Humboldt penguins at Woodland Park Zoo

As big of a fan as I am of seeing the world, I’m likewise a fan of seeing my own community.  So it was with that in mind that I’m staying close to home this Labor Day Weekend.  The Seattle weather forecast is sunny and warm (score!), there’s tons to do around the King-Pierce-Snohomish area, and it’s a chance to see some of the things that it is so easy to take for granted.

So I headed off to Woodland Park Zoo for the day.

Woodland Park Zoo is located in the Phinney Ridge area and has been serving as the city’s zoo for over 100 years. It is often cited as one of the best zoos in the U.S. Today, the zoo complex spreads out over 92 acres, and includes animals and exhibits, open space, a rose garden, many other gardens, administrative buildings and parking.  Attracting over a million visitors a year, Woodland Park has been nationally recognized for its creative programs, including the gorilla habitat, which is considered the world’s first immersion zoo exhibit.  The zoo’s current animal residents include over 300 animal species, including 35 endangered and five threatened species.  On any given day, the zoo offers demonstrations, interactive exhibits, talks with animal caretakers, and other programs that connect the work of the zoo to the visitors.

The zoo is divided up into themed areas , allowing visitors to spend in depth time with areas of interest or to quickly assess the highlights of each area.  While seeing EVERYTHING the zoo has to offer will take an entire day, and even then you’ll have to skip over a few things or rush through many exhibits, a leisurely afternoon will let you see the major highlights and spend additional time in your favorite areas.  Here’s how I did it, starting with my two favorite zoo sections.

Tropical Rain Forest – My favorite part of this exhibit is the jaguar, and for my visit I had a chance to see him up and around and well as napping.  The zoo has a pair of these endangered animals, but only one is in the exhibit at any time.  After spending some time watching the jaguar, there’s plenty else to see, including the lemurs, colobus monkeys, and a Tropical Rain Forest building full of tropical birds, ocelots, tamarins, snakes, frogs, and more.  I visit the Tropical Rain Forest for the jaguar, but stay for so much more that the area has to offer.

African Savanna – Another of my favorite themed areas, the African Savanna exhibit was the first of its kind when it opened in 1980.  You enter the area through a model African Village, which combines a message of culture, community, and conservation through a variety of interactive exhibits.  I was treated to some rhythmic music on my visit.  Animal highlights of the African Savanna include zebras and gazelles, hippos, giraffe, Patas monkeys, lions, sun bear, sloth bear, tigers, wild dogs, Komodo dragon, gorillas, meerkats, and a nice aviary display.  The Savanna abuts the Rain Forest, so it’s easy to move from one to the other.  If you time your visit well, you can feed the giraffes for a $5 fee.  It’s worth every penny to watch people’s eyes grow large as the giraffe munches on the grass held in their hands.

Feeding birds at Willawong Station, Woodland Park Zoo

Australasia – As you finish with the African Savanna, the path will take you into the Australasia section.  It’s small, but worthwhile, and you can get a quick glance at some of the animals from this part of the world.  This is home to snow leopards, kookaburras, wallaby, and emus.  The highlight, though, is the Willawong Station, an enclosed area that is home to parrots, parakeets, cockatiels, and other birds.  The birds fly free, and have the right away over human visitors, so it’s a chance to really get an up close look at these birds.  For $1 you can buy a wooden stick with some food on it, then place yourself and patiently wait for one of the birds to come eat off your stick.  If your quiet and move slowly you’ll have a bird’s eye view of your new best feathered friends.  Young kids, or those who move to quickly, will have a tougher time.

Flamingos at Woodland Park Zoo

Temperate Forest – Another small themed area, but well worth the time to see Asian crane, hornbills, red panda, flamingo, and over 50 different birds.

Humboldt Penguins – This relatively new exhibit (opened in 2009) is very popular, so you may need to wait patiently, or check back.  If the penguins are active they can really pack a crowd.

Those five exhibits, at a leisurely paces with some time to sit and enjoy the sun, made for a very full afternoon.  There’s more to see, though, if you’ve still got energy left.

Tropical Asia – This is home to the popular Elephant Forest, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to see these guys in their swimming pool.  A feeding schedule is posted and for $5 you can feed an elephant.  Also in this area are the Malayan tapirs, siamangs, orangutans, lion-tailed macaques, and pythons (I always skipped the latter).

Northern Trail – Resembling a trail in Denali National Park (Mt. McKinley), you’ll see animals typically found in Alaska including mountain goats, arctic fox, brown bear, river otter, snowy owl, wolves, and elk.

Raptor Exhibit and Show – From a look at the magnificent Bald Eagle to owls, falcon, and more, this up close look at raptors will make you appreciate their size and power.  Scheduled shows give you an opportunity to see how they fly and hunt for prey, as well as a chance to learn more about them.

Parrot at Willawong station Woodland Park Zoo

Other things to do at the zoo:

Zoomazium – If you have kids 8 or under, they can blow off a little steam in this play area.  It’s nature-themed and has things to climb on, walk on and under, and chairs for weary adults.

Carousel – This hand-carved carousel is as beautiful as it is popular.


Location:  5500 Phinney Avenue North, Seattle.  There are many entrances into the park, but this South Entrance is considered the main one.  Metro Bus routes drop passengers off at the West Entrance (55th & Phinney).

Hours:  Summer hours are 9:30 am – 6 pm (May-September).  Winter hours are 9:30 – 4 pm (October-April).

Admission:  $17.50 adults, $11.50 children (ages 3-12).  Discounted admission during the winter.  If you visit the zoo more than twice a year, an annual pass is a great bargain.  Additionally, it makes it easy to come for shorter periods of time rather than having to set aside an entire day.  I’m a Zoo member.

Parking:  $5.25.  The lots fill up fast, so you may need to look for street parking in the surrounding neighborhood and walk to the nearest entrance.

Food & Drink:  Concessions stands are located through the zoo, from ice cream and popcorn carts, to pizza and Asian food at a food court.  You may also bring in your own food and beverage for snacks or a picnic.  Remember though, the food is for people, NOT animals.