29 of the Best Zoos in the US (and Why!)

It’s time to connect with your wild side, and head to one of the best zoos in the US!

There are some great zoos out there, but we wanted to show you the best zoos in the US, and show you why they’re the best. These amazing zoos not only allow you to see animals, but they are also all focused on conservation, animal welfare, and education.

29 of the Best Zoos in the US (and Why!)
Courtesy of San Diego Zoo


Believe it or not, the second most visited zoo in the US, as well as one of the largest tourist draws in the region, is the Houston Zoo in Texas. (They do say everything is bigger in Texas!) Not only is this zoo home to over 6,000 animals, but they also have one of the largest bird collections, support nearly 50 conservation projects worldwide, and see over two million visitors per year.

Some of the zoo’s exhibits include Kipp Aquarium, Texas Wetlands, and Wortham World of Primates. You can hang out with some Houston Toads, see the Golden Lion Tamarin’s leap from the trees, or see a Tapir snuffle in the grass for some tasty treats.  

Read More: 22 Amazingly Fun Things To Do in Houston with Kids


Lincoln Park Zoo is not the only Chicago-area zoological stop. Located just outside of Chicago in the city of Brookfield, you’ll find the Brookfield Zoo. Since 1934, this zoo has been a local favorite.

There are over 2,000 animals in residence at this zoo, and the zoo is particularly beloved for its Penguin Encounter.


What began in 1896 with a single black bear cub given to the mayor of Denver, has blossomed into a zoo housing over 3,000 animals. The Denver Zoo is a city cultural touchstone — they were the first zoo in the country to utilize Carl Hagenbeck’s design, in which visitors are at eye level to an animal’s natural environment, without fences.

One of the things that makes Denver Zoo special is their Up-Close Looks encounters. Sloths, llamas, giraffes, elephants, reptiles, and other animals are part of this program.


Obviously, Fiona the Hippo, the internet sensation, is the biggest draw of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden!

After opening its doors for the first time in 1875, this zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio, became the second one in the country. This zoo now houses over 500 animals and 3,000 species of plants.


Before you ask, “Why is Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park on this list of best zoos in the country?” I’ll give you a very simple answer: because the whole premise of the park was built on conservation.

Considered a zoological theme park, this popular theme park opened in 1998 to support animal conservation and build a love of natural environments, which were both things heralded by Walt Disney. In fact, over 2,000 animals thrive at this park. Make sure to take a ride on the Kilimanjaro Safari to see some of the most unique animals.


The Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens in Columbia, SC, opened in 1975. Its collection includes over 2,000 animals, in addition to a magnificent botanical garden.

The garden, which opened in 1995, has over 4,300 plant species. Besides all of that, there are also historic, structural ruins to see that date back to the early 1800s.


The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, Ohio, houses over 10,000 animals between its two identities. 

The six areas of the zoo and aquarium are Australia and the Islands, Congo Expedition, Shores, Asia Quest, North America, and the Heart of Africa. Animals found here include the Dalmatian Pelican, the Markhor, the Dama Gazelle, the Wolverine, and the Matschie’s Tree Kangaroo. 


Unlike the other zoos mentioned so far, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, CA, is dedicated to one specific area of the world: the desert.

Since opening in 1970, this zoo has been working hard to conserve the desert environment and showcase the majestic plants and animals that call it home. There are nature and hiking trails, behind-the-scenes tours, and even animal feedings to enjoy.


The zoological offerings were so big here, they had to break it into two programs, thus the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park was born.

At this zoo in San Diego, CA, you’ll find a wide swath of animals from all around the world, whereas the Safari Park is focused on animals from desert regions. 


United States zoos began in Philadelphia, PA, with the opening of the Philadelphia Zoo in 1874. Not only was this the country’s first zoo, but it was also the first one with both a successful Chimpanzee and Orangutan births, the first to have an animal medical center on-site, the first with specially-made food for its animals, and even the first children’s zoo.

In fact, Philly’s children’s zoo is known as KidZooU, which has both the children’s zoo and an education center. Here, kiddos can learn about animals with some hands-on experiences, as well with adorable farm animals.


At the turn of the 20th century, the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium opened its gates to the public for the first time. Over 100 years later, it now houses over 1,100 animals from across 200 different species. Some of these animals include Red Pandas, Snow Leopards, Siamang, and even Visayan Warty Pigs!

You can even shadow a zookeeper here to see what their work is like behind the scenes. 


While there may not be a lot of free zoos left in the country — the St. Louis Zoo in St. Louis, MO, remains completely FREE.

With over 14,000 animals in their care showcasing almost 500 species, that’s a lot to offer for zero admission.


The story about how the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, Alaska, came to be is pretty wild. Per the website, this zoo’s roots go back to a 1966 grocery contest, in which a Fairbanks grocer got to choose between $3,000 and a baby elephant — and chose the elephant. Folks started wanting to see Annabelle (Annie) the elephant, which snowballed into the need for a place for folks to see her, in addition to helping other animals in need. So the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage was born. 

Given the zoo’s unique position in the world, it is also connected to vital Polar Bear conservation efforts. In fact, the zoo is the only organization to act as a first responder for emergencies involving polar bears on the North Slope in the state of Alaska. 


Yet another example of zoos and gardens coming together, the Los Angeles Zoo is home to animals and plants alike. Housing over 2,100 animals, in addition to 7,000 plants, this zoo is protecting Mother Nature on several fronts.

In true Hollywood fashion, you can even go bigger on your zoo experience. There are travel excursions created by the zoo to help visitors see animals in different environments worldwide. 


Though it’s in the Midwest, there’s nothing “mid” about this conveniently located zoo. Indianapolis Zoo in Indianapolis, IN, is easily accessed from the bustle of downtown. You can touch some sharks in the country’s largest shark touch pool or watch orangutans do something amazing, all without a big journey outside of the city limits. 

What makes this zoo especially fascinating is its Animal Art Adventures series. Get up close and personal as one of Indianapolis’ animals creates a one-of-a-kind piece of art for you. Those animals include elephants, dolphins, penguins, rhinos, walruses, and orangutans. 


For some reason, many of these zoos got started because someone ended up getting a bear or another large animal as a gift or prize. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, CO, has that same origin story dating back to 1916.

With several animal encounters visitors can purchase, in addition to admission, there are a lot of ways to make sure this zoo is a memory you will never forget — especially if you hang with an elephant!


The Arizona- Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson is different from the other best zoos on this list, because of its multifaceted nature. Part zoo, botanical garden, art gallery, natural history museum, and aquarium, this spot has a lot to offer.

Plus, there are walking paths through the desert habitats with practically invisible fencing to provide a more natural-looking environment, not just for the animals, but the humans as well. 


At this zoo in Rapid City, SD, you don’t even need to leave your car. A drive-thru zoo in the heart of the Black Hills, Bear Country USA is a safari-esque means of seeing black bears, elk, and other regional animals in their natural environment.

It is home to the “largest collection of privately owned black bear[s] in the world.”


Other than alligators and a mouse named Mickey, what kinds of animals can you see in Central Florida? The answer is a lot, apparently. Although Safari Wilderness doesn’t consider itself a zoo or a theme park, what it is instead is an experience around animals that is unlike many others available in the country.

From drive-thru safaris to journeys on camelback, there are experiences aplenty at this Floridian stop.


Snow leopards might be more familiar with the colder regions, yet they seem right at home amongst the other animals housed at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Just shy of a dozen exhibits will show you this zoo in Oklahoma City is far from just “OK.”

Have you ever had a wild encounter with Oklahoma’s state mammal, the bison? If you make your way to this zoo, you have your chance! 


Another stamp in your drive-thru zoo passport, Lion Country Safari near West Palm Beach, FL, is another vehicle-accessible experience. According to its website, Lion Country was the first cage-less zoo in the country, after opening in 1967.

Go see over 1,000 wild animals from the comfort and safety of this safari experience. It even has a KOA campground, so you can stick around for another safari adventure!


While it may not be the oldest zoo in the country, The National Zoo in Washington, D.C. is among both the oldest and largest in the country. (Plus it’s FREE!) It has also been pivotal in the nation’s conservation of Giant Pandas, which the zoo has cared for over 50 years.

This conservation work should be no surprise, since part of the zoo’s roots came out of a desire to conserve animals like the bison, which were also endangered. 


With over 10,000 animals, the Bronx Zoo is iconic, and is one of the largest zoos in the United States.

Like many other zoos in the country and around the world, the zoo’s passion lies in its conservation efforts. Stop by and check out their exhibits including the Congo Gorilla Forest, Jungleworld, and even Tiger Mountain.


Per its website, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska, is often ranked as one of the best zoos in the world. Conservation here is world-class as well.

According to its site, the zoo released its 100,000th amphibian into the wild in September 2021. Amazing, right? With over a dozen exhibits to choose from, you certainly have a lot to see on this zoo’s 160 acres. 


Zoo Miami in Miami, FL, is the only subtropical zoo in the contiguous United States. Because of the environment in Southern Florida, this zoo is able to curate a plethora of animals and plants from around the world, in order to naturally mock up the animals’ natural environments.

Here, over 1,000 plants and 3,000 animals thrive in the lush landscape of tropical Florida climates! 


“I cannot overstate the degree to which the Oakland Zoo enhances the quality of life for people.” -Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf

Like Omaha’s zoo, the Oakland Zoo is also a leader in helping animals go back into the wild. As far as zoo residents go however, there are over 850 animals housed at this zoo.

Come check out the Panamanian Golden Frog, the Blue Spiny Lizard, the Military Macaw, and even some invertebrates, like the Black Beauty Walking Stick! And get some incredible views of the zoo from the aerial gondola at no extra charge. 


Established just before the turn of the 20th century, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo not only showcases international animals, but those specific to the Pacific Northwest as well.

Nearly a dozen exhibits are home to more than 900 animals, including some that are critically endangered in the wild. You can even jam out at the zoo’s beloved annual concert series, ZooTunes, which has brought musicians like the Indigo Girls, Chaka Khan, The Roots, and Cake!


Music might be part of the call of Memphis, but here there are also thriving animals here. Whether you want to see some Giant Pandas, tigers, or fish, you might leave your heart at the Memphis Zoo!

Don’t forget to check their events so you don’t miss something like their Zoo Rendezvous or Baby Day.


In case you haven’t noticed, a lot of the zoos on this list are in Florida. There must be something in the water! (Besides gators.) Brevard Zoo might be one of the newest members of the U.S. zoo family, though it’s far from small.

Besides seeing its resident animals, you can even go kayaking between exhibits or feed some Lorikeets! Be sure to stick around for a Keeper Chat or two, maybe someone from the family will be inspired to be a zookeeper too someday! 



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29 of the Best Zoos in the US (and Why!)