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Balboa Park's—and perhaps the city's—most famous attraction is its 100-acre zoo. Nearly 4,000 animals of some 800 diverse species roam in hospitable, expertly crafted habitats that replicate natural environments as closely as possible. The flora in the zoo, including many rare species, is even more costly than the fauna. Walkways wind over bridges and past waterfalls ringed with tropical ferns; elephants in a sandy plateau roam so close you're tempted to pet them.
How to explore: Exploring the zoo fully requires the stamina of a healthy hiker, but open-air double-decker buses that run throughout the day let you zip through three-quarters of the exhibits on a guided 35- to 40-minute, 3-mile tour. There are also express buses, used for quick transportation, that make five stops around the grounds and include some narration. The Skyfari Aerial Tram, which soars 170 feet above the ground, gives a good overview of the zoo's layout and, on clear days, a panorama of the park,
downtown San Diego, the bay, and the ocean, far beyond the San Diego–Coronado Bridge. Unless you come early, expect to wait for the regular bus, and especially for the top tier—the line can take more than 45 minutes; if you come at midday on a weekend or school holiday, you'll be doing the in-line shuffle for a while.
Below is an overview of the zoo's highlights. Also note that when you've finished here, you haven't seen it all until you've seen the San Diego Safari Park, the zoo's 1,800-acre extension to the north at Escondido.
Scripps Aviary & Gorilla Tropics. Wander the zoo's paths, such as the one that climbs through the huge, enclosed Scripps Aviary, where brightly colored tropical birds swoop between branches just inches from your face, and then goes into the neighboring Gorilla Tropics, one of the zoo's bioclimatic zone exhibits, where animals live in enclosed environments modeled on their native habitats. The zones look and sound natural, thanks in part to modern technology: The sounds of the tropical rain forest emerge from a 144-speaker sound system that plays CDs recorded in Africa.
Tiger River. Feel like you're descending into an Asian jungle in the zoo's simulated Asian rain forest, where the mist-shrouded trails winding down a canyon into Tiger River are bordered by fragrant jasmine, ginger lilies, and orchids. Tigers, Malayan tapirs, and Argus pheasants wander among the exotic trees and plants.
Ituri Forest. Glimpse huge but surprisingly graceful hippos frolicking underwater and buffalo cavorting with monkeys on dry land at a 4-acre African rain forest at the base of Tiger River.
Sun Bear Forest. Enjoy the sight of playful beasts constantly clawing apart the trees and shrubs that serve as a natural playground for climbing, jumping, and general merrymaking.
Polar Bear Plunge. Watch the featured animals take chilly dives and learn about their arctic lifestyle through a series of interactive exhibits at this popular place.
Absolutely Apes. View endangered apes close up courtesy of the 110-foot-long and 12-foot-high viewing windows lining this lush, tropical environment where orangutans and siamans climb, swing, and generally live almost as they would in the wild.
Panda Canyon & Australian Outback. Say hi to the zoo's famous giant pandas and its cute koalas. The zoo houses the largest number of koalas outside Australia, and they remain major crowd-pleasers even though they are overshadowed by the pandas, and especially the baby pandas that result from the work of the zoo's department of Conservation and Research for Endangered Species.
Discovery Outpost. Enjoy a hands-on experience where the goats and sheep beg to be petted. There is one viewer-friendly nursery where you may see various baby animals bottle-feed and sleep peacefully in large cribs. Children can see entertaining creatures of all sorts at the shows put on daily at the outpost's Hunte Amphitheater.
Lost Forest. Follow an elevated trail at treetop level and trek paths on the forest floor, observing some of nature's most unusual and threatened animals and birds, including African mandrills, Asia's clouded leopard, the rare pygmy hippopotamus, Visayan warty pigs from the Philippines, weaver birds that build the most elaborate nests of any species, not to mention flora such as endangered mahogany trees, rare, exotic orchids, and insect-eating plants.
Elephant Odyssey. Learn about the animals that lived in Southern California thousands of years ago and meet their today counterparts. The 7.5-acre, multispecies habitat features elephants, California condors, jaguars, and more.
4-D theaters. Get interactive (and possibly a bit misted) with a 4-D movie. The two large screens featuring Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs or Rio: The 4-D Experience (additional admission, $6 each) promise thrilling adventures based on the popular animated movies.
Tours: Behind-the-scenes tours, walking tours, tours in Spanish, and tours for people with hearing or vision impairments are available, although some require advance notice—check the website or call for details.
Rentals, Shops & More: The zoo rents strollers, wheelchairs, and lockers; it also has a first-aid office, a lost and found, and an ATM. It's best to avert your eyes from the two main gift shops until the end of your visit, because you can easily spend a half day just poking through the wonderful animal-related posters, crafts, dishes, clothing, and toys. There is one guilt-alleviating fact if you buy too much: some of the profits of your purchases go to zoo programs.