Best San Diego Zoo Itineraries in 2021 (with Toddlers or for Adults)

Best San Diego Itineraries - with Toddlers or for Adults

I spent 7 hours mapping out the two most efficient walking routes thru the San Diego Zoo for my family (& yours!). But before you print these itinerary maps, here’s how to plan your best San Diego Zoo itinerary in 2021.

To start mapping your itinerary, first select & reserve any paid tours. Locate everyone’s favorite animals on their map. Schedule your Guided Bus Tour. Choose the most interesting Keeper Talks & experiences. Decide where to eat. And avoid steep uphill climbs, especially with toddlers.

IMPORTANT: As of June 2020 San Diego Zoo has removed the escalator that used to go up the hill from Hua Mei Cafe to the top of the canyon at Parker Aviary. The elevator at Bashor Bridge is a good alternative or ride the Kangaroo Bus.

Both these itineraries take into account the missing escalator and the Skyfari renovation closure. They also cover all of the best animal exhibits and attractions at the zoo. I created one printable zoo walking route map for adults and another map for those with tykes. Read on for some questions and suggestions that will help you adapt what’s on the maps to plan a day that will make everyone happy.

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Save with a secret San Diego Zoo discount code on each 1-Day Pass. Go any day. Go straight to the gate. Click HERE to buy. Enter code at checkout. You’ll get your tickets by email. This code is only good at aRes Travel, the San Diego-based authorized ticket seller.

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7 Questions to Help You Plan Your San Diego Zoo Itinerary

You can’t see everything at San Diego Zoo in one day. There are 4,000+ animals and 650 different species and subspecies at this attraction. The schedule for the free-with-entry Keeper Talks and Animal Experiences isn’t optimal. You’d have to be in two places at once to see them all.

To make things more complicated, sometimes people want to see both the Zoo and the Safari Park in one day. If that’s you, read my “How to do both San Diego Zoo and Safari Park in One Day.” page. It has a detailed itinerary for both parks and maps. It has tips for making it an enjoyable experience rather than an exhausting marathon.

So now that you know that you can’t see everything, you need to establish some priorities.

#1 Which Paid Tours Do You Want to Take?

You can have personal encounters with some of the most interesting San Diego Zoo animals. They cost extra in addition to your admission, but I recommend any of them if they’re within your budget (click to find 31 different San Diego Zoo discount ticket options). Especially if one of them features someone’s favorite animal.

Read through their list of these Upgraded Experiences and see if one of them appeals to you and your group. Then reserve it. Some of these tours fill up fast.

The times and beginning points are not listed on the standard zoo map. So make a note of where you need to be to start your tour. Be on time. There are no last-minute refunds if you miss it.

Read my page on “Can You Hold Animals at the San Diego Zoo” for more details on how to get closer to some of your favorite animals without paying extra.

#2 What Are Your Favorite Animals?

San Diego Zoo orangutan

The San Diego Zoo has all the expected animals like lions, tigers, and giraffes. If someone in your group is nuts about another animal note their location and be sure to visit them. One thing to remember is that the Zoo does not have any large marine animals. For that you would need to go to SeaWorld.

The easiest way to find a particular animal is to use the Zoo app. It’s available for both Apple and Android.

Open the app. Select San Diego Zoo>Exhibits then click the search menu button. Your animal will come up. Click on the photo and the app will show you where their exhibit is.

Here’s a screenshot of the app. It’s hard to spot the search button if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

San Diego Zoo App - how to search for the location of specific animals

You can also discover where your animal favorites are by using the Zoo website’s Animal & Plants page. Scroll down below the first large photograph you’ll see FILTER BY. Use the drop-down menu box labeled “Zoo Location”. All the species in their collection are there. But you may have to search through several Zones to find them.

#3 When Should You Ride the San Diego Zoo Guided Bus Tour?

Guided Tour Bus at San Diego Zoo

Ride the San Diego Zoo Guided Bus Tour first unless you’ve got a favorite animal that you already know that you want to photograph in the cool of the morning. In that case, go there first and take your pictures. Then come back to take the bus tour. 

Look for seats on the driver’s right side on the top level. Most of the exhibits are going to be on that side of the bus.

What if your favorite animal is a polar bear? In that case, make sure you seat yourself on the driver’s left-hand side. 

The other major exceptions are the giant anteaters and the mountain lions. But those animals are actually best viewed as you walk by. Much of the anteaters’ exhibit is beneath the ramp that leads down from the Skyfari exit down to Park Way. The mountain lions are often found sleeping within their cave. Yeah, they’re cats, which means that 80% of the time they’re going to be napping.

NOTE FOR THOSE WITH TODDLERS: You’ll have to park your stroller. Any kids under 3 years old will have to be held on your lap. You may want to temporarily split up your group if you’ve got a squirming 2-year-old. Their attention span is too limited. Let the rest of your party ride the bus while you take your tot to see the flamingos.

For more on the Guided Bus Tour see my page on when’s the best time to visit San Diego Zoo.

#4 Which Animal Encounters, Keeper Talks and Animal Experiences Do You Want to See?

The Animal Encounters, Keeper Talks and Animal Experience events are free with your admission to San Diego Safari Park. They’re entertaining, informative and ever-changing. Plan to see as many in your San Diego Zoo itinerary as you can.  Here’s the online schedule for the free Animal Encounters and Keeper Talks at various points throughout the zoo. 

Click to download the pdf map of the zoo below. I’ve added tags that show when and where these presentations take place.

San Diego Zoo Map tagged with the locations of regularly scheduled presentations, keeper talks and animal experiences.
Click to download the annotated pdf map of the San Diego Zoo.

#5 Where (and What) Do You Want to Eat?

If you want to sample the best food at San Diego Zoo, I suggest that you book a reservation at Albert’s Restaurant. For what’s good at the other eateries, check out my article on “Where’s San Diego Zoo’s Best Food?

You can also bring personal food into the zoo. Here’s a page that tells you what is allowed

BONUS: Where Are the Steep Hills (& how to avoid them)?

San Diego Zoo’s built on and around a natural canyon and the nearby hills. The zoo does its best to make all of it accessible to those with mobility impairments. Blue dots on San Diego Zoo’s map show the wheelchair accessible routes. But the terrain makes providing universal access impossible. Click HERE and you’ll find the zoo’s guide for guests with disabilities. 

You may find yourself puffing a bit near the tops of San Diego Zoo’s steeper streets and paths. Even if you’re a marathoning mountain goat. It’s better to minimize the number of hills you have to climb so your energy lasts all day.

Below you’ll find a color-enhanced Google Terrain map of the zoo which clearly shows the canyon. You have to climb 282 feet in elevation to go from the bottom to the top at Front Street. And of course most of the elevation change happens within a very short distance. Elephant Odyssey, Sabertooth Grill and Front Street are all above the canyon.

San Diego Zoo Google Terrain map screenshot. Color enhanced image shows elevation change from canyon bottom to Front Street via Hippo Trail. Also how long the hike takes going uphill vs down.

Want to plan on walking the steepest hills down instead of up? Scroll (or preferably read down) to my “San Diego One Day Itinerary Map for Adults & Older Children”. It’s the most efficient route through the San Diego Zoo and routes you around the steepest climbs.

Popular San Diego Zoo Animals Exhibits to Include in Your Walking Route

Gorillas in Lost Forest

San Diego Zoo - two Western Lowland gorillas. In the Lost Forest

We can’t get enough of them. Young and old are captivated by the behaviors of our fellow primates. In addition, the youngsters are just cute and get into mischief just like our kids do.

The great apes’ exhibit is green and lushly planted. A nice side effect is that this exhibit stays fairly cool on hot afternoons. There’s also a waterfall that looks so cool and refreshing you almost want to get inside and take a dip yourself. Please, don’t even try. Ok?

In addition to observing the gorillas, there are other interesting features of their exhibit. 

Life-sized bronze gorilla statues make a great focal point for family or group photos. They’re also fun for younger kids to play on.

Are your hands and arms gorilla-sized? Put your hands alongside their hand cast impressions. Stand in front of the full-size diagram and measure your arm lengths against theirs.

Gorilla-Human size comparison drawing at the San Diego Zoo.

When to go? You’ll want to get to the Gorilla exhibit fairly early. During the last hours of the day before closing the gorillas sometimes go into their bedrooms early. Too much attention from their adoring public perhaps?

Hippos, Okapi, Swamp Monkeys & Otters

San Diego Zoo hippo in the Lost Forest

Hippos are unexpectedly graceful in the water. The hippo habitat at the San Diego Zoo allows you to watch these 3,000 pound animals improbably prancing through their exhibit.

Watch the young swamp monkeys play with the African spotted-necked otters at the bottom of Hippo Trail in Lost Forest. Young kids (and the rest of us who are young at heart) can watch otters dive, swim and slide for hours. Seeing impish monkeys playing tag with otter tails so that the otters will chase them will cheer up even the grumpiest tyke. 

The Big Cats of Asian Passage

Snow leopard yawning in San Diego Zoo's Asian Passage exhibit. Photo by Bob Ulrich

If you’re crazy about cats you’ll love this exhibit. Amur and snow leopards are all around you and sometimes lounging on overhead walkways. Whether gracefully asleep or stalking through their rocky enclosures they are among the most beautiful animals at the zoo. 

This is a favorite spot for photographers. In addition to the amazing cats, you’ll also see some spectacularly big camera lenses. 

If you’re interested in more big cats there are lions in Elephant Odyssey and tigers in Lost Forest. And if you get the chance, head north to Safari Park for the spectacular Tiger Trail.

Don’t miss the Red Pandas. Their bigger brethren, the giant pandas, returned to China in Spring 2019. But these fluffy faced, rusty-colored, raccoon-tailed bundles of adorability are still padding their silent way into people’s hearts. Take the time to take a peek at them. 

Elephant Odyssey

San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey-African elephant taking a drink

Elephant Odyssey will be one of your favorite destinations. Here you’ll find both Asian & African elephants. You’ll learn about the world’s largest land animals, their extinct relatives the mastodon and other animals that used to live in San Diego 12,000+ years ago.

This zone also contains lions, jaguars, California condors, camels, rattlesnakes and secretary birds among others. You can also take photos alongside or on statues of some of their much larger (and rather scary) ancestors.

This is also a geriatric elephant care facility. Elephants ‘retired’ from Safari Park are cared for here as well as animals from other zoos and facilities that need extra care. You can watch them get medical exams and pachyderm pedicures at the Elephant Care Center. 

Saber tooth tiger skull replica at San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey

There’s also a simulated tar pit full of prehistoric ‘bones’ that drains & fills periodically. Handle a full-size replica of a saber-tooth tiger skull. And run your fingers along the back of their large canine teeth & feel the serrations that helped them cut through thick hides of their prey. 

Africa Rocks ‘Flying’ Penguins

San Diego Zoo Africa Rocks has these South African penguins that look like they're flying through the water.

African or Jackass penguins are only flightless in the sky. In the water, they soar like eagles with stubby wings. You can see them fly by through aquarium windows almost 2 stories tall. Sometimes they’re curious enough to stop and interact with those looking at them through the glass. 

You can also see their adorkable land waddle in the above-water portion of their exhibit. The zoo’s provided them with faux stone nesting holes.

Their only downside is that they bray like donkeys. And like all jackasses, their noise can drive you crazy. 

Koalas in Australian Outback

Koala doe sleeping with her joey in the Australian Outback exhibit at San Diego Zoo. Photo by Bob Ulrich.

One reason why the San Diego Zoo is famous is that this is the biggest koala colony outside of Australia.

Don’t expect a lot of activity here. These animals sleep between 18 and 22 hours a day. That’s more than cats do.

But their lethargy doesn’t matter. They’re the only animals on the planet that can look huggable with their asses jammed in the crook of a tree.

If you’ve got a young girl with you, expect to stay awhile. Little lassies love koala fuzziness. While they ooh and ahh, find one of the red-shirted volunteers. Then learn about the koala’s weird biology and habits. 

They are most active when it’s cooler. If you’ve got a koala fan in your group, go there first instead of to the Guided Tour bus. Koalas are often fed soon after the Zoo opening. And they might actually be doing something crazy like…moving. 

Once you’ve had your fill of koala cuteness, backtrack to the Guided Tour Bus to get an overview of the zoo. 

Feed a Giraffe in the Urban Jungle

Feed a giraffe at San Diego zoo. They love their "biscuits".

Getting this close to the HUGE head of a gentle giraffe is something that’s going to make a big impression on both kids and adults. Unfortunately, this activity is only available on weekends. 

But if you’re going to be at San Diego Zoo on Saturday or Sunday be sure to include it in your one-day itinerary. Be at the small hut close to the giraffe exhibit behind Sydney’s Grill before 11:30 in the morning. There you can buy 3 giraffe biscuits for $15. The actual feedings take place from noon to 1 PM. 

Ride a Tiger or Zebra to End Your Day

You can also ride on horses, lions, ostriches and more. The Balboa Carousel ride is a unique way to finish your San Diego Zoo itinerary. It’s silly, nostalgic fun for everyone from preschool kids to older adults. The Herschell-Spillman menagerie merry-go-round was built in 1910. All but two pairs of the hand-carved wooden animals are originals. 

It’s also one of the few carousels in the world that still offer the brass ring game. Take a seat on one of the animals on the outermost row of the platform. Try to grab the rings as you fly by. The iron rings don’t count. The person that grabs the brass ring gets a free ride.

MAP – San Diego Zoo One Day Itinerary for Adults & Older Children

San Diego Zoo Itinerary for Adults. Walking route. Times & locations of Keeper Talks, Animal Experiences & other events.
Click to download a printable PDF of this map and the walking directions.

By following this map you’ll see most of the animal exhibits with the least backtracking. And the route has been timed so that you’ll be able to take the Guided Tour Bus, and see 4 of the best Keeper Talks:

  • Polar Bears
  • Meerkats
  • Baboons
  • Giraffes

The route doesn’t include Skyfari or the Children’s Zoo because they are closed for construction now.

Map Key:

  1. Guided Bus Tour entrance
  2. Guided Bus Tour exit
  3. Galapagos Turtles (via Reptile House)
  4. Flamingos & Ducks Pond
  5. Gorillas
  6. Bonobos

E = Elevator DOWN

  1. Hippos
  2. Snow Leopards & Red Pandas
  3. Polar Bears
  4. Lions (and Elephant Odyssey)
  5. Sabertooth Grill (eat and watch elephants from your table)
  6. Baboons
  7. Penguins
  8. Orangutans (at the end of Orangutan Trail keep left and go down Fern Canyon Trail. It’s a steep downhill with steps. Your thighs will get a workout. But the route is one of the most beautiful in the zoo)
  9. Bear Canyon (turn right and go uphill on Center Street past the bears)
  10. Keep left at Sydney’s Grill and enter the Urban Jungle. See the Koalas, backtrack and watch the Giraffe Keeper Talk.
  11. Tasmanian Devils and Australian birds

Continue along the path towards #2 on Front Street. Stay on Front Street until you see the Exit sign. Turn left and leave the Zoo. Don’t forget to ride the Balboa Park Carousel before you head off to your next destination!

9 Tips for Planning Your San Diego Zoo Itinerary with Toddlers

Read my article on San Diego Zoo or Safari Park with your toddler if you’re having a hard time deciding which is best.

If you know that you’re going to the San Diego Zoo with a toddler in tow read on!

#1 Schedule Around Any Upgraded Zoo Tours>

 Upgraded Experiences like Animals in Action, Inside Look Tour, Discovery Tour and Exclusive VIP Experiences are activities that you pay for in addition to your admission fee. They have their own schedules. Don’t be late for them. There are no last-minute refunds.

You’ll have to hold your youngster on your lap if they’re 2 years old or younger.

#2 Follow the blue dotted paths

Small blue dots indicate wheelchair and stroller accessible walking routes on San Diego Zoo map.

…on the San Diego Zoo’s map. The most accessible routes around the Zoo are marked with little blue dots on their map. They’re easy to miss unless you know what you’re looking for. And now you do.

The zoo was established in 1915 within a natural canyon and series of hills common to this area of San Diego. Because of this, there are barriers for the disabled (and those learning to walk). Staying on blue-dotted paths will avoid steep hills & staircases at this attraction.  

If you are looking for the zoo’s accessibility map you can find it HERE.

You do NOT want to try to push a baby carriage or wheelchair up Hippo Trail from the okapi up to the gorillas. Even going downhill on the routes not marked by dots can be a challenge to your braking skills. 

#3 Skip the Guided Tour Bus

Children under 3 years old should not ride the Guided Tour Bus. Kids that age are often too fidgety to sit still for a 35-minute ride. If necessary split your party up and some of you ride the bus and someone stays behind with the littlest. 

#4 Look for Play Areas Disguised as Animal Statues

Toddler playing on hippo sculpture in play area at San Diego Zoo.

Many of the animal sculptures double as mini-play structures for kids. Your little monkey will have fun climbing gorillas, hippos, mastodons and sabertooth cats. Those authorized for child play have rubberized playground surfacing material underneath. It’s springy and safer for the inevitable toddler stumbles and falls. 

On sunny days, touch the figures to check their surface temperature. Some of the sculptures are made of bronze and may get too hot for your youngster’s tender skin.

#5 See the Flamingos & Duck Pond

Chilean Flamingos at San Diego Safari Park.

You’ll find these birds at the beginning of Monkey Trail in the Lost Forest. Small children like to see the hot pink birds standing (or sleeping) on one leg.You can play “let’s pretend to be a flamingo” with your hatchlings. See how long you both can stand on one leg while squawking. 

#6 Plan to Spend Lots of Time with the Penguins

Toddlers think that the waddling penguins at Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks are funny. Maybe because the birds walk a bit like they do? 

Also, take your toddler to the aquarium part of the exhibit. They’ll be mesmerized by the sight of penguins and sharks soaring through the water in the HUGE windows. Take some time to relax in the shady coolness yourself. There are plenty of benches where you can sit, watch and unwind.

#7 Play in the Polar Ice

In the Northern Frontier zone, there’s a crawl-able faux ice polar bear cave that your toddler will love. Your kiddos can also pretend to be seals poking their heads up through holes in the “ice”. 

#8 Watch the Gorillas in Lost Forest

San Diego Zoo Western Lowland Gorilla eating lettuce in Lost Forest.

Small children are fascinated by the big primates. There are many windows where tots can view the great apes at their level. There is also a group of bronze statues depicting a gorilla family that tots enjoy climbing on and under.

#9 Take Your Toddler on a Train Ride to End the Day

The miniature train just outside the zoo gate runs on weekends most of the year. In spring, summer and school holidays it runs daily. Don’t get into the train with a group of school kids. hcirluycnan. When they go into the tunnel they will all scream at the same time. Preserve your hearing and avoid scaring your toddler by taking the next train.

MAP – San Diego Zoo 1 Day Itinerary with Toddlers

San Diego Zoo Itinerary with Toddlers. Walking route. Times & locations of Keeper Talks, Animal Experiences & other events.
Click to download printable pdf map and walking directions for San Diego Zoo One Day Itinerary with Toddlers

Here’s the best stroller & small child-friendly route through San Diego Zoo. It does not show the Skyfari or the Children’s’ Zoo because these are still closed for renovations.

This route has a minimum of backtracking. There’s some, just because you’re pushing a stroller and the zoo’s hilly topography. It does maximize the number of animal presentations. You’ll be able to see 4 of the Keeper Talks:

  • Polar Bears
  • Meerkats
  • Baboons
  • Giraffes

Map Key:

Start at ENTER on the map. Follow my hot pink map numbers around the zoo on the image above. NOTE: My numbers have no correlation to the numbers in pink circles on the official San Diego Zoo map.

  1. Guided Bus Tour- not advised for those younger than 3 years old
  2. Meet bus riders in your group here at the Guided Bus Tour Unloading point
  3. Galapagos Turtles via Reptile House
  4. Flamingo & Duck Pond
  5. Gorillas (play area with gorilla statues. Then backtrack to take route thru Scripps Aviary)
  6. Bonobos (then backtrack to elevator)

E = Take Elevator DOWN. Turn right out of the elevator and take the right hand path down Hippo Trail. This is NOT a blue dot path. It’s a rather steep downhill walk here. But you’ll find that the animals are worth it. Hold onto that stroller!

  1. Hippos (and play area on statue)
  2. Snow Leopards & Red Pandas

E = Take Bashor Bridge Elevator UP

  1. Polar Bears (stay for the Keeper Talk then backtrack towards Elephant Odyssey)
  2. Lions (mastodon, extinct giant cats play areas)
  3. Sabertooth Grill (Eat and watch the elephants from your table. Let the kiddos play around the Sabertooth cat and giant cave bear sculptures. Then head off to see the Meerkats & Baboons Keeper talks)
  4. Penguins
  5. Orangutans (At Front Street turn left to go past #2 again to #14)
  6. Tasmanian Devils
  7. Koalas & Giraffes (almost time to see the Giraffe Keeper Talk?)
  8. Bear Canyon (continue heading downhill to #12)

Follow the orange dot path on my annotated map. At the bottom of Bear Canyon turn left to Bashor Bridge. Then ride the elevator to the top. Exit and turn left towards Treetops Cafe and Alberts Restaurant. Take Treetops Way to Front Street then Exit.

Ride the Miniature Train outside the zoo exit.

Go back to your lodgings tired but happy.

Closing Thoughts

I hope that I’ve given you enough tips so that planning your visit to San Diego Zoo doesn’t seem quite so complicated. And if you are feeling a bit rushed, you can always just download one of the two walking route maps that I’ve made for you. Whether you’re visiting with toddlers or it’s an adults-only trip, enjoy your San Diego Zoo itinerary.

Nancy Ulrich

I'm nuts...about animals, polymer clay, mixed media art & husband Bob. Happily planted in San Diego among good friends, family that I would have chosen if given the choice and optimism for a bountiful future for us all.

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