12 Best Zoos in California: Experience the Magic of Wildlife

California is a beautiful place to live or vacation, whether you’re with friends and family or flying solo. From the rich culture found in museums to the stunning mountains and white sandy beaches, California truly has it all, including a thriving IT culture.

Let’s not forget that you should check out the pros and cons before moving to California. In this blog, I will take you through the best zoos in California for the perfect action-packed vacation with a blood-pumping experience. The Golden State is no less in terms of the variety of natural wildlife and plants.

Best Zoos in California

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This is for nature lovers – if you love exploring botanical gardens, you should check out my lists too. For now, let’s explore the best California zoos. I’m sure you’ll love the exotic creatures, pink flamingos, majestic lions, and big giraffes.

Best Zoos in California 

1. Oakland Zoo

The Oakland Zoo has been leading the way in animal rescue, welfare, and conservation in the Bay Area, making it the top zoo in Northern California. I was fascinated to see how the animals were grouped by their habitats, staying together in a way that felt natural and authentic.

Oakland Zoo has made a name for itself, sitting in the Oakland Hills in the middle of an urban community. It offers visitors a splendid view of the San Francisco bay area, a hilly landscape, and a rare chance to see animals interacting. 

Seeing the Malayan flying fox species of bat did not fascinate me; rather, it gave me a feeling of woo! You cannot miss out on spotting the African elephants. I recommend, timing your visit to the spectacular exhibits during feeding time or other events. 

Highlights of Oakland Zoo

  • Ride ADA- certified gondola, Oakland Zoo Express Train, Tiger Trek roller Coaster, and Conservation Carousel
  • Educate and enrich your knowledge of California’s ecology and connection with humans. California Trail is so enriching
  • Stroll around the Tropical Rain Forest, spot the tiger, exotic birds, and reptile species
  • Bring your camera to capture the cute koala bears and kangaroos
  • Bring your kid to Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo

Note: Oakland Zoo team is researching on saving the mountain yellow-legged frogs and other endangered animals. Also, this 100 acres zoo is home to the African lion, American black bear, alligators, grizzly bear, poison dart frog, red-rumped Agouti and so more. If you want you can plan camping at night.

Oakland Zoo, Best Zoos in California
Oakland Zoo

2. San Francisco Zoo

San Francisco Zoo features the Cat Kingdom and Grizzly Gulch for large animals and an insect zoo for crawling creatures like termites. It is an urban oasis opening wide to the Pacific Ocean at one side and offering fascinating views to exotic wildlife and people coming here.

This is the best zoo in San Francisco that aims to preserve an unforgettable experience for every family member coming here. You can see Polish chicken, pot-bellied pig, meerkat, great horned owl, gorilla Koko, black rhinoceros, sea lions, birds, and over 2,000 species.

Highlights of San Francisco Zoo:

  • Check out with your kids the antique carousel, and ecosystem-themed bioregion of the Elinor Friend Playground, and learn about the conservation at home at Conservation Corner
  • Visitors can bring bikes too for an adventure. Admission is free for senior citizens. This is an affordable zoo to visit in California
  • San Francisco Zoo is one of the largest zoos in California sitting on 100 acres of land. The Fisher Family Children Zoos is popular among Santa Rosa people 
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Note: San Francisco Zoo is putting a lot of effort into conservation and caring for San Francisco’s lake

San Francisco Zoo, Best Zoos in California
San Francisco Zoo

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3. San Diego Safari Park

I visited the San Diego Zoo numerous times during my childhood, where I saw an array of amazing animals, including sweet koalas, intimidating Komodo dragons, camels, condors, leopards, giant pandas, endangered cats, dozens of primates, Tasmanian devils, fossa, and many other endangered species.

San Diego and Wildlife Animal Safari Park is the best zoo in California for its size, quality of exhibits, and true care for animals. It sits on 1800 acres in Escondido boosting 3,700 individual animals from 650 species.

The must-see at San Diego Safari Park is mole rats, sounds funny? Trust me, I never saw so friendly and cute rats in my entire life. I believe the facilities here are so incredible that each animal feels safe and loved. This is why you’ll find habitats here mostly happy!

Highlights of San Diego and Wildlife Animal Safari Park:

  • Showcase live video of polar bears and Sumatran tigers living in their habitat – 4D Jungle Theatre experience is enthralling
  • Safari tour and exhibits without a barrier between you and wallabies and lemurs
  • Free 25-minute African Tram tour
  • The Caravan Safari to spot rhinos and giraffes. 
  • Enjoy zipline and helium balloon adventure activities at San Diego and Wildlife Animal Safari Park
  • Go for the popular Sun-up Cheetah Run show, demonstrating its speed and life
San Diego Safari Park, Best Zoos in California
San Diego Safari Park

4. San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo, with its wide variety of exotic animals, is the best zoo for kids in California. I have fond memories of my mother taking my brother and me every Monday afternoon to teach us about the impressive 3,100 species of plants found at the zoo.

On special occasions, my mother would take us on the double-decker bus tour to get around the zoo because it is so huge that my brother and I couldn’t cover it by ourselves. I especially loved the Skyfari aerial tram, which allowed us to see the zoo’s beauty from above.

As per my mother, the must-see at San Diego Zoo is taking the Animals and Action tour. The tour is about petting and getting close to zebras, giraffes, flamingos, and rhinos. You can see cheetahs and binturongs too. The good part, is they’re leashed, no worry!

Note: Check out the San Diego Zoo tips for a great roaring time with your kids

San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo

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5. Los Angeles Zoo

Each zoo in California spotlights the flora and fauna, but the Los Angeles Zoo also enshrines the history and culture of South California. Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Garden is the best zoo in Southern California to visit with kids.

The zoo has recreated an atmosphere from rock formations like the Mahale Mountains to a tropical environment which is almost similar to the natural habitat for animals in their home country. Their welfare programs and keen efforts to preserve biodiversity are spellbound. 

It has been ranked as the best zoo in Los Angeles as they offer equal attention to 7,500 individual plants and animals. With over 1,100 animals and out of which 29 are endangered species, this zoo is my all-time favorite to spot rare animals. 

Highlights of Los Angeles Zoo:

  • Educational program narrating how the zoo brought California Condor back from near-extinction. Visit the kid-friendly California Condor Rescue Zone
  • In winter attend the Winter Zoo Light Show
  • This is also one of the best petting zoos in Los Angeles, Griffith Park. Here you can spot lesser creatures like babirusa and Coquerel’s Sifaka
  • Take the Red Ape Rainforest tour to spot orang-utans 
  • Spot sea turtles, elephants, and other aquatic creatures. Book the LAIR (Living Amphibians, Invertebrates, and Reptiles) exhibition
  • Ample walking trails. You can take a guided tour like Flamingo Mingle
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Note: The team works collectively for the betterment of macro to micro – organization living in the zoo

Los Angeles Zoo
Los Angeles Zoo

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6. Santa Ana Zoo

The Santa Ana Zoo, located in Prentice Park, is a 20-acre zoo that attracts over 270,000 visitors annually from both national and international locations. It is the best zoo in Eastern California, home to more than 50 monkeys, exotic animals, and plant life.

You can spot golden lions, cotton-top tamarind, black & white ruffed lemur, ring-tailed lemur, and some rare face animals. The rainforest exhibits an opportunity to walk through the aviary, and some onsite educational programs, making it the top zoo in California. 

Highlights of Santa Ana Zoo:

  • Santa Ana Zoo is a fun family-friendly zoo in California. Your child will love taking the Zoofari Train Express ride, the track is approx… 1,850 ft. long
  • Enjoy the lush island setting, gorgeous waterfall, and view of black-necked swans at Amazon’s Edge exhibit
  • To learn about endangered species go for Conservation Carousel
  • Mingle with exotic South American birds at Amazon Aviary. Check out the parrot, she knows a lot of fun tricks!
Santa Ana Zoo
Santa Ana Zoo

7. Sequoia Park Zoo

Sequoia Park is the most seasoned and gorgeous Northern California zoo, home to over 200 vertebrates and 1,700 spineless creatures. In Eureka, California is the oldest zoo founded in 1907 with baboons, sea captains, and chimpanzees.

If you’re in search of a popular zoo in California for sake of entertainment with your kids, Sequoia Park is the best. I came here to explore the redwood of Sequoia Park but ended up in this cute park zoo. The zoo is focused on various conservative programs. 

Highlights of Sequoia Park Zoo:

  • Experience the Barnyard
  • Come to a family-friendly watershed play area to learn about the interconnectedness of our ecosystem
  • Learn about the underwater life of salmon, river otters, and potters through the clear water tank
  • Spot the Patagonian cavies, crested screamers, adorable red pandas, and so more
  • Check out the “livestock field” seeing the iety of ranch creatures, ilamas, parrots, and European rollers
Sequoia Park
Sequoia Park

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8. Santa Barbara Zoo

I must say, Santa Barbara Zoo is the most charming zoo to spot giraffes. It is one of the best zoos in Central California, spanning over 30 acres of land petting to more than 146 species in their natural habitat. It sits just next to the Santa Barbara Ocean.

Do you know why I consider the Santa Barbara Zoo as the best zoo in California? It’s because my father used to bring me here as a child to watch the antics of the Humboldt penguins, Asian elephants, Sujatha, Little Mac, endangered California condors, and giant anteaters.

It is indeed a popular small California zoo overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains, spanning over 30 acres. The Food Network declared Santa Barbara Zoo as the “Audrey Hepburn of zoos – petite, charming, and beautiful”.

Highlights of Santa Barbara Zoo:

  • Enjoy the relaxing train ride
  • Know how food is processed and prepared for the zoo’s 500+ animals at the Ridley-Tree Animal Kitchen
  • If you’re lucky, go on in finding treasure in Tiny’s Mining Camp

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9. The Living Desert Zoo and Garden

The Living Desert Zoo and Garden in Palm Desert is a unique zoo and botanical garden that focuses on the conservation of desert habitats through appreciation and education. Here, you can find various animal species and Palm Springs desert plants.

It is one of the best zoos in California that is not only home to 450 incredible animals, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, Peninsular pronghorn, leopard, roadrunners, and warthogs but has hiking trails and cafes to hang out for visitors. 

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Highlights of The Living Desert Zoo and Garden:

  • It encompasses 2,819 square miles of land in Coachella Valley making it the biggest zoo in California. 
  • The zoo faculty exclusively focuses on desert species mostly from California’s Mojave Desert and Sonoran
  • Plants like smoke trees, desert willow, creosote bush, white bursage, palo verde, and desert cacti are also found

Note: The Living Desert Zoo and Garden is a wonderful spot for people planning a day trip in the San Diego region. You can also hit these dog-friendly beaches in San Diego.

The Living Desert Zoo and Garden
The Living Desert Zoo and Garden

10. Birch Aquarium

I never knew Birch Aquarium can be so intimidating for children. I brought my 6-year-old nephew and she loved this place. You can explore interactive exhibits and see fishes like Giant Pacific Octopus sharks, seahorses, loggerheads, Moon Jellies, coral reefs, and so more.

It is one of those zoos and aquariums in California that is home to more than 3,000 fishes and animals from 380 species. If you’re an oceanographer, this place must be fascinating to you. It is the most visited place in San Diego.

Highlights of Birch Aquarium:

  • Attend the Preuss Tide Pool Plaza exhibit where you can touch sea animals
  • Attend Growing Up Seahorse to learn about the institution’s seahorse breeding program
  • Oddities Exhibit narrates your story of weird facts about ocean

11. Monterey Bay Aquarium

If you’re interested in marine research and ocean conservation, Monterey Bay Aquarium is an excellent place to bring your kids. Another great destination is the Monterey Zoo, located just half an hour away from the aquarium. It is one of the best zoos in the Bay Area of Northern California.

Sea otters here look so good and sweet. I’m sure, you’ll love it. There is research going on in maintaining jellyfish. Walk through Kelp Forest to join the exhibits with giant octopi and tentacles.

Highlights of Monterey Bay Aquarium:

  • Kelp Forest, Splash Zone, and million-gallon Open Sea are the must-see exhibits if you’re here at Monterey Bay Aquarium
  • Monterey’s historic Cannery Row is the top attraction for visitors
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium

12. Orange County Zoo

Orange County Zoo sits inside the Irvine Regional Park which is also termed the “OC Zoo” a little gem. It is one of the best zoos in Western California spanning over 8 acres. The ideal setting, within oaks and sycamores, makes this place very exotic.

Kelvin and I recently have a chance to visit Orange County Zoo, to capture pictures of black bears, bald eagles, mountain lions, and other animals. Additionally, it is one of the most affordable zoos in California, with a parking fee of $3-$5 per vehicle and an admission fee of $2 per person.

Highlights of Orange County Zoo

  • Enjoy an audio tour on your phone at your pace
  • Educational programs running on animals and their lifestyle
Orange County Zoo
Orange County Zoo


The world is home to amazing animals and plants, if you’re lucky you’ll have an opportunity to spot a few out of many. California’s zoos are dedicated to providing a fun and educational experience for everyone. Whether you are a local resident or a tourist visiting California, a trip to one of these top-rated zoos is a must-see attraction.

The above list of the best zoos in California surely can meet your deep interest in animals and plants. Plan your next visit soon!

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FAQ: Best Zoos in California

1. How many zoos are in California?

A. California is home to many zoos and aquariums. You can start with San Diego Zoo, Big Bear Alpine Zoo at Moonridge, Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary, Micke Grove Zoo, Santa Barbara Zoo, Fresno Chaffee Zoo and so more.

2. What are the best zoos in California?

A. The best zoos in California are San Diego Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Sequoia Park Zoo. 

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