California is known to be a land of entertainment with its vast and diverse range of attractions that draw crowds from all around the world. The zoos here are no exception.
From San Diego to Los Angeles, the cities of the Golden State boast some of the best-known zoos in the country and the world.
California zoos are known for their immense contributions to the conservation of species on the brink of extinction and educating the public about these issues.
If you want to be teleported to a distant world full of exotic birds and animals in their naturalistic habitats, here’s a list of the 20 best zoos in every region of the Golden State.
Best Zoos in Western California
1. Charles Paddock Zoo
Kicking off our best zoo in California list is Charles Paddock Zoo. Although, it is one of the smallest zoos in the state, the Charles Paddock Zoo contains hundreds of animal species from across the world and is dedicated to their protection and conservation.
The community zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is the best zoo in California for species originating from West Africa, Madagascar, Indo-Burma, Tropical Andes, and many other regions, keeping them in friendly, natural settings that simulate their habitat.
2. Monterey Zoo
Half an hour away from Monterey Bay Aquarium is the Monterey Zoo in Salinas. It’s famous for its elephant exhibit that offers a safe meet-and-greet tour where you can feed the animals.
The zoo is home to over 100 exotic species worldwide, spread over 51 acres. They offer several customizable tours and educational exhibits that spread awareness about the importance of wildlife conservation.
3. Zoo to You
After starting as a dream to create a haven for abandoned wild animals, Zoo to You is the best zoo in California that hosts a variety of wildlife programs that allow you to enjoy views of animal life more closely.
The initiative by Paso Robles-based Conservation Ambassadors gives these unwanted animals another chance at a happy life by making them ambassadors of their species through special outreach programs.
These programs are targeted at schoolchildren, giving them closer encounters with different animals like kangaroos, lemurs, and otters.
4. Happy Hollow Park & Zoo
Happy Hollow Park & Zoo in San Jose is the best zoo in California for families with children. It offers a fun theme park that the kids will be begging to play on!
Although the park has many attractions, from roller coasters to carousels, its animal exhibits take the spotlight. The park and zoo span over 16 acres, making it enjoyable for the whole family.
5. Oakland Zoo
Oakland Zoo is considered a leader in animal welfare, rescue, and conservation. The zoo is home to more than 850 exotic and native animals.
The zoo offers a myriad of attractions, from African Savannah to the newly developed California Trail, where you can have animal encounters with American black bears, California condors, gray wolves, mountain lions, and fennec foxes with their enormous bat-like ears, plus many more.
Best Zoos in Central California
6. Fresno Chaffee Zoo
Based in Roeding Park in Fresno, California, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo is another zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The zoo spans 39 acres of land and houses over 200 species of animals and birds. This includes African lions, elephants, southern white rhinoceros, Malayan tigers, giraffes, lemurs, and many more.
7. Applegate Park Zoo
Applegate Park Zoo is a small zoo located in a park in the city of Merced. They take care of around 75 rescued native California mammals, birds, and reptiles.
With pleasant surroundings and picnic areas, the expansive park is the perfect place for a family adventure where kids can have glimpses of wildlife while learning about caring for and protecting them.
8. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens
If the best zoo in California has anything to do with size, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, with 1,800 acres of land, will win hands down. As the name suggests, the Palm Springs zoo is primarily a home for desert plants and animal species, and it has more than 500 animals in its facility.
The nonprofit, accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is the place to be if you want to see desert animals up close. It focuses on the biomes of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. The zoo is also a great day trip if you’re in the San Diego region.
9. Santa Barbara Zoo
Considered the best zoo in California, given its relatively modest size, the Santa Barbara Zoo is home to over 146 species residing in their natural habitat that spans over 30 acres of land. It’s located near the ocean of Santa Barbara.
The zoo features many animal exhibits that attract a large crowd every year. Popular attractions include animal encounter programs wherein you can meet and feed some of the animals for educational, entertaining, and memorable experiences.
10. California Living Museum
The California Living Museum, also called CALM, is a zoo in Bakersfield, California, that focuses on plants and animals native to the state.
The zoo is located on 14 acres of land and houses over 400 species of animals and exotic plants. The facility takes care of injured and orphaned wildlife creatures, releasing those who recover while taking care of those who can not be placed back in the wild.
It has a variety of animal exhibits, including an open black bear exhibit, birds of prey exhibit that include hawks, owls, and eagles, an indoor reptile house, as well as unique interactive exhibits for children where they can pet domestic animals.
Best Zoos in Northern California
11. San Francisco Zoo & Gardens
The San Francisco Zoo in Santa Rosa is one of the largest in the United States, housing over 2,000 exotic animals belonging to more than 250 species.
The zoo is run by the nonprofit San Francisco Zoological Society and offers affordable admission, which contributes to its popularity. Some of the animals residing in its acres of exhibits include snow leopards, Amur tigers, kangaroos, lemurs, zebras, gray wolves, and many more.
12. Sacramento Zoo
Starting with just 40 animals on 4 acres of land in 1927, the Sacramento Zoo has since expanded to around 14.3 acres of land, housing 400 native and endangered animals that belong to over 140 species.
The zoo is home to a diverse range of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish and offers its visitors a myriad of tours and programs. It also provides educational camps, school visits, and field trips.
13. Micke Grove Zoo
The Micke Grove Zoo is a small, 5-acre zoo located within the Micke Grove Regional Park. It offers other attractions like a Japanese garden, a historical museum, and a theme park.
The zoo is home to over 170 non-releasable animals, including mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles, representing around 51 different species from 5 different continents. Many of the animals are part of national animal conservation efforts.
14. Sequoia Park Zoo
Located in Eureka’s largest public playground and next to old-growth redwoods is the Sequoia Park Zoo, the oldest zoo in California that was established in 1907. It houses around 53 different species of wildlife that include approximately 200 vertebrates and about 1,700 invertebrates.
The zoo features a variety of wildlife exhibits that showcase the free-flight of different bird species, river otters, red pandas, barnyard animals, and much more. It works towards the protection of wildlife through its various conservation programs.
Best Zoos in Southern California
15. San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is one of the country’s most prominent zoos and most popular attractions. Many consider it the best zoo in California. It’s home to over 12,000 animals that represent 650 species, several of them from African wildlife. The zoo is located in Balboa Park, San Diego, and spans over 100 acres. This zoo also features a 65-foot waterfall and several rock formations from different habitats. With its Living Coast Discovery Center, you can also enjoy glimpses of diverse marine life.
The San Diego Zoo is reported to be the most visited zoo in the United States, with around 4 million visitors in 2018. It is known as a pioneer of cageless exhibits and recreates the natural habitats of its animal residents, especially with its tiger trail.
This zoo in San Diego is also famous for having some of the rarest and most endangered animals globally, including giant pandas, polar bears, Galápagos tortoises, clouded leopards, and many more. The zoo is run by the nonprofit San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, which runs the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
16. Orange County Zoo
The Orange County Zoo is located within the Irvine Regional Park in Orange, California, and spans 8 acres of land. It houses animals and plants native to the southwestern region of the States.
The zoo is home to non-releasable animals that are injured, orphaned, or confiscated from illegal traders. These animals include black bears, opossums, mountain lions, bald eagles, kit foxes, great horned owls, and many more.
17. Big Bear Alpine Zoo at Moonridge
The Big Bear Alpine Zoo is one of two Alpine zoos in the United States. It focuses on the rehabilitation and release of local Alpine animals while taking care of those who can’t be released.
The zoo is home to around 160 animals belonging to 85 species. Some include grizzly bears, arctic foxes, wolves, snow leopards, eagles, great horned owls, and many more. After closing the original site to the public in September 2020, the zoo opened a new location in Moonridge in November 2020.
18. Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens
If you enjoy surveying plant and animal life, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is the best zoo in California for you. It receives around 1.8 million visitors each year. The 133-acre zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It is owned by the City of Los Angeles. It opened after the old Griffith Park Zoo in LA shut down.
The zoo houses more than 2,200 animals and birds belonging to more than 270 different species, and more than 58 are endangered. The zoo also features botanical gardens that contain around 7,000 individual plants belonging to 800 exotic plant species. It features a variety of popular exhibits that showcase biomes from around the globe, like Elephants of Asia (featuring Asian elephants) and a world-class chimpanzee holding facility for the chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains.
Best Zoos In Eastern California
19. Santa Ana Zoo
Located in Prentice Park, Santa Ana, is the Santa Ana Zoo, a 20-acre facility that focuses on biomes in Central and South America.
The zoo opened in 1952 and today hosts around 270,000 people every year. It houses 350 animals from 120 different species. It contributes to protecting endangered species like the golden lion tamarin, ring-tailed lemur, cotton-top tamarin, and the black & white ruffed lemur, making it the best zoo in California for rare animals facing extinction.
20. Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary
Last, but not least on our best zoo in California list is Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary. This is a zoo and animal sanctuary that has been working towards protecting non-releasable animals since 1963. They accept and care for injured and abused animals with the support of Friends of the Folsom Zoo.
Folsom welcomes more than 100,000 visitors annually and has almost 100 animals. With picnic tables, barbeque areas, and children’s play areas nearby at Lions Park, it’s an excellent destination for family and school outings.
California is much more than Hollywood and beaches. A visit to any of these zoos can transport you to exotic corners of the world!
Want to read more about all the wonderful things California has to offer? Check out Life In The USA’s California page!