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11 Zoos in Northern California You Won't Want to Miss

11 Zoos in Northern California You Won't Want to Miss

While every zoo in the Golden State is worth visiting, there are a few must-sees that rise above the rest. Here are our favorites in NorCal.


6 min read

May 14, 2021

Are you really surprised that California’s home to the most magnificent zoos and aquariums? These family-friendly destinations allow you to travel to Africa, Brazil, and the Amazon without having to leave the sun-soaked state. With so much to experience, it's easy to see how you could spend a full day at these outstanding attractions. Watch giant pandas waddle through a miniature forest, admire lions roaring ferociously, or marvel at sea otters through underwater viewing windows—whatever suits your fancy, you’ll discover it at one of NorCal’s zoos.

While every zoo in the Golden State is worth visiting, there are a few must-sees that rise above the rest. Here are our favorite zoos in Northern California.

The Best Zoos in Northern California

The San Francisco Zoo connects people with wildlife, inspires them to care for nature, and promotes conservation. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Zoo.

San Francisco Zoo

Location: Sloat Boulevard and Great Highway, San Francisco

Located southwest of the City by the Bay, the San Francisco Zoo is perhaps one of the most delightful zoos in Northern California. Starting out as a menagerie with a single grizzly bear in 1866, it blossomed into the must-see Bay Area zoo we know and love today. The 100-acre kid-friendly spot has represented over 250 species of animals—it’s also the birthplace of Koko the gorilla and home of the oldest black rhinoceros in North America. From lions and kangaroos to koalas and zebras, you’re in for a wildlife treat at this zoo. 

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Location: 1651 Coyote Point Drive, San Mateo 

View wild animals up-close and interact with science exhibits at CuriOdyssey, one of the best zoos in Northern California. Home to nearly 100 rescued animals (most of which are native to California), the zoo is a fun treat for the whole family. Bobcats, desert tortoises, burrowing owls, and many other species are given a safe space to thrive.

Come for the animals and stay for science at CuriOdyssey. The custom-designed exhibits, hosted in the lovely garden, focus on perceptions, reflections, physical forces, and patterns in nature. Bring the whole family along for a fun-filled day at this science playground.

The Oakland Zoo is recognized for its outstanding animal care, especially the elephant care program. Photo courtesy of Oakland Zoo.

Oakland Zoo

Location: 9777 Golf Links Road, Oakland

No list of the best California zoos is complete without the San Francisco Bay Area’s prized treasure—the Oakland Zoo. With a variety of animal exhibits, this zoo is a great addition to your NorCal vacation. While the Oakland Zoo is relatively smaller in size, the wildlife here allows you to have a unique experience—one you wouldn’t have at crowded zoos. Zebras, meerkats, monkeys, camels, and many more are residents of this scenic area. The zoo is also home to the only African elephants in the Bay Area. 

The Oakland Zoo is even more stunning with its newest feature, the California Trail expansion. This incredible experience offers eight new animal exhibits with a focus on California wildlife—you get to encounter American black bears and California condors. Make sure to check out the awesome ecology-inspired playground while you're here.

Safari West's mission is to promote conservation by providing a unique recreational and educational experience. Photo courtesy of Safari West.

Safari West

Location: 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa

While not your typical zoo, visiting Safari West is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Napa Valley. Initially built as a breeding facility for critically endangered species, the property now serves as a wildlife preserve and a drive-through park.

Cape buffalos, cheetahs, wildebeests, antelope, and other animals you’ve probably never heard of reside in this open zoo in California. Learn about rare and interesting species such as addax, caracals, kudu, and nyala, and spend a night in one of those luxurious safari tents everyone’s raving about.

Micke Grove Zoo

Location: 11793 Micke Grove Road, Lodi

Located within Micke Grove Regional Park, Micke Grove Zoo is quite the hidden gem. Despite being small (more like fun-sized), this zoo in Northern California is always exciting to visit. The five-acre wonderland is filled with amphibians, mammals, birds, reptiles, and invertebrates you’ve never even heard of. Home to native animals and exotic species from all over the world—including the endangered cotton-top tamarin and black-and-white-ruffled lemur—this NorCal zoo is the bee’s knees.

The Sacramento Zoo was established in 1927 and is home to over 140 native, rare, and endangered species. Photo courtesy of Sacramento Zoo.

Sacramento Zoo

Location: 3930 West Land Park Drive, Sacramento

Ever wondered what it’s like to hand-feed an okapi or get up-close-and-personal with an alligator? California’s Sacramento Zoo is your ticket to all that and more. Home to over 500 animals, the family-friendly attraction's mission is to appreciate, respect, and connect to wildlife through education. Highlights at this California zoo include feeding giraffes, watching primates cause mischief, listening to a lion roar, and learning about the zoo’s furry residents. Make sure this zoo is included in your Sacramento getaway itinerary—we promise it’s worthwhile.

Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo

Location: 1451 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

If you’re looking for the perfect place to go with your kids, look no further than the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo. This zoo in Northern California houses over 200 indigenous species, including bobcats, hedgehogs, and raccoons. Visitors have the opportunity to learn through a fun and engaging process at the zoo’s 2,500-square-foot indoor exhibition.

While the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo is relatively small in size, its intimate experience makes it more attractive for parents. Your kids won’t get lost, so you’ll have a chance to enjoy the exploratory experience—it’s a win-win if you ask us.

The Fresno Chaffee Zoo sparks curiosity for our natural world and helps guests find a passion for conservation. Photo courtesy of Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

Fresno Chaffee Zoo

Location: 894 West Belmont Avenue, Fresno

The Fresno Chaffee Zoo offers an up-close look at wildlife from around the globe. This 13-acre wonderland is home to roughly 200 species of animals. The Central Valley family-friendly attraction recreates the plains and savannah landscapes of Africa—the exhibits make visitors feel like they’ve been transported to the continent.

Upon entering, you’ll see grazing wildebeests and majestic elephants moving in the distance. Take the Twiga Trail to see and feed the giraffes. Stroll past a pride of lions lounging atop boulders and reach an overlook where elephants photobomb all your selfies—it’s a real Zoorassic Park in Fresno.

Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary

Location: 403 Stafford Street, Folsom

As impressive as the Sacramento Zoo is, its smaller counterpart—the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary—is a showstopper in its own right. Primates, birds, farm animals, and rescued creatures call this place home and are looked after with the utmost care. The zoo grounds are ideal for on-foot exploration, but if you’re more of an observer, there’s a miniature-scale live steam train that circles Lion’s Park.

The ring-tailed lemurs at the Monterey Zoo are Guido and Pierre. They have been with the Monterey Zoo’s education program since 1999.

Monterey Zoo

Location: 400 River Road, Salinas

Interested in learning about primates and fascinating mammals? Home to more than 100 exotic species, the Monterey Zoo is the place to be. Come closer to wild animals than ever before at this Northern California zoo.

From spiders to elephants, all of the animals at this zoo have extremely close relationships with their handlers. Here, you’ll also get to see animals that have retired from film, television, and live production—that’s right, you’re chillin’ with Hollywood’s baddest villains.

Tours at this California zoo are offered on a daily basis, but if you want to take your vacation up a notch, plan to eat breakfast with an elephant at Vision Quest Ranch. Enjoy this one-of-a-kind experience and check out the safari bungalows at this unforgettable bed and breakfast.

Zoos in San Jose 

Happy Hollow Park and Zoo

Location: 748 Story Road, San Jose

Happy Hollow Park and Zoo is the perfect blend of amusement and wildlife. While it’s not the largest zoo in Northern California, this San Jose favorite shines bright thanks to its fantastic features. The zoo houses more than 140 animal species and has a petting zoo, thrill rides, playgrounds, and even a puppet theater. Is there a better way to spend your day?

This California zoo is divided into three main sections: Zoo on the Hill, Zoo in the Hollow, and the Five Point Forest. Prepare to be greeted by the cutest wallabies, monkeys, and turtles. Whether you’re exploring the petting zoo or riding the carousel, this zoo in San Jose will quickly become your favorite place to visit. 

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