common stop enroute to Mount Rushmore, you’ll have the chance to see wolves, bears, and other native North American animals up close as you drive through its 200 acres of forest and meadow. Visits here follow a three mile route that moves through different enclosures, allowing some up-close experiences with the park’s residents.
Those visiting Chicago will want to keep Brookfield Zoo in mind when planning their time in the city. Officially called the Chicago Zoological Park, this zoo covers 216 acres in the western suburb of Brookfield but is still easily reached from downtown. Brookfield Zoo was opened in 1934 and introduced the idea of using moats and ditches for enclosures rather than cages. The zoo is managed by the Chicago Zoological Society non-profit which is dedicated to furthering animal welfare and care. While you can see all sorts of creatures here, from orangutans to pangolins and pygmy hippos, the Brookfield Zoo also has its Animal Ambassador Program that creates personal and upclose experiences with certain animals.
Recommendation: The Chicago Explorer Pass includes free admission to the Brookfield Zoo as well as up to four (depending on the option booked) other major attractions in Chicago.
America’s Midwest is spoiled with incredible zoos like Indianapolis Zoo. Sitting across White River from Downtown Indianapolis, this zoo is one of the city’s most cherished attractions. Since opening in 1964, Indianapolis Zoo has continued to grow and expand, moving to its current 64 acres in White River State Park in 1988. Today the zoo is home to more than 1,200 animals across 230 species, but also roughly 47,000 plant specimens in its outstanding botanical garden. Experiences at Indianapolis Zoo range from admiring macaws, black mamba snakes, and orangutans, to the chance to touch smooth dogfish sharks in its aquarium.
Lion Country Safari
Proof that drive-through wildlife parks in the US are rare but not unique is the Lion Country Safari in Florida. Located inland of West Palm Beach, this safari park covers almost 600 acres with natural habitats for its wildlife. Guests explore Lion Country Safari from the comfort of their car on a four mile drive through seven different sections of specific bioclimatic regions. While you’ll see animals like giraffes, African lions, and kudu on the drive, there’s also an additional walk-through safari experience full of birds, reptiles, and mostly smaller mammals. There’s also an amusement park at Lion Country Safari which includes a petting zoo and water park, complete with slides and other family-friendly activities.
Having been around for well-over 100 years, Memphis Zoo is a proud Tennessee landmark. Since opening in 1906, Memphis Zoo has called Overton Park in Midtown Memphis home and covers around 76 acres. The zoo has three zones with a total of 19 exhibits that require a walk of roughly 2 miles to complete. Memphis Zoo hosts around 3,500 animals belonging to over 500 different species from all over the world. While the zoo’s giant panda exhibit is one of its most popular, don’t miss the hippos and Nile crocodiles of the Zambezi River Hippo Camp or the jaguars and capybara in Cat Country.
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
One of the oldest zoos in America, and one of the country’s finest, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is not to be missed. The zoo officially opened in 1875 with just a handful of animals, but has grown throughout its distinguished history. Found to the north of the city, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden now occupies 75 acres and supports more than 500 animal and 3,000 plant species. A comfortable approach to seeing all the animals here is to take a ride on the popular Safari Train and roll past multiple habitats as you go. Exploring Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden you’ll have the chance to see everything from komodo dragons to bonobo chimps and polar bears.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Yet another Ohio zoo on this list is the historic Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, one of the oldest zoos listed here. Since opening in 1882, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has moved and grown to occupy 183 acres in the neighborhood of Old Brooklyn. The zoo features a range of different exhibits related to different habitats and geographic regions and totals 600 species among its more than 3,000 animals. Exhibits include The Rainforest with its Bornean orangutans and two-toed sloths, as well as the Wilderness Trek, home to Amur tigers, grizzly bears, wolves, and more.
In a major city like Houston, it’s really no surprise that Houston Zoo is worthy of mention. Situated right in the heart of the Texas city, Houston Zoo occupies 55 acres of Hermann Park and couldn’t be easier to reach while visiting the city. The zoo is home to more than 6,000 animals from 900 species that come from all over the globe. Whether you want to see gorillas and zebras from Africa, anteaters from South America, or wildlife native to Texas, Houston Zoo has you covered. There’s also a nice helping of animal encounters offered here, including getting up close to elephants, okapi, and Galápagos tortoises.
Recommendation: If you are visiting Houston as a tourist, consider purchasing the Houston CityPASS. With the pass you get to visit five major Houston attractions at significant savings, including the zoo.
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Last, but certainly not least, is the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. Often just referred to as the National Zoo, this zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution and as such offers free entry to the public. The Smithsonian National Zoological Park also happens to be one of the oldest in the US and was founded in 1889. Throughout its exhibits spanning 163 acres there are around 2,700 animals across more than 390 species. You’ll have no trouble finding beloved animals like giant pandas, lions, and tigers here, but there are also some incredibly rare creatures as well, such as the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemurs and the scimitar-horned oryx which is now extinct in the wild.
That just about sums up the best zoos that the US has to offer. Clearly there’s plenty of choice and you’re never going to be far from one, meaning it’s best to keep them in mind next time you’re on vacation.