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The 21 Best Zoos in California (& Aquariums, too!)

The 21 Best Zoos in California (& Aquariums, too!)

Calfornia is a large state, and with it comes some of the best captive wildlife experiences in the country. The best zoos in California include world-famous institutions like the San Diego Zoo as well as small zoos that provide opportunities to learn about local wildife which act as ambassadors for conservation.

Of course, being a coastal state, California also has some pretty fantastic aquariums as well. The Monterey Bay Aquarium ranks among the best in the country with plenty of wildlife to enjoy both inside the aquarium as well as in the bay it sits on.

These zoos in California focus on education, rehabilitation, and even captive breeding of endangered species. They allow visitors the opportunities to have up-close experiences with animals that might otherwise never see, thus gaining an appreciation for the importance of conservation.

The 21 Best Aquariums and Zoos in California

1. San Diego Safari Park

The Cheetah Run experience at the San Diego Safari Park is one of the many things that make it one od the best zoos in California
Cheetah Run Experience, photo via Flickr/MA1216

15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd, Escondido

The San Diego Safari Park is near and dear to my heart. My family has held membership to both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park for many years and we feel grateful to live within driving distance of such a remarkable (and different) zoological institution.

The San Diego Safari Park houses 300 different species and more than 3,600 animals call this massive 1800-acre wildlife park home.

It is known for its Africa Tram Safari Tour which heads out onto the park’s huge savannah for a 25-minute tour where they will see animals like giraffes, rhinos, various antelope, and zebras living life with each other just as they would on the African savannah.

There are also large, world-class exhibits with gorillas, tigers, cheetahs, lions, elephants, California condors, and several other species. There is even an exhibit where you can walk among kangaroos and wallabies.

But that’s not all! There are several other premium “safaris” that you can pay extra to experience. Cart safaris which allow small groups to go inside the savannah enclosure and get up close with animals like giraffes and rhinos; some even include wine or mimosas!

There are also special experiences like the Sun-up Cheetah Safari where you get and up close view of a cheetah running at full speed, behind-the-scenes tours covering various animals, zip lining, and a tethered balloon ride which gives you an amazing view of the Safari Park from above.

Admission Info: There are various admission options, some of which include admission to the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld as well at a discount. Discounts are given for advanced online ticket purchases as well.

2. San Diego Zoo

Animals in Action Experience at the San Diego Zoo in California
Animals in Action Experience at the San Diego Zoo

2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego

The San Diego Zoo is easily one of the most famous zoos in the country. It also happens to be one of the best. This 100-acre zoo and botanical garden is a pleasure to visit any time of year, thanks to San Diego’s marvelously mild climate.

In all, there are 12,000 rare and endangered animals, representing more than 650 species and subspecies that live at the San Diego Zoo. Equally impressive is the collection of 3,100 species of plants that live on the grounds as well. The remarkable landscaping of this zoo really adds to the experience.

Highlights of the San Diego Zoo include impressive exhibits housing polar bears, several species of endangered cats, dozens of primates, intimidating komodo dragons, adorable koalas, and species rarely seen in most zoos like the fossa and tasmanian devil. You will certainly need a full day to see them all.

Since the zoo is so large and hilly, they offer a guided double-decker bus tour which is a nice way to get an overview of the zoo and see some of the highlights. The Skyfari aerial tram is a great way to experience the beauty of the zoo and Balboa Park from above.

If you are looking for a special experience, a highly recommend booking the Animals and Action experience. This is a small group tour which will allow you to meet some animals up close. On our tour we were able to pet a zebra, feed flamingos and a rhino, and see animals like cheetahs and binturongs leashed and standing just feet away from you!

Admission Info: There are various admission options which include admission to the San Diego Safari Park and SeaWorld as well at a discount. Discounts are given for advanced online ticket purchases as well.

3. Safari West

Safari West is one of the best zoos in California
Photo via Safari West

3115 Porter Creek Rd, Santa Rosa

Did you know you can experience an African safari nestled among the vineyards of Sonoma County? Safari West is about 20 minutes from the heart of Santa Rosa, but it might as well be a world away. We think Safari West is a great alternative for those who can’t afford a true African safari, or just want to enjoy a unique wildlife experience closer to home.

This special destination is a place where you can board a jeep and go on a safari to see animals like giraffes, ostriches, cape buffalo, zebras, and southern white rhinos roaming on the wildlife preserve’s 400 acres. There is also a walking portion of the tour where you can see the park’s predators like hyenas and cheetahs, as well as smaller critters such as fennec foxes, porcupines, lemurs, and flamingos.

While you can visit Safari West as part of a day tour, the best way to enjoy this incredible place is by staying overnight in one of their 30 luxury safari tents or cottages. Imagine listening to the sounds of wildlife in the evenings (ear plugs are provided if they get too noisy) and then waking up in the morning to enjoy complimentary breakfast in the Savannah Cafe.

Admission Info: Reservations are required to visit Safari West. Pricing varies depending on the day of week and season.

See which zoos made Trekaroo’s list of the best zoos in the United States

4. Monterey Bay Aquarium

Photo via Monterey Bay Aquarium

886 Cannery Row, Monterey

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the best aquarium in California and certainly among the best aquariums in the country. It is located on Monterey Bay in the city’s famed Cannery Row district.

This massive aquarium educates and inspires visitors to help them gain a deeper understanding of our planet’s amazing oceans. You will need a full day to explore everything this aquarium has to offer.

Be sure to check the schedule for feeding times, movie showings, and special presentations in the auditorium before you arrive so that you won’t miss any of the day’s highlights. Feeding times can get quite crowded so if you want a good view, arrive early.

One of the highlights is the new Into the Deep exhibit which showcases the largest collection of deep-sea animals in North America like giant isopods and transparent jellies that glow. Other favorites include the kelp forest, Monterey Bay habitat, touch pools, penguins, giant Pacific octopus, and the sea otters.

Speaking of sea otters, be sure to take time outside to use the Aquarium’s viewing scopes to spot sea lions, whales, and sea otters out on the Moterey Bay. Monterey Bay is one of our favorite places to spot sea otters in California.

The on-site café offers healthy meal options and sustainable seafood, but it can get crowded. Another option is to get your hand stamped and grab clam chowder at one of the restaurants in Cannery Row.

Admission Info: Tickets are no longer available at the main entrance and must be purchased online.

5. Aquarium of the Pacific

Moon Jellies at the Aquarium of the Pacific
Touching Moon Jellies, photo via Aquarium of the Pacific

100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach

The best and largest aquarium in Southern California is the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. This aquarium features around 12,000 animals in over 100 exhibits which showcase the diversity of the Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean on the planet.

There are Tropical Pacific, Northern Pacific, and Southern California/Baja Galleries filled with aquariums of sea-going creatures, as well shark and ray touch lagoon, penguins, sea otters, seals, sea lions, frogs, and lots of different sea jellies, including moon jellies that you can touch and feed.

When the weather is warm, kids love playing at the giant water-squirting squid playground sculpture. Children also enjoy touch pools filled with sea stars, anemones, and urchins.

Since it located right on the water, the Aquarium of the Pacific also hosts whale watching tours. You will need to book a reservation ahead of time. You can book your whale watching trip here.

Admission Info: Tickets for the aquarium must be purchased in advance online as reservations are required.

6. Santa Barbara Zoo

Feeding Giraffes, photo by Marc Levin

500 Ninos Dr, Santa Barbara

I have a special place in my heart for the Santa Barbara Zoo. It is just so beautiful and charming, and the giraffes have a million-dollar ocean view that I can’t help but be jealous of.

While it does not house as many animal species as the larger zoos in Los Angeles and San Diego, the Santa Barbara Zoo has some unique features that make it quite special.

A small train circles the entire zoo, giving riders a backstage peek at the zookeepers caring for the animals. They can also visit the Ridley-Tree Animal Kitchen and watch keepers prepare food for the animals via a large viewing window.

Make time to feed the giraffes and visit the Australian Walkabout where you can see kangaroos, wallabies, and emus up close.

They offer several special behind-the-scenes animal encounter experiences such as the Humbolt Penguin Fish Toss and lion or amur leopard training wall demonstrations.

After a couple hours at the zoo, walk down the hill to East Beach. This sandy beach stretches for 1.5 miles and has sand volleyball courts as well as a fun playground for the kids.

Admission Info: Tickets to visit the Santa Barbara Zoo must be reserved in advance online. Both time and date must be selected.

7. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

Camel rides at The Living Desert
Camel Rides at The Living Desert

47900 Portola Ave, Palm Desert

If your travels take you to the Coachella Valley, definitely make time to visit The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert. This world-class zoo and botanical garden is filled with exhibits featurings the plants and animals that call the deserts all over the world home.

Endangered cats like the cheetah, amur leopard, caracal, jaguar, and mountain lion call this zoo home. So do hyenas, Mexican wolves, meerkat, giraffes, and a wide variety of reptiles, among mant others.

If you have always wanted to feed a rhino, The Living Desert is a great place to do it. The Rhino Care Team will introduce you to a black rhino in a semi-private encounter. There are also giraffe feedings and seasonal camel rides (which take place in the cool season).

Additionally, The Living Desert is home to an extensive model train display, train rides, and a carousel. A tram runs around this sprawling zoo and has many stops, ideal for hot summer days or people with mobility issues.

Admission Info: Tickets for The Living Desert should be purchase in advance online as reservations are required at time of purchase.

8. San Franciso Zoo

Lion at the San Francisco Zoo by dsc02816

Sloat Blvd & Upper Great Hwy, San Francisco

The San Francisco Zoo is a 100-acre zoo with a great location, just across the street from Ocean Beach on the city’s southwestern side. Highlights include the Lemur Forest, grizzly bear habitat, penguin pool, and the zoos big cats.

I have fond memories of watching the big cats (lions and tigers) get fed daily from inside the Lion House, but that experience has been temporarily closed, likely due to Covid.

Zoo Keys are another nostalgic aspect of this zoo that my in-laws remember from growing up in San Francisco and visiting the zoo regularly. For just $5 you purchase a plastic key and then turn on various boxes that have recording of stories and fun facts about animals.

Children love animals, but sometimes it is good to mix in a ride or some time on a playground. This zoo has a carousel and miniature steam train, as well as a playground and children’s zoo where kids of all ages can pet sheep and goats and watch the ever-entertaining meerkats and prairie dogs.

Admission Info: Tickets to visit the San Francisco Zoo must be reserved in advance online. Both time and date must be selected.

9. SeaWorld San Diego

Dolphin at SeaWorld San Diego in California
SeaWorld Dolphin by CokeeOrg

500 Sea World Dr., San Diego

Acrobatic dolphins, playful penguins, silly sea lions, and splashtacular rides have made SeaWorld one of San Diego’s most visited attractions. Where else can you learn about marine ecology, get kissed by a beluga whale, and enjoy thrill rides all in the same day?

SeaWorld has been the subject of some controversy in recent years, resulting in them ending the captive breeding of orcas. There are still several orcas at SeaWorld SanDiego, but once these residents grow old, they will not be replaced. Until then, you can enjoy up close views of these majestic animals.

There are several different up-close encounters that guests can pay to experience with animals such as beluga whales, dolphins, sloths, penguins, sea otters, and more. These encounters give you a chance to learn more about these creatures and get an idea of what training and care goes into keeping them onsite.

Families always enjoy touching the bat rays at Bat Ray Shallows, feeding the sea lions, watching sharks swim overhead in the massive aqaurium, and watching the engaging animal presentations featuring orcas, dolphins, sea lions, and otters.

Of course, rides have become a big draw for some visitors to SeaWorld and there are now more than a half dozen coasters as well as rides geared towards younger children.

Admission Info: You can purchase “any day” tickets but there are significant discounts available for when you select specific days online. You can also purchase bundles to visit the Sand Diego Zoo and Safari Park or include all-day dining with your admission.

10. Oakland Zoo

roaring lion at the Oakland Zoo
Roaring lion at Oakland Zoo by Petr Kosina

9777 Golf Links Rd, Oakland

The Oakland Zoo has been delighting Bay Area families with its animals for more than 100 years! It is home to an impressive African savannah area with modernized enclosures for elephants, tigers, monkeys, camels, and more.

You will definitely want to take the aerial gondola to the California Trail which is home to black bears, bison, bald eagles, and the mighty California condor. This area also has a nice play area for the kiddos.

This zoo is also home to a large exhibit focused on rainforest animals as well as a Wild Australia exhibit home to adorable wallaroos, and always-entertaining emus. Unlike most zoos in California, this one also has a few rides. There is a carousel, small roller coaster, a train, and three other rides geared towards young children.

Oakland Zoo has the largest wildlife veterinary hospital in Northern California which allows it to conduct collaborative research with other zoos and scientists as well as help in the resuce of local wildlife.

Admission Info: Tickets must be reserved in advance online. Both a specific time and date must be selected.

11. Los Angeles Zoo

Los Angeles Zoo Chimpanzee
Chimpanzee at the LA Zoo by Major Schneez

5333 Zoo Dr, Los Angeles

When I was growing up, the Los Angeles Zoo was my local zoo. I remember it fondly, including the lush atmosphere in Griffith Park and the exibits housing gorillas, elephants, and the revered and feared komodo dragon.

Much has changed at the zoo since my childhood, but its commitment to educating the LA metro urban sprawl about animal conservation continues. As a matter of fact, the LA Zoo played an important role in the successful attempts to save the California condor from extinction with a captive breeding program.

Today, more than 270 different animal species call this zoo home, including favorites like chimpanzees, jaguars, and sea lions, as well as lesser known creatures like the fossa, Coquerel’s Sifaka, and the babirusa.

Admission Info: Advance online reservations are required for entry and the last admission to the zoo is 3:45 as it closes at 5pm daily.

12. Santa Ana Zoo

Golden Tamarin at the Santa Ana Zoo
Golden Lion Tamarin at Santa Ana Zoo by Averain

1801 E Chestnut Ave, Santa Ana

The Santa Ana Zoo is small in size but perfect for families with young kids. It is home to an impressive monkey collection and is often to referred to as “the monkey zoo” by locals due to its founder’s requirement that the zoo house at least 50 monkeys at all times.

You won’t want to miss Tierra de las Pampas, a South America- focused exhibit with anteaters, guanacos, and rheas that is designed to immerse guests in a landscape typical of where these animals live in the wild.

The zoo also has a train (orignally used the old Santa’s Village near Lake Arrowhead), a large playground, carousel, Ferris wheel, and farm, all of which are popular with kids 10 and under.

Admission Info: The Santa Ana Zoo is open daily from 10-5pm. Tickets can be purchased at the gate.

13. Orange County Zoo

mountain lion at the OC Zoo
Mountain Lion photo via OC Parks

1 Irvine Park Rd, Orange

The Orange County Zoo is a small zoo inside of Irvine Regional Park, a fantastic park filled with playgrounds, trails, paddleboating, horseback riding, surrey rentals, and the ever-popular Irvine Park Railroad.

This zoo focuses on animals that live in Orange County or once lived in the Orange County. This includes bears, bobcats, mountain lions, bald eagles, porcupines, a variety of reptiles, and more. There is also a small petting zoo with goats and sheep.

Since admission to the zoo is just $2 and there are so many other things to do inside the park beyond the zoo, it is easy to make a visit to Irvine Regional Park an inexpensive, all-day outing.

Admission Info: Admission can be purchased at the gate.

14. Birch Aquarium

Sea Anemones at the Birch Aquarium
Anemones at Birch Aquarium by FotoFloridian

2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla

Birch Aquarium is an aquarium run by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. The facility houses 3,000 animals representing 380 species. The main attraction is the Hall of Fishes which has 60 different tanks showcasing sea animals of the Pacific.

Outside you will find Shark Shores, home to the La Jolla’s famed leopard sharks and Tide Pool Plaza where you can touch sea stars, sea anemones, sea cucumbers, and hermit crabs.

The newest and most exciting attraction at the Birch Aquarium is the exhibit housing Little Blues, the smallest species of penguins. They are less than a foot tall and weigh just two to three pounds! This is the only place on the West Coast to see these adorable seabirds.

Admission info: Advanced ticket reservations online are highly recommended.

15. Sacramento Zoo

red panda at Sacramento Zoo
Red Panda at Sacramento Zoo by Kari Nessler

3930 W Land Park Dr, Sacramento

The Sacramento Zoo opened nearly 100 years ago with just 40 animals. Today, more than 400 animals call this small but mighty zoo in William Land Park home.

Many of the favorites can be found here like cheetahs, lions, kangaroos, giraffes, sloths, and red pandas. They have a few different behind-the-scenes tours, including one where you get to hand feed an okapi! There is also a tour where you can help prepare meatballs for cheetahs and then watch them up close during a training session.

Tip: If you have young children be sure to make time for Fairytale Town across the street. It was always a big hit with my kids when they were toddlers.

Admission Info: If you purchase your tickets online you will save over the “at the gate” pricing.

16. Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Bear at Fresno Chaffee Zoo by 1FlatWorld

894 W Belmont Ave, Fresno

The largest zoo in the Central Valley is the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. It is small, only occupying 39 acres, but it has been providing entertainment to families in this agricultural region for generations.

Feed the stingrays at Stingray Bay, check out an underwater view of sea lions at play at Sea Lion Cove, and excavate fossils at the Dino Dig area. A favorite is the Roo Walkabout housing kangaroos, wallabies, emus, and other Australian animals in an open-air enclosure which allows the critters to hop right past you! The walkthrough portion of this exhibit is currently open Friday – Sunday during regular Zoo hours. 

There are several different close-up encounters that guests can pay for, which typically involve the opportunity to meet and feed animals like red kanagaroos, warthogs, elephants, giraffes, and a giant Gilapagos tortoise.

It can get hot in Fresno during the summer months and the Wilderness Falls water play area is a great place for the kids to cool off from the summer heat. There are restrooms to change into swimsuits right there, and tables for parents to sit at while the kids play.

Admission Info: You can purchase your tickets in advance online or at the zoo gate.

17. Monterey Zoo

Tiger at Monterey Zoo by Alcides Sorto

400 River Rd, Salinas

The newest zoo in California is the Monterey Zoo. This zoo was started by a police officer who responded to a call about a pet cougar in someone’s garage. This led to him adopting this exotic animal (and others), becoming a Hollywood animal trainer, and eventually buying Vision Quest Ranch in 1994.

After years of running private educational programs, the zoo opened in 2020 and is home to 100 different animals. There are several cat species like leopards, lions, tigers, cougers, servals, and caracals. There are also elephants, bears, primates like lemurs and baboons, reptiles, several more mammals, and a small collection of birds.

The Vision Quest Ranch Bed and Breakfast (on the same property) has been in business before the zoo was accredited. It has several African tent-style bungalows that allow you to glamp with the sounds of lions and tigers roaring only yards away.

In the morning you will enjoy a continental breakfast and get the chance to meet one of the zoo animals. You will likely also see trainers on their evening walks with zoo ambassador animals. Visits to the zoo are complimentary for B&B guests.

There are several different behind-the-scenes tours available for purchase which get you closer to the animals as well.

Admission Info: Tickets to visit the zoo can be purchased online or at the zoo’s gift shop. Special tours and stays at the Bed and Breakfast should be booked online.

18. Charles Paddock Zoo

Meerkat at the Charles Paddock Zoo
Meerkat at Charles Paddock Zoo by Loren Javier

 9100 Morro Rd, Atascadero

The Charles Paddock Zoo is very small, only five acres, but it provides are great opportunity for families on the Central Coast to enjoy wildlife. It was established by a local park ranger who was known for his ability to nurse injured wildlife back to health.

In many ways, it is like the Orange County Zoo in that it is small but also sits in a lovely park with a playground, paddle boats, bike rentals, but this zoo focuses on exotic wildlife instead of local animals.

Animals you can exepect to see at the Charles Paddock Zoo include Malayan tigers, a red panda, lemurs, monkeys, tortoises, snakes, birds, meerkats, and more.

Admission Info: The zoo is open seven days a week and admission can be purchased at the gate.

19. Happy Hollow Park and Zoo

Entrance to Happy Hollow Park & Zoo
Photo by DonJD2

748 Story Rd, San Jose

Happy Hollow Park and Zoo has been delighting Silicon Valley families since the 1960’s. It is another small zoo and park at only 16 acres in size.

The zoo has a nice assortment of lemurs, birds, capybaras, fossa, and other unusual animals. There is also a variety of barnyard animals and wallabies near the petting zoo- including miniature horses, zebu, and donkey.

In addition, there is a small amusement park, with several pint-sized rides, a couple fantastic playgrounds, and even puppet shows! There is also a fun sandbox to dig/sweep for fossils, and a ‘swamp’ the kids like to cross.

Overall, this zoo is a great option for toddlers and preschoolers since many of the additional attractions are geared towards them.

Admission Info: You can purchase tickets in advance online or at the gate.

20. Sequoia Park Zoo

Sky Walk at the Sequoia Park Zoo
Sky Walk by BTWashburn

3414 W St, Eureka

Sequoia Park Zoo holds the designation of being the oldest zoo in California. It was founded in 1907 way up in the northwest corner of California in the town of Eureka.

It is set in the redwoods so it is no surprise that they opened the Redwood Sky Walk in 2021. It is the longest skywalk in the West at a a quarter mile in length, and sits 100 feet above the forest floor. Almost all of the Sky Walk is wheelchair and stroller accessible, except for the optional 369-foot adventure leg.

Of course, the animals are an important draw as well. The Watershed Heroes exhibit focuses on animals that live in Pacific Northwest watersheds like otters, bald eagles, and salmon. The red pandas, cotton top tamarins, and barnyard animals are all popular with visitors. A new bear and coyote exhibit is expected to open soon.

Admission Info: The zoo is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission can be purchased at the gate.

21. Big Bear Alpine Zoo

Snowy Owl at Big Bear Alpine Zoo
Snowy Owl at Big Bear Alpine Zoo

42801 Moonridge Rd, Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Alpine Zoo gets the distinction of being the highest zoo on our list. Sitting at nearly 7,000 feet in elevation, this zoo is a great place to spend some time with rescued wildlife. The zoo treats and releases sick, injured, and orphaned animals from across the region, but those that are too injured to be returned to the wild are given a permanent home in the zoo.

The zoo is home to native species such as bobcats, coyotes, black bears, bald eagles, and mountain lions, as well as exotic animals like snow leopards and gray wolves.

Admission Info: Tickets can be purchased online or at the gate. During the winter hours may vary after a snow storm due to snow removal.