Best Way to See the Animals at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
The National Zoo is a great place to take children while in Washington, D.C. It’s free, easy to reach, and has so many animals of interest to kids. In fact, for younger children, there may very well be too much to cover in one day, particularly if you let your children set the pace.
The logistics for spending a day at the National Zoo are discussed in a previous article. In this article, see my suggestions on what to see by following this path for viewing some of our favorite animals at the National Zoo. I have a decided preference for the outdoor exhibits and the suggested path through the zoo reflects that.
what to know before you go
Before you get to the zoo, consider downloading the National Zoo app, available for iPhone or Android. It costs just $1.99 and has lots of useful information on it, including a listing of special demonstrations offered that day, activities just for kids including a link to the panda cam, a zoo map, and plenty more information to help you navigate the zoo. If you’re looking for a place to stay, Washington Hilton is only one mile from the zoo on the same street, Connecticut Avenue.
The zoo is built on a hill; if you travel to the zoo via public transit or by walking, you’ll arrive at the top of the hill and work your way down through the exhibits. This means you’ll have a climb to get back up to where you started, but you can break this up by stopping at exhibits as you go along. If you end up driving, try to park at the bottom of the hill, in parking lot D or E. These lots have the most convenient access to the zoo, and you end up with a downhill walk at the end of the day, which has some strategic value with tired children in tow. The exhibits listed below are in order assuming a starting point at the top of the hill.
As you walk into the zoo, just a few yards on your right, you’ll find the entrance to the Asia Trail. Opened in 2006, this is a beautiful, winding trail through the zoo, grouping some of the Asian animal species along one path. You’ll find sloth bears, fishing cats, Asian small-clawed otters and clouded leopards. I particularly like the red pandas; they have a really lovely, natural enclosure and they’re often easy to see, unlike some of the animals. At the end of the trail is the giant panda enclosure, always very popular, especially now with the new panda cub, Bao Bao, born on August 23, 2014!
After you exit the giant panda building, bear left on the Asia Trail to end up back on Olmsted Walk, the main pathway through the zoo. Turn right onto Olmsted Walk to make your way to the Elephant Trails.
You’ll find the entrance to Elephant Trails on your right marked by a large elephant sculpture made out of willow branches. Follow the shady path down to the Elephant Outpost. Here you’ll not only be able to see the elephants (and the occasional deer that jump the fence), you’ll also find many hands-on activities for children. I like these types of educational games such as a labyrinth game where the kids must get an elephant home safely to its herd, avoiding the types of hazards elephants face in the wild. Kids will also enjoy the life sized elephant footprints leading them into the Outpost.
Directly outside of the Elephant Outpost, you’ll find the entrance to the new American Trail, just opened in 2012. Featured are animal species from North America including river otters, California sea lions, harbor seals, gray wolves, and bald eagles among others. The sea lions and otters are particularly fun to watch since they are usually very active and playful. The path along the American Trail will split in a couple of places; follow the signs for Amazonia to continue towards the bottom of the zoo.
Amazonia & the Kids’ Farm
Amazonia is a completely indoor exhibit located at the conclusion of the American Trail. We love visiting here in the winter months, since the rainforest area is kept at tropical temperatures. Kids will be fascinated walking through the miniature rainforest, and we’ve always been fortunate to see the titi monkeys up close in here. The poison arrow frogs are also spectacular. After exiting Amazonia, bear left to walk through the Kids’ Farm, with its farm animals including goats, llamas and cows.
As you exit the Kids’s Farm, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of Olmsted Walk. The kids may want to take a break at the Giant Pizza Playground before turning left and beginning the trek back up the hill. There are several exhibits along Olmsted Walk including the great cats, the invertebrates, the great apes, reptiles, and small mammals. Let your children guide you as to which of the remaining exhibits to pop into. Other than the great cats, these remaining exhibits are primarily housed indoors.
I hope this mini guide on what to see at the National Zoo helps you enjoy the zoo as much as we do!
- Read about other family vacations to Washington, D.C.
- See all of our vacation photos from Washington, D.C.
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Andrea is a single mom in Arlington, Virginia with a 15-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. Her children took their first trips when they were just four…