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I'm Terri and I love to travel with my kids. We have a goal of visiting all 50 states. Learn more...
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DC – National Zoo

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park, more commonly known as just the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C. has been in the news recently with excitement of the birth of a panda cub, and subsequently the tragic news of the cub’s death. In fact, when I started writing this article, the cub was alive, so I’ve had to rewrite parts of it. My daughter and I were both very excited about the cub and were distraught to read of her death.

Nevertheless, despite the disappointment of not having a panda cub, the opportunity to view the adult pandas is still an excellent reason to put the National Zoo on your D.C. trip itinerary.

Only four zoos in the U.S. have pandas.  (The other three are Atlanta, Memphis, and San Diego.) Other reasons to include the National Zoo on your D.C. vacation are that it has free admission, and that it is a nice change of pace from memorials, government buildings, and museums. Don’t get me wrong–we loved seeing all that stuff, but I like every vacation to have a variety of activities.

First things first:  I know my readers appreciate helpful tips, so let’s start with getting to the zoo. Even if you drive to D.C., most experts recommend that when you get there you park your car and take public transportation. You might read the Metrorail Map and assume that the stop you should head for is the Woodley Park – Zoo/Adams Morgan, because, well, it’s got “zoo” in the name. Not so! The National Zoo entrance is located between the Cleveland Park and Woodley Park – Zoo / Adams Morgan stops, but from the “zoo” stop, it’s a slight uphill walk, and from the Cleveland Park stop, it’s downhill. It’s not a huge incline, but you’re going to need to save your energy for exploring the zoo, not getting there, so you should plan to arrive via Cleveland Park and leave via Woodley Park – Zoo / Adams Morgan. You’re welcome. :-)

You’ll know when you get there. The zoo entrance is hard to miss.

Next, you need a map.  Admission is free, but maps are not. Souvenir maps are sold for $2 near the entrance.It’s well worth $2. If electronics are your thing, then buy the Zoo App for $1.99 for your smartphone. In addition to a GPS-enabled map, it has other features like live animal cams, activity schedules (animal feedings, etc.), touring tips, and live transportation information.

When planning your visit to the National Zoo, keep in mind that the zoo grounds are open for longer hours than the exhibit buildings. During the summer, the grounds are open from 6 am to 8 pm, and the buildings are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. We were there for a late afternoon and evening visit, so we planned to see the building exhibits during the earlier part of our visit.

The zoo is laid out with a single main walking path through the zoo, with some smaller side paths to different exhibits. The walk is all downhill which means that at the end of our visit, you have to walk uphill to get back to the entrance, so keep that in mind. My family’s top priority was to see the pandas, which are located close to the entrance. But before the pandas, we stopped to see a couple of animals on the way. Cheetahs are such amazing animals!

Here are some oryx:

Did I impress you that I knew what those were? In actuality, I had to look them up. The website says they are desert antelope. I also found out they are extinct in the wild.

Then we went to see the pandas. Until recently, the National Zoo had two adult pandas, the male Tian Tian, and female Mei Xiang.

During our visit we saw a very hungry panda. I tried figuring out whether this is Tian Tian or Mei Xiang by comparing it to the zoo’s pictures, but I’m just not sure. If I had to guess, I’d pick Mei Xiang.

Are there any panda experts who can figure it out? Here’s a side view:

Another highlight of our visit was watching the orangutans. Researchers at the National Zoo perform research on how animals think at the Think Tank Exhibit. Outside there is an overhead line where orangutans can travel between the Think Tank and the Great Apes exhibit building. I love this photo of my son and an orangutan staring at each other. I wonder what the orangutan is thinking. My guess is, “I want a pair of glasses like that,” but I’m not an animal researcher, so I can’t be sure.

I was not in the mood for reptiles that day, so I handed my camera to one of the kids to take into the Reptile Discovery Center. This was the picture I got:

I’m glad I wasn’t nose-to-nose with that thing!

The National Zoo has many other exhibits that either we didn’t have time to see or I didn’t photograph. Amazonia is a 15,000 square-foot rainforest exhibit that combines fish with tropical vegetation and animals like frogs and monkeys. Kids can interact with animals at the Kids’ Farm. Prairie Dog lovers will want to check out the Prairie Playland.  Depending on your family’s interests, you might want to include the Great Cats, Lemur Island, Invertebrates, or Bird House in your visit.

Daily Activities include various demonstrations such as a Great Ape Research Demo in the Think Tank, spider and fish feeding, and many more. The website or app will have the most current information on the daily programs.  Make sure to check the schedule and plan your visit accordingly.

Ready to Visit?

Smithsonian National Zoological Park
3001 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC  20008

 

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3 comments to DC – National Zoo

  • We visited this zoo over Memorial Day this year, so here’s a tip: don’t go on a holiday! It’s a free attraction, so you expect crowds, but on a holiday? Brutal!

    That said, the pandas were great. So were the elephants!

  • julie

    Thanks for the great info about the zoo- We are planning to visit in March. Do you recommend a whole day just for the zoo and it’s attractions, or can it be done in 1/2 a day?

    • Terri Weeks

      Julie – I think you could do either. We spent a half day there and enjoyed it, but I don’t think you’d get bored if you spent a whole day either. There’s just SO much to do in DC and we didn’t want to miss out on other places.