Visiting the zoo is a great way to learn about local animals and plants as well as stretch your legs. If you love animals or have kids, it’s only a half hour from Downtown Chandler to the Phoenix Zoo, the largest non-profit zoo in the nation and one of the top five zoos for kids. And, having just celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, it’s also one of the newest major zoos you can visit in the United States. 

A visit to the Phoenix Zoo, which today is home to more than 1,400 animals, including 30 endangered or threatened species, begins by crossing the bridge from the parking lot to the ticket booths. Watch for turtles sunning themselves on logs and fish swimming in the waters below as you cross. 

What to see

The entrance opens to a plaza where you can rent strollers, wheelchairs, and scooters; grab a bite to eat, or find a souvenir at the gift shop. Stingray Bay, where you can touch and feed 30 stingrays (additional charge), is also here. If you can, though, resist the urge to visit the stingrays first and continue straight ahead to one of the zoo’s most popular attractions, the African Savannah. From the overlook, you’ll see giraffe, zebra, and other safari animals roaming through the long grasses and pausing at a rocky watering hole for a drink.

From there, you have the option of continuing to the Africa Trail, Tropics Trail, Discovery Trail or Arizona Trail. If your time is limited, though, make the Arizona Trail a priority. Dedicated to native animals such as the Mexican grey wolf and the mountain lion, the Arizona Trail sets the Phoenix Zoo apart from others by showing how these animals have adapted to conditions in the state and how they continue to survive here. 

Other Phoenix Zoo highlights include the Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers, Komodo dragons, Andean bears, and 2-year-old baby Jiwa in the Bornean orangutan exhibit. If you love monkeys, don’t miss the nation’s only walk-through squirrel monkey exhibit in Monkey Village. 

As you explore, take note of the gleaming white pyramid perched on the rocks overlooking the pronghorn deer, mountain lion, and javelina exhibits on the Arizona Trail. It serves as the tomb of Arizona’s first governor, George W.P. Hunt, and if you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike to it from Papago Park. (The vantage point also offers great views of the city in all directions and of the zoo below.)

What to do

There’s plenty for the entire family to do at the Phoenix Zoo. Catch an animal-themed show incorporating smell, water, wind, and other theater effects at the 4-D theater; ride the Safari Train on a loop around the zoo; or captain a pedal boat. Additionally, kids can cool off in splash ponds during the summer, ride the Endangered Species Carousel, and play in a treehouse in the Enchanted Forest. (There’s an additional charge for some activities.) 

Animal lovers have plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with members of the wild kingdom. In addition to Stingray Bay and Monkey Village, you can meet giraffes at the Giraffe Encounter, ride camels, and brush goats at the Red Barn (additional charge for the Giraffe Encounter and camel rides). The zoo also holds live animal shows at the Enchanted Forest Amphitheatre, weather permitting, Thursday through Monday.  

What to know

Since the animals tend to retreat into the shade where it is difficult to see them during the summer months, the zoo has seasonal hours. From June 1 through August 31, it is open from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily. The rest of the year it opens at 9 a.m. and closes seasonally at either 5 p.m. or 4 p.m. Check online before you go to confirm hours and see if there are changes in the daily schedule or exhibit closures. 

Regardless of the time of the year you visit, bring plenty of sunscreen, cold water, and a hat, and make sure to wear comfortable shoes since you’ll have to walk roughly 2.5 miles to see the zoo’s entire 125 acres. If you visit during the summer with small children, consider bringing swimsuits or water-friendly clothes, so they can splash around in Yakulla Caverns or Leapin’ Lagoon. 

Although you can purchase food and drinks at several cafes throughout the zoo, you can also bring your own packed in an ice chest or cooler and find a picnic table along the trails. (For the best people and animal watching, try to score a picnic table near the lagoon if you can.) Just remember, glass and alcohol are not permitted. 

The zoo also allows guests to bring roller blades and bikes to cover more ground during their visit. Skateboards, scooters, balloons, balls, Frisbees, radios, whistles, and weapons (real or toys), however, are not permitted. There is also no smoking at the zoo.

Seasonal events

The Phoenix Zoo hosts several special events throughout the year including Starry Safari, summer evenings with water slides and animal encounters, and Boot at the Zoo, an annual Halloween-themed celebration. By far, though, the most popular event is ZooLights, which runs from late November through early January.

ZooLights features millions of lights decorating trees, glimmering in its hundreds of light displays, and blinking on and off to the lakeside Music-in-Motion show. Kids can get their photos with Santa, play in the snow, and drink hot cocoa. As the holidays approach, check online for exact dates, times, and ticket prices. Discounts are available if you purchase tickets online before you go. 

If you do decide to go, be prepared for crowds, and be aware that you probably won’t see any of the animals in their exhibits.  

If You Go: 

Phoenix Zoo
445 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix
(602) 286-3800

Open daily: Hours are seasonal. 
Admission: $24.95 for adults, $14.95 for children 3-13.