The Smithsonian National Zoo is a zoological park located in Rock Creek Park in northwest Washington, DC. Admission is free and it’s open year-round except December 25. As part of the Smithsonian Institute, the National Zoo is also committed to conservation by conducting research, outreach and training both domestically and internationally in order to protect endangered species.
Here’s my video slideshow compilation of our visits:
As part of the Smithsonian system, general admission into the zoo is free and there are no tickets. During peak hours, you may have to go through a security check to enter the zoo. Otherwise, you can simply walk into any of the three entrances – the main one on Connecticut Avenue NW or two additional ones on Harvard Street Bridge or the foot path on Beach Drive. For certain shows and events, you must purchase tickets. Stop by the Visitor Center located near the main entrance for show times, tickets and information.
There are plenty of dining options inside and outside the park. There are several food stands, food carts, food trucks, and cafes in the park. Like any zoo, however, the food is expensive and the lines can be long. Also, the food vendors shut down earlier than the zoo itself. Be sure to plan accordingly.
If you prefer eating outside the zoo, you’ll find many restaurants and shops along Connecticut Avenue NW outside the main zoo entrance and near the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park metro stations. There’s a wide variety of cuisine types and price ranges, and there are some outdoor cafes, too.
Another option is to bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages into the park. There is seating available throughout the zoo.
As part of Rock Creek Park, the zoo sits on a hilly, wooded terrain. The main entrance on Connecticut Avenue NW is at the top of the hill and the Beach Drive entrance by the Kids’ Farm is at the bottom. Olmsted Walk is the main footpath that runs from top to bottom. On the map, the top of the zoo is called the “Upper Zoo.” Around the middle of the park near the Small Mammal House, the path splits off and forms a loop. The right side is called “Lower Zoo” and the left side is called the “Valley.” So if you want to see the whole zoo, at some point you will be walking back uphill to complete the loop.
If you welcome the exercise, consider it a good calf workout (and I recommend stretching your calf muscles before you start walking uphill). However, if you have physical challenges or are pushing a stroller or wheelchair, factor the terrain into your plans. Since there are three entrances – one at the top and two at the bottom, you have your choice on which end of the hill to enter.
With the terrain in mind, be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes that are appropriate for walking hills. Open-toed flip flops are not the best choice. You can easily spend five or more hours here if you want to see all of the attractions, and you’ll want the right shoes to handle the task.
If necessary, you can also hop on the shuttle which stops at the top and bottom of the zoo. See the map for shuttle stop locations.
The zoo has several indoor and outdoor attractions, and some are a combination of both. Here are some of the highlights.
Cheetah Conservation Station – some of the animals in this exhibit are critically endangered, such as the Ruppell’s griffon vulture or Dama gazelle
Or the extinct in the wild Scimitar-horned oryx
Here’s a zookeeper talking about using a 3D printer to make a prosthetic beak for the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Karl at the Cheetah Conservation Station.
Asia Trail – you’ll find some exotic animals here, such as the red panda, clouded leopard, sloth bear and fishing cat. However the most popular section is the Giant Panda Habitat. There are currently three on display – two born in China and one born via artificial insemination at the zoo. The pandas move between their indoor and outdoor enclosures throughout the day. When they’re not eating bamboo, it’s fun to watch them play just like little children. If you can’t visit them in person, you can enjoy them on the zoo’s Panda Cam here. Learn more about the National Zoo’s efforts to protect this creature here.
American Bison – this animal has a special relation in the zoo’s history, which you can read below.
Elephant Trails – visit this multi-generational herd in both their indoor and outdoor facilities.
Bird House – this exhibit is closed for renovation. It is expected to be reopened as the Experience Migration exhibit in 2021.
Small Mammal House – this house contains some adorable animals, such as the golden lion tamarin, red ruffled lemur, sand cat, pale-headed saki monkey, Fennec fox, Geoffroy’s marmoset, and meerkats. Some of these animals are endangered and the National Zoo has been helping restore their populations, such as the golden lion tamarin.
Reptile Discovery Center – this section may give you the creepy crawlies, but the animals here are fascinating nonetheless. See a variety of snakes, lizards, turtles and frogs, as well as a few crocodilians, most notably the critically endangered Philippine crocodile and Cuban crocodile.
Great Ape House & Think Tank – orangutans, gorillas and monkeys can be viewed at the Great Ape House or Think Tank. Look overhead to see if you can catch an orangutan on the O-Line.
Great Cats – view these magnificent lions and tigers in their outdoor exhibit. If you’re lucky, you may hear a lion roar! Nearby are the showy peafowl and precocious prairie dogs.
American Trail – here you’ll see the more commonly found animals in America. This wooded, shady path offers a pleasant break from the summer heat. See the stern bald eagles, hear the noisy ravens, watch the otters and beavers frolic in the water, and the ducks gently glide in their pond.
Amazonia – this indoor exhibit showcases the wonders of the Amazon Basin. In the tanks, you’ll see stingrays, pacu, arapaima, catfish, piranha and more. Birds, such as ducks, the green aracari and roseate spoonbill fly in the open, two-level space through rainforest trees. There’s also a science center on the upper level where plenty of frogs are on display.
Kids’ Farm – this area designed especially for kids contains alpaca, donkeys, chickens, cows, goats, hogs and a fish pond.
Along with the main attractions, you’ll find tours and daily programs. Especially for kids are the playground and carousel, and seasonally operated tide pool and trackless train.
The zoo hosts many educational and entertainment activities. Camps, classes, field trips, sleepovers are offered for kids and adults. Check the education section for details.
You can also host an event or a children’s birthday party. Check here for restrictions and reservations.
Events are held regularly, including the popular annual ZooFari, Boo at the Zoo, and ZooLights events. Check here for the schedule.
The Smithsonian National Zoo has a second campus called the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). Located in Front Royal, VA, the SCBI enjoys 3,200 acres of land where the animals have more room to roam. The SCBI plays an important role in conservation research, where scientists study breeding habits and fertility cycles of endangered species in an effort to breed them in captivity and restore their populations. Some are then returned to their native habitats. They work cooperatively with scientists globally, sharing information about discoveries and their native habitats. Read the stories here of the SCBI’s efforts.
Another function is of the institute is to offer training to the next generation of conservationists, both domestic and globally. They have a joint program with George Mason University in Northern Virginia called the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation. Learn more about it here.
The SCBI is only open to the public one weekend a year in October on Conservation Discovery Day. Check the website here for the schedule and list of activities.
The National Zoo was born out of a quest for conservationism. When Smithosonian taxidermist William Hornaday went West and found that the American bison population, which had once numbered in the millions, had been decimated, he brought a few of them to the National Mall for protection. The bison, along with several other species, lived outside the Smithsonian Castle and formed the foundation of what became the National Zoo.
In 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill creating the National Zoological Park, and its official home at Rock Creek Park opened in 1891, where it remains today.
Another President played a role in zoo history – Calvin Coolidge. He and wife, First Lady Grace Coolidge were famous for keeping a menagerie at the White House. Once the public found out, people often sent them gifts of exotic animals, which he donated to the National Zoo. Among them was a hippo named Billy, and their famous pet Rebecca the Raccoon. Read more about it here and here.
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