Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Los Angeles Zoo
Los Angeles Zoo. Barry Winiker/Getty Images

Visiting the LA Zoo at Griffith Park is one of the Top Things to Do in LA with Kids. It is not as well known as the San Diego Zoo to the south, although it occupies a little bit bigger footprint at 133 acres. It only has about a third the number of animals, giving both the animals and the people more space. It can seem rather sparse on a hot or rainy day when the animals are all taking shelter.

I'm not a huge fan of keeping animals confined, and I find it especially hard to look at the monkeys behind bars, but I realize that for most Angelenos and visitors, it will be their only opportunity to see these animals in person.

Many of the 1100+ individual animals at the LA Zoo are endangered species, and the Zoo's successful breeding programs have helped to increase their numbers, including helping to bring the California Condor back from the brink of extinction. Breeding partnerships with other zoos help keep up the genetic diversity of animals born in the zoo.

How Long Does It Take to Visit the LA Zoo

If your kids don't want to hang out for a half hour in front of each exhibit, play on the playground and see all the shows, you can see pretty much everything in two or three hours. If your kids will want to sit in front of the chimpanzees and watch them like a TV show and participate in all the interactive activities, you could spend the full 7 open hours from 10 to 5 with lunch and playground breaks.

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Highlights of the LA Zoo

  • Elephants of Asia, which opened in 2010, is the largest exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. Three Asian elephants, a bull, and two cows have access to six acres of habitat incorporating plants from China, Thailand, Cambodia, and India as well as a bathing pool and waterfall. The interpretive areas incorporate sculptures and buildings that reflect these cultures and tell the story of the role of elephants in these countries. There's also a sculptural comparison of Asian and African elephants in Elephant Plaza. More on the Elephants of Asia exhibit.
  • Campo Gorilla Reserve is a West African jungle habitat that is home to seven gorillas. There's an area where the gorillas can come right up to a thick plexiglass wall and hang out with you and another open area where you can observe them unobstructed in a hilly area.​
  • Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains features a troop of 17 African chimps including four generations born at the zoo. It's one of the largest troops in any American zoo, housed in two habitat areas which divide the family units from the bachelor chimps. In the lower habitat, chimps can come and hang out right next to a glass wall, giving you a nice close-up view.​
  • LAIR - Living Amphibians, Invertebrates and Reptiles is an indoor exhibit featuring some of the rarest species, many that can not be found at any other zoo in the world. Outside the building, Oak Woodland Pond is designed to draw local species from Griffith Park to make their homes there. Inside 60 species from snakes and iguanas to poison dart frogs are hosted in 49 exhibit environments from desert to swamp.​
  • More Favorites: Other popular individuals and groups scattered throughout the zoo are the Indian rhino, zebras, giraffes, meerkats, koalas, wallabies, snow leopards, Nubian ibex, the golden lion tamarin, the regal Tajik Markhor, the rare Mountain Tapir and Reggie the Alligator who greets you near the front gate, just to name a few. But there's no hippopotamus unless you count the one on the carousel.

Botanical Gardens

Not every plant at the Los Angeles Zoo is considered part of the Botanical Gardens. Only the 800 or so labeled species are officially part of the database. There are several native California gardens, but many of the plants in the collection are part of the native habitats for the different world regions represented and provide food and shade for the animals. Other rare plants have been transferred to the zoo permanently or temporarily from US Customs, who confiscated them from travelers illegally bringing them into the country.

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LA Zoo Activities

Winnick Family Zoo is a section of the zoo which includes

  • Muriel's Ranch Animal Contact is a petting zoo with sheep and goats, including tiny miniature goats.
  • Animals and You - 15-minute animal encounters scheduled 2 or 3 times a day
  • Additional animal and bird exhibits

Elephant Training Demonstrations are offered daily at 11 am at the Wasserman Family Thai Pavilion at the Elephants of Asia habitat.​

Neil Papiano Play Park is an animal-themed playground for kids to climb on all the way at the back of the zoo. There's also a picnic area.

The Tom Mankiewicz Conservation Carrousel near the Treetop Terrace Cafe is not your traditional horse carousel. A wide variety of real and mythical creatures from a sea lion and a praying mantis to a unicorn are at your merry disposal for a small fee.

The California Condor Rescue Zone is a supervised activity area for kids 6 and up that's only open Friday through Sunday and on holidays. It's located in the Children's Discover Center to the right of the entrance as you're entering from the parking lot.

The Indian Rhino VIP Tour is offered weekends and holidays for an additional fee for guests 4-years-old and older.​

Cell Phone Audio Tour - call (866) 933-4005 for English or call (866) 933-4006 for Spanish from your cell phone when you're at the zoo to follow the audio tour. You can also download the audio to your iPod or MP3 player here before you go.​

Guided Tours are available by reservation.

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Dining at the LA Zoo

The Los Angeles Zoo has a variety of eating options, from nice sit-down restaurants to snack carts.

Zoo Grill, at the entry to the Winnick Family Children’s Zoo, serves hot carved sandwiches, chicken tenders, healthy kid’s meals, specialty salads, ice cream and cold drinks. This is the only spot with indoor searing if you need to get out of the summer heat or winter chill, as well as an outdoor patio.

Reggie’s Bistro is LA Zoo’s gourmet quick service restaurant serving unique salads, burgers and sandwiches in a trendy setting with ample outdoor seating next to the gift shops and the American alligator, Reggie.

Café Pico is a counter snack bar with Mexican food favorites, including beef, chicken, or carnitas sopes, burritos, and tacos, Mexican beers, aguas frescas, and ice cold soda. Outdoor seating on a tree-shaded patio.

The Gorilla Grill, across from the gorilla exhibit, serves Philly sandwiches, Jodi Maroni sausage, onion rings, kid’s meals, french fries and hot dogs.​

Mahale Café, near the chimpanzee and giraffe exhibits, features hand-tossed pizza, draft beer, grilled chicken and burger baskets, kids meals, hot dogs, salads and deli sandwiches.​

Sweet Treats has two locations, one next to Zoo Grill and the other near the Mahale Café. They serve ice cream, Icees, cotton candy, popcorn, and sodas.​

Churro Factory serves hot churros filled with caramel, Bavarian cream, strawberry or plain, as well as the churro sundae with chocolate sauce and whipping cream. They also serve pretzels, popcorn, and soft drinks.​

La Casita is at the crossroads near the tram station and features fresh-popped popcorn, cotton candy, cookies and soft drinks.

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Photo Tips for the LA Zoo

Taking photos of the animals at the Los Angeles Zoo can be a challenge, since the Zoo is only open during the harshest lighting hours of the day, and many of the animals like to hide from the mid-day sun. Here are a few tips to improve your chances of getting good photos.
Cloudy days can make nice portrait lighting for close-ups of the animals, but it can also be very drab if the background doesn't have enough contrast to the animal. Try to get some greenery or flowers behind your subject, or a background that is a couple stops lighter or darker than the animal to make them stand out.
Zoom in close to crop out distracting backgrounds for animal portraits.
Use fill flash. Especially in contrasting sunshine, using fill flash to open up the shadows and add a little eye light can save a challenging photo situation.
Include people in the shot to give a sense of scale.
Try different views. There are a variety of different vantage points to view many of the exhibits, so don't stop with one. Move around to change your view and the context of the photo.
Try different lenses. A long zoom is great for getting close up portraits and blurring backgrounds. A wide angle lets you stand next to the giraffe exhibit and get the whole giraffe, as well as being right up close with your friends and family and including them in the shot.
After three PM the light starts getting a little less harsh but it can also be extra hot in summer, so the animals may still seek shade. When there's no special event, they start putting the animals inside at 4 pm.
Bring your patience. Getting a precious moment with the animals or people may happen in your first frame, but more likely, you'll have to wait a while before the animals (and people) provide a decisive moment.
Photo Day - If you want to get great zoo photos (not to be used commercially without zoo permission), keep an eye out for the annual photo night in October, or special events that run into the early evening.

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Annual Events at the LA Zoo

Sex and the City Zoo - a romantic lesson in animal mating near Valentines Day in February

Big Bunny's Spring Fling celebration of spring in March or April

Earth Day Expo in April

Beastly Ball fundraiser in June

Roaring Nights - select Friday nights June through August

Brew at the Zoo - adult evening event in August

Boo at the Zoo takes place for the whole month of October. 

Annual Photo Day at the Zoo in November

Reindeer Romp - End of November through New Year's

LA Zoo Lights is a Christmas Holiday light exhibit throughout the Zoo.

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Discounts for the LA Zoo

A Combo Ticket with the LA Zoo and Aquarium of the Pacific saves about $8 if you're planning to go to both.

The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is included in the Go Los Angeles Card discount card.

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Reggie the Alligator

Reggie is an American Alligator just to the right near the entrance of the Los Angeles Zoo. Reggie was rescued from Lake Machado on the Palos Verde Peninsula in LA, where he had been abandoned and lived for almost two years before being captured by city staff. Zoo staff estimate that he's between 12 and 20 years old. He's 7 feet 6 inches long and weighs 118 pounds.

The natural habitat of American Alligators is in fresh water rivers, lakes, streams, canals, and swamps in the Southeast United States.

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Flamingo at the LA Zoo

This American Flamingo keeps company with its paler pink cousins, the Chilean Flamingo and the Greater Flamingo at the Los Angeles Zoo.

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Grevy's Zebra at the LA Zoo

The Grevy's Zebra, like those at the LA Zoo, was named for a former president of France, Jules Grevy, who received the first known specimen in 1882. It is the largest of the three Zebra species.

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Meerkat at the LA Zoo

This meerkat is one of a colony of African meerkats that has been part of the Los Angeles Zoo since 1988.

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Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains at the LA Zoo

Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains at the LA Zoo includes several ways to view the chimps, both unobstructed, like this, and through glass.

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Hominids Behind Glass at the LA Zoo

Who is really behind the glass in the Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains exhibit at the LA Zoo, the chimps, or the people?