The Best Zoos in the US

Group of kids feeding giraffe at zoo
kali9 / Getty Images

You may be asking what sets apart the best zoos from any regular old zoo. For starters, the biggest difference is a focus on animal conservation rather than exhibition. The most exotic species housed in a zoo tend to be the most endangered out in the real world, and the top zoos are also research centers at the forefront of protecting vulnerable animals from extinction. They don't acquire animals by removing them from the wild, but rather work to return species to their natural habitat whenever possible.

Another important distinction is the enclosures. Seeing a polar bear in a cage the size of your living room on a sweltering summer day provokes pity, not awe. The best zoos invest in their facilities so they resemble the environment where the animal would naturally live.

You may have one of the top zoos a lot closer than you think. They're scattered across the country, making for a perfect family excursion to see the majesty of wildlife while learning about the importance of protecting it.

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Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

Desert Dome Opens at Henry Doorly Zoo
Eric Francis / Getty Images
3701 S 10th St, Omaha, NE 68107, USA
Phone +1 402-733-8400

You may be surprised to hear that what's been named as one of the world's best zoos is located in Omaha, Nebraska. The Henry Doorly Zoo is the biggest paid attraction in the state and a world leader in animal conservation and education. The Omaha zoo boasts several superlatives, such as the world's largest indoor desert, the biggest aquarium located inside of a zoo, the largest indoor rainforest in North America, and a pitch-black cave that's the world's largest nocturnal exhibit, among others.

Educational events take place throughout the day, whether it's the chance to hand feed a giraffe or a weeklong camp geared toward teaching kids about wildlife protection.

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San Diego Zoo

Animals at the San Diego Zoo

TripSavvy / Kathleen Messmer

2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
Phone +1 619-231-1515

Considered by many to be the gold standard of zoos, the San Diego Zoo pioneered the concept of open-air, cageless exhibits that re-create natural animal habitats, with different species living side by side with native vegetation. Instead of an area focusing on a specific animal, it's built around a type of environment and includes a variety of species you would find there. For example, the Northern Frontier zone recreates the tundra and includes caribou, snow leopards, and polar bears. The Elephant Odyssey area is like stepping into the Serengeti with lions, gazelle, and, of course, elephants.

The San Diego Zoo is conveniently located inside Balboa Park, so it's easy to visit on your next trip to San Diego. You can get more out of your visit through one of the many activities offered by the zoo, like a guided bus tour around the entire complex for a comprehensive overview, watching an educational movie in the 4D theater, or riding the Skyfari gondola to get a bird's eye view of the park.

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San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Virginia Hill / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd, Escondido, CA 92027, USA
Phone +1 619-231-1515

Animal lovers in San Diego can actually visit two of the country's best zoos. Known as the San Diego Wild Animal Park until 2010, the 1,800-acre San Diego Zoo Safari Park houses a large array of wild and endangered animals from every continent except Antarctica. The Safari Park is operated by the San Diego Zoo and located near the town of Escondido, about 32 miles away from the Balboa Park zoo.

The massive Africa Enclosure is the highlight of the park and the closest you can get to going on a safari without actually visiting Africa. The expansive area looks like the African savannah and animals that naturally coexist can all be found mingling together (without their predators, of course, which have their own enclosure).

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St. Louis Zoo

tiger at St. Louis zoo
St. Louis Zoo
1 Government Dr, St. Louis, MO 63110, USA
Phone +1 314-781-0900

What began as a single exhibition during the 1904 World's Fair has grown to be the St. Louis Zoo with over 700 different animal species. Not only is it consistently rated as one of the nation's best zoos for its creative habitats and interactive exhibits, but it's also completely free to visit. A few special exhibits charge a small admission fee, such as the Zooline Railroad or the stingray touch pool, but the majority of exhibits can be enjoyed without paying a dime.

If you or your kids have ever felt the inkling to be a zookeeper, the St. Louis animal tours are a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at the everyday responsibilities of the caretakers. These intimate encounters with the animals include playing with penguins, holding pythons, and even meeting the big cats, all while learning about the tireless work that goes on to keep them healthy and happy.

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Cape May County Park & Zoo

cubs at Cape May County Park & Zoo
Cape May County Park & Zoo
707 US-9 North, Cape May Court House, NJ 08210, USA
Phone +1 609-465-5271

Located on Cape May near the southern tip of the Jersey Shore is the Cape May County Park and Zoo. It isn't the biggest zoo on the list, but there's plenty to see with over 250 species of animals spread out over 85 acres of park. Plus, general admission is free for visitors of all ages. You'll find lions, tigers, giraffes, monkeys, cheetahs, zebras, and many other species, as well as scavenger hunts and arts-and-crafts workshops for kids.

If you want to treat your family to something extra special, you can reserve a private tour of the park with one of the zookeepers before the gates open to the general public. This 80-minute exclusive tour offers a look at the animals that you can't get during a typical visit and the whole group will learn all about the resident species.

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Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs

Wally Gobetz / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

4250 Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Rd, Colorado Springs, CO 80906, USA
Phone +1 719-633-9925

America's only mountainside zoo is located at 6,800 feet above sea level on Cheyenne Mountain just outside of Colorado Springs. It spans 140 acres and boasts a collection of more than 750 animals, representing nearly 150 different species. Visitors can hand-feed animals from the tiniest parakeets to towering giraffes or walk through a petting zoo with free-range wallabies. Even if you aren't into snakes, don't miss the reptile house, which is like a modern art museum with the animals slithering around the sculptures.

Included with your zoo admission is entrance to the nearby Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, a stone tower built in 1934 by the man who founded the zoo. Don't forget to save time for this detour after your zoo visit, which offers one of the best panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and Colorado Springs.

07 of 14

Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Orangutan with infant surrounded by people
Ian Wade Photography / Getty Images
3411 Sherman Blvd, Fort Wayne, IN 46808-1522, USA
Phone +1 260-427-6800

Open since 1965, the 40-acre Fort Wayne Children's Zoo in northern Indiana is home to more than one thousand animals. Located inside Franke Park, you'll find animals from different parts of the world organized into four general biomes: African Journey, Australian Adventure, Indonesian Rainforest, and the Central Zoo, which is home to a variety of animals from the Americas. The critically endangered Sumatran orangutans became star residents when a female gave birth to a healthy baby in 2014, and the mom and daughter pair are still two of the most popular animals at the zoo.

Many of the activities at this children's zoo are geared toward younger visitors, such as pony rides, a petting zoo with goats and pigs, and the miniature train that zips around the park. Kids can also purchase tokens to feed giraffes and stingrays.

08 of 14

Memphis Zoo

Panda Resting On Rocks In Zoo
Katherine Reed / EyeEm / Getty Images
2000 Prentiss Pl, Memphis, TN 38112, USA
Phone +1 901-333-6500

For more than a century, the 76-acre Memphis Zoo has graced Overton Park in downtown Memphis. The zoo is home to more than 3,500 animals representing over 500 different species and it's one of only three zoos in the U.S. with giant pandas. The two bears, named Le Le and Ya Ya, are part of a joint breeding program with researchers in China to hopefully bring panda cubs into the world.

Other highlights include the area called Teton Trek, named for the Wyoming mountain range and designed to look like a little Yellowstone—geyser included—with elk, timber wolves, and grizzly bears. In the Zambezi River Hippo Camp, you'll find not just hippos but other jungle river dwellers like flamingos, okapi, and Nile crocodiles. You can also find pretty much every big cat in existence right in Memphis, from African lions to snow leopards and Bengal tigers to ocelots.

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09 of 14

The Bronx Zoo

Gorillas Spotted in Bronx, New York
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
2300 Southern Blvd, Bronx, NY 10460, USA
Phone +1 718-367-1010

You probably wouldn't expect to find one of the nation's largest zoos by area inside the most crowded city, but that's just one of the Bronx Zoo's many surprises. Nestled in New York City's northernmost borough, the Bronx Zoo has a long history dedicated to animal conservation. One of the original missions of the zoo when it was founded at the turn of the 20th century was to help save the American bison, which had been driven almost to the point of extinction (the zoo's plan was successful). Over a century later, the Bronx Zoo was instrumental in reintroducing critically endangered Chinese alligators into the Yangtze River.

Your general admission into the zoo includes access to the vast majority of exhibits, but a few worthwhile attractions cost an additional fee, such as JungleWorld. Here you'll see screaming langur monkeys, the long-nosed gharial crocodile, and many other jungle mammals. Right next door is the Gorilla Forest, home to one of the most successful breeding programs for lowland gorillas in North America.

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Zoo Miami

Tiger poses at the Zoo Miami, Florida
Buyenlarge / Getty Images
12400 SW 152nd St, Miami, FL 33177, USA
Phone +1 305-251-0400

South Florida's tropical climate means that animals meant to live in the rainforest or humid jungle feel right at home at Zoo Miami. The zoo is located about 30 minutes south of Downtown Miami by car and the property is massive, big enough that you can check out a bicycle at the entrance to ride around and cover more ground (an air-conditioned monorail is also available for those muggy summer days).

Zoo Miami plays to the advantages of its natural climate and the zoo is split into tropical regions that cover faraway lands like Asia, Africa, the Amazon, and Australia, as well as the much closer-to-home Florida Everglades. You can find all kinds of rare and endangered animals from white Bengal tigers to Amazon crocodiles, but one of the highlights is the Wings of Asia Aviary, the largest open-air aviary in the Western Hemisphere. It houses over 300 rare and exotic birds, highlighting the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs of long-ago and birds today.

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Denver Zoo

City Park Pavilion at Denver Zoo
traveler1116 / Getty Images
2300 Steele St, Denver, CO 80205, USA
Phone +1 720-337-1400

What started with an orphaned black bear cub in 1896 has turned into the most popular paid attraction in all of Denver. The San Diego Zoo may be the most famous example of animal-friendly exhibits, but the Denver Zoo was actually the first one to swap out cages for open-air enclosures that resembled the animals' natural habitat. In addition to its innovative animal conservation programs around the world, the Denver Zoo was also named the "Greenest Zoo" in the U.S. for its sustainability efforts.

Apart from the animal exhibits, a unique attraction at the Denver Zoo is the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Animal Hospital, which is open to visitors. Viewing windows let guests get a glimpse at the life-saving work that typically goes on goes on behind the scenes, and zoo employees are on hand to educate guests about animal wellbeing and treatments.

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Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden

Two okapis in Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma State, USA
Imran Azhar / Getty Images
2000 Remington Pl, Oklahoma City, OK 73111, USA
Phone +1 405-424-3344

In the aptly named Adventure District of northeast Oklahoma City, the OKC Zoo is especially popular with families for the variety of animal encounters that are available. They each come with an extra cost, but you can't put a price on hand-feeding a Galapagos tortoise, nuzzling with a pink flamingo, or giving lunch to a rhinoceros. If you're more interested in marine life, there are also hands-on experiences available with sea lions and stingrays.

Many people head to the zoo to see exotic animals from far-off lands, which you can easily find at the OKC Zoo, but Oklahoma City also dedicates an entire area to wildlife that's a bit closer to home. The section called Oklahoma Trails features over 100 different species native to Oklahoma and the Great Plains, such as grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, bison, and American alligators. The landscape is even designed to mimic the grassy prairies and mesa features that the state is known for.

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Smithsonian's National Zoo

Panda Cub Bao Bao Makes Her Debut At Washington's National Zoo
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA
Phone +1 202-633-4888

The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is a part of the Smithsonian Institution and, like all Smithsonian museums, is free for all visitors. It's located in Rock Creek Park in the northern part of the city and is just 20 minutes from the National Mall via the metro. The most famous residents are without a doubt the pair of giant pandas, who have successfully given birth to four surviving cubs during their time at the National Zoo. In the surrounding Asia Trail area, visitors can also see red pandas, sloth bears, clouded leopards, and Asian elephants.

The National Zoo also houses the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, one of the foremost research institutions for animal conservation in the world. For decades, the institute has assisted with breeding programs for endangered species, reintroduced animals back into their natural habitats, and studied diseases that afflict animals in captivity and in the wild.

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Audubon Zoo

Orangutan at Audubon Zoo in New Orleans
geikogirl / Getty Images
6500 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70118-4848, USA
Phone +1 504-861-2537

The Audubon Zoo is located on the banks of the Mississippi River in New Orleans and named for John James Audubon, the naturalist who settled down in the city. It's divided into regions of the world with areas dedicated to the South American Pampas, the African Savannah, Asia, and the Louisiana Swamp. The Cool Zoo area doesn't have any live animals, but it is a water park within the zoo and makes for a great place to cool off on those sweltering summer days.

The Aquarium of the Americas isn't on the zoo's property but it is managed by the same organization. It's located just downriver and a riverboat shuttles passengers between the two facilities for easy transport. The exhibits focus on aquatic life of the Americas and—just like the zoo—are organized by geography. Visit the tropical waters of the Caribbean and then discover the mysteries that inhabit the Amazon River. Although the real celebrities are the Louisana-native white alligators.

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The Best Zoos in the US