Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Our family loves the zoo. As soon as our babies developed some sort of schedule I take them for a stroll to the zoo. To this day they absolutely love looking at the same animals to see what they are up to, which is why year after year we are still members of the zoo.

The great thing about the National Zoo here in D.C. is it’s free! They’ve also recently redid the Asia Trail, which includes the famous giant panda exhibit. You know that we are at the zoo if you hear S wildly exclaiming, “Pandas!” in the panda house. Right now (as of this posting) they are redoing the children’s farm. It’s still open, but there is only one entrance/exit right now.

Our favorite animals are the giant pandas on the Asia Trail and the sea lions on the American Trail. Generally speaking the giant pandas don’t really do much. If you want to see them most active, you should try to get there early in the morning when it’s not so hot. We usually find at least one giant panda roaming around outside, sometimes in a tree. Otherwise you are left to find them in the house sleeping.

The sea lions have two viewing points, one outside and one underneath with a view of the inside of their tank. We prefer the tank view because this is where they are most playful. For some reason one of the sea lions enjoys doing flips if you throw an object in the air, like a shoe. It makes all the children squeal with delight. Our latest visit one of the sea lions decided to poop in front of everyone, which amazed the children.

The one thing that this zoo lacks are the more popular zoo animals like giraffes and rhinoceroses. Otherwise it is a fantastic zoo, and amazing that it is free. However, they do gouge you with the price of food and parking ($22). Also bathrooms aren’t very close to each other, so if you are visiting definitely buy a map of the zoo so you can find them.

Some top tips when visiting the National Zoo:

  • Again, parking at the zoo is $22 and you have to get to the zoo before 10:30am, 10am during busier days if you want to park at the zoo. Otherwise you will have to find parking in the surrounding neighborhoods. Some areas have no restrictions, and others only offer 2 hour parking. Another alternative is using Parking Panda to find parking at nearby (about half a mile) parking lots.
  • You can take Metro to the zoo; it’s between the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park stations on the Red Line. Both stations are about a half mile walk to the zoo. The Woodley Park station is walking uphill though.
  • The zoo is on a hill! If you start from the Connecticut Ave. entrance you will be going downhill. If you can’t muster up the energy to go back up the hill, there is a shuttle that runs every 15 minutes or so that will take you between the bus parking lot at the top of the zoo to the Children’s Farm entrance at the lower end of the zoo.
  • If you forget or don’t want to bring your stroller, they do have single and double strollers to rent at the zoo. These are larger plastic ones, that kind of look like bike trailers because it lies so low. They are on a first come first served basis and cost between $6-$12 for the entire day.
  • We usually start at the bottom of the hill, by the Children’s Farm. We work our way up hill seeing the lions and tigers, and then the gorillas and orangutans. We then do the Asia Trail to see the pandas, and then we work our way down via the American Trail first stopping by to see the elephants and then ending back at the Children’s Farm. With that said, the American Trail is always the least busiest in case you want to avoid large crowds.
  • In the summer there is a Tide Pool on the American Trail, between the seals and the sea lions. Make sure you bring a change of clothes because your kids will get soaked. They also have little sprinklers on the main path in case you or your kids need a quick cool off.
  • There are rides at the zoo, depending on when you visit. The carousel operates year round, though the hours of operation change depending on the season. The train only operates in the winter and spring. There’s also tubing, which our kids love, but that is available in the winter. It’s all inexpensive ($3-$3.50) too. The rides are generally easy to avoid, except for the carousel since it’s on the main trail by the lions. You really have to look for the train if you want to ride it, and the tubing is some what off in the distance that your kids may not even notice.
  • Obviously getting to the zoo as early as possible means you’ll see the most animals outside and active. If you are a giant panda fan, I would make a bee line to the Giant Panda House to avoid the larger crowds that come as the day progresses. The lions and tigers are hit or miss during the day, but you most definitely always see them roaming around at dusk (they usually hunt from dusk to dawn).
  • The zoo also offers various talks, most between 10am and 12pm. Definitely check the calendar and pick up a map to plan accordingly if you want to learn more about your favorite animals. The elephant one is a favorite of ours.
  • You can buy food at the zoo, though healthy eats for kids are a bit harder to find. The busiest eatery is the Panda Overlook Cafe and all seating is outdoors (prepare to share a table with strangers). The next busiest is the Mane Cafe near the Children’s Farm. This one has indoor and outdoor seating. There are other eateries dotted all over the zoo with slimmer menus and no official seating. You can always pack a lunch too. Or you can walk along Connecticut Avenue to eat at a nearby restaurants.
  • They serve beer at the zoo!!! If you need a little something to calm your nerves as your child is having a meltdown, never fear they have beer! You’ll find them near the carousel and one by the elephants for sure.

The National Zoo is a great place to spend the day or morning with your kids if you are ever in D.C. visiting. What’s your favorite part of the National Zoo?

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