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Guide to the Phoenix Zoo

Guide to the Phoenix Zoo

guide to the Phoenix Zoo

There are only a few places my toddler likes more than the Phoenix Zoo (his cousins house and both of his grandparents houses). Over the past year we have gone once a week almost every week so in a way it feels like our backyard and we know our way around it pretty well. I wanted to share some of the things we've learned for anyone who is planning a trip to our zoo anytime soon.

Because I could describe each exhibit in detail I'm listing my main pointers here at the top and then if you'd like more detail about any topic you can scroll down to the sections below and read what you're interested in knowing about.

My Best Tips

cave playground at the Phoenix zoo
  • Get a zoo pass if you'll have the opportunity to visit more than once a year! It pays itself off in just a few visits! And if you get a pass, don't forget your I.D.
  • Bring a water bottle. Even if you're visiting in winter, the sun is really strong in Phoenix and shade can be scarce. It is really easy to get dehydrated, any time of year. 
  • If you're going in the summer, have your kids wear shoes they can get wet because there are splash pads! As well as a little creek they can play in. We wear Saltwaters,  I've seen lots of kids in flip flops as well. 
  • I also just have my little boy wear a swimsuit and a t-shirt in the summer. That way when the splashpad calls, all I have to do is take off my little guy's shirt and he can run on in. I bring an extra diaper (hopefully underwear this summer!) and extra shorts. We'll walk around a bit in our shorts afterwards until he dries off (doesn't take long) and then we'll put dry shorts on and we are good to go! 
  • You don't have to take a picture when they ask you if you'd like one at the entrance.
  • If you only have a short period of time during your visit. hit up the Tropics trail starting at the tigers and follow it to monkey village. On your way to the exit continue to loop around the lake and that way you'll see the giraffe exhibit as well.
  • The playgrounds are really fun.
  • If you want to do any of the extra activities that you have to pay for, feed the giraffes!!!! It's at specific times (usually 10:30-11:30 and 12:30-1:30 I believe, but I think it is different in the summer). Also, they'll take your picture on your phone/camera if you ask them too.
  • The farm is sort of hidden but one of our favorite spots. Go check it out! 
  • Watch out for field trips, especially on Fridays in the spring. If your kids are little the older kids aren't often well supervised and aren't always cautious of tiny toddlers on the playgrounds.
  • The caves are awesome and kids love to play on them but there are two exits! So if you have a child that wanders, beware!
  • There is a family bathroom by the entrance and the bathrooms there, and it is usually available! It is awesome. It's around the corner from the women's bathroom.
  • The volunteers and workers at the zoo are so, so nice. I especially like talking to the ones in the orangoutang exhibit. They'll tell you stories about each orangoutang and it's just really neat.
  • If you don't have to bring your stroller, don't! My son wants to run around at the zoo and usually takes a goooood nap after, so I am happy to oblige. A stroller just seems to get in the way. With two kids, when it's not too hot and I am feeling really tough, I'll put my baby in my carrier and let my two year old run. Before I had two I would give my son a shoulder ride if he needed a break from walking during some of the long stretches.
  • There are some ground level statues of the animals by the tigers and the orangutangs that my kid and every other kid I've ever seen loves to play on. They are great for photo-ops too. Look for them if you visit those animals.
  • Snacks. Bring snacks. They do sell snacks at the zoo but if you go during the week not all the stands are open. Also, if you are picky or just don't want to pay zoo prices for food, bringing your own is the best bet. There are picnic tables and benches throughout the zoo so you have lots of places to sit and snack. But why sit? 
  • The exit is through the gift shop, so buckle your kids into their strollers or give them a ride on your shoulders and get through that as fast as you can. Good luck!

Zoo Pass

the Phoenix zoo

If you live in the area or come here frequently and are going to want to visit the zoo more than once, just buy a pass! For our family it paid for itself in three visits. I also really like the flexibility of being able to come just for a few hours. Normal entrance is $25 for adults (14 and up) and $15 for kids age 3-13. 2 and under are free, If I spent $25 to get in and then was there for less than 5 hours I would feel like I wasted my money (I'm cheap). With the pass, I know I can come back anytime and so I don't have to devote a day to going to the zoo. I've gone for as little as an hour and about 3 hours has been our max. Lots of times I go and then stop by Costco and Target on the way home. You know, just a fun pit stop for my son in the midst of normal errands. Besides the flexibility, there are other perks of having a zoo pass. You get to enter the zoo an hour early, you get a dollar off on most of the extra activities, and you get a few free zoo passes you can give to friends and family. ALSO! Almost forgot the best part. If you get a pass with 2 plus adults on it, you can just put one name on the pass and then you can always bring a friend. It's awesome because the pass is in my name (and you do have to show both your pass and your id at entrance) but I can bring my husband if we go on a Saturday, my mom if she's in town, or any friend who doesn't have a zoo pass (another kids age 2 and under are already free). I really, really love this feature. When you get your zoo pass make sure to bring your picture id because you can't get your name on the pass without it.

 What exhibits should I see?

tiger at the Phoenix Zoo

The Phoenix zoo is set up so animals from similar parts of the world are grouped together down a few different trails. There's the Arizona trail, the Tropics trail, the Africa trail, the Farm, a reptile exhibit. There are actually kind of two parts to the Tropics trail. One part (the back) is mainly animals from the Americas and the other part (closer to the lake) is mainly animals from southern Asia. There are also playgrounds, two splash pads, food stands, and extra activities dispersed throughout the zoo.

Our favorite trail is the Tropics trail with animals from Asia. This section of the zoo was recently redone and they did a really, really good job. There are good vantage points to see all the animals and most of the exhibits have thick glass windows, so the animals are feet (inches sometimes!) away from you and you get a really good look. Also, the animals on this part of the trail are kid favorites, and there are two exhibits where you actually walk in with the animals around you (tropical birds and squirrels monkeys). I especially love the squirrel monkey exhibit (more on that below).

If the tropics trail is the first trail you want to go on, you'll go right after the zoo entrance. You'll pass some great play spots on your way there (more below). We usually get some playing out on our way to visit the animals. You'll pass the lake on your left, go up a hill, and see the tiger exhibit! And so the tropics trail starts.

This exhibit is so rad. There are two tigers, and their habitats are next to each other but separated by a chainlink fence. I heard that they did it because tigers are more solitary creatures and may not get along if put together right away. The viewpoint is under a large pavilion, and if you've ever been in the Phoenix sun for long you know how welcome that cool shade is. Each tiger has a glass wall AND each tiger often goes right up to it and sleeps or lounges. It is really cool to be so close to those cats. The more downhill tiger seems to be a little easier to spot and more active. The uphill tiger is sometimes a little trickier to see. The other spots I have seen it at are under the big shady tree about halfway back the exhibit, and if you leave the exhibit and walk up the hill there is a bush by the fence it often sits by. This is one of the newer exhibits and they did a really nice job with it; when we moved to Phoenix the tiger was way over by the lions in the Africa trail and you could hardly see them. 

tiger at the Phoenix zoo

Across from the tigers is the Komodo Dragon. I feel like it is one people might skip a lot but it is actually really cool. It is a smaller exhibit with a glass wall that the Komodo Dragon often comes right up to.  I really like watching it walk around, it's like nothing I've ever seen before. There are also two baby Komodo dragons and a Chinese crocodile but I don't think they're quite as exciting as the big Komodo dragon.

Across from the Komodo dragons is a pathway. Go down it! It leads to a really up close viewpoint of the elephants. We've seen elephants walk right by, get up on their hind legs to eat from the hanging feeder, and scratch their back on the contraption nearby, Last time we were there we watched the zookeepers switch out the elephant in the exhibiit and they threw the elephants apples. We were totally entranced by this. Have you ever seen an elephants mouth before? It was my first time and it did not look like I expected it to. My two year old is still talking about this. There is also a spot on this path with a view of the tigers! It is just a small viewpoint but occasionally is the best spot to see the more downhill tiger. 

elephant at the phoenix zoo

The orangoutangs are further down this path and their exhibit is really big, and has glass which they are often right up against. Something neat about this exhibit is that it's a family of orangoutangs, and the volunteers inside the central pavilion can tell you lots about each animal. I don't remember all their names but I am pretty sure the mom is named Duchess. She has a mate, a daughter, and a baby son. There is also another male orangoutang that I think is going to be Duchess' daughter's mate. Probably already is. Lol. The baby orangoutang is so cute. We have seen the orangoutangs play and wrestle together, hide under blankets, swing and climb around on the structures in their exhibit, nap, and cuddle to name a few things, One of the neatest things we saw was the biggest male orangoutang using a piece of straw to push carrots and veggies that were behind the wire and up against the glass window out so he could eat them. We had brought veggies as a snack to the zoo that day and my son watched him with interest for a few minutes and then got our veggies out from the bottom of the stroller and started eating them. (I was so proud). There are 5 or 6 different vantage points in this exhibit, including a balcony on one end, glass windows running throughout the exhibit to a central pavilion (if the doors are closed go on in! It's one of the best viewpoints!).

After the orangoutangs you'll walk down the trail a little bit before you get to the squirrel monkeys. This is possibly my favorite exhibit because it really is more than an experience than an exhibit. (I believe it's called Monkey Village on the map). What is so cool about this is you literally go inside the exhibit and are with the monkeys! You have to stay four feet away from the monkeys at all times. Almost every time I've gone in there at least one monkey has scrambled over the rope maybe 6 feet from me. Usually more than one monkey. The exhibit has ropes and trees and bushes and an actual fence and the monkey climb on all of it. There was also a baby monkey born just about the same time as my second son, so that was cool. It's just really neat to see and hear the monkeys running and jumping and climbing all around where you actually are. Just a note, you do have to leave your stroller outside the exhibit, so just keep that in mind if that's something you're not comfortable with. I don't love leaving my stroller out anywhere but I always bring my diaper bag and any valuable (camera!) with me and I have never had any problems. I've left it out at the Phoenix and the San Diego Zoo. I get a little nervous about it though so if I know we're going to do the squirrels monkey exhibit I normally just don't bring it and use my ergo for my littlest guy. When I just had one I would just carry him on my shoulders if he needed a break from walking.

orangoutang at the phoenix zoo

The tropical bird exhibit is similar to this. You go in and walk around with the birds. It's not very big but it's still fun, especially for little kids. It's across from the orangoutangs, so back tracking on the trail a little bit. 

After Monkey Village, you can turn right and go down the rest of the tropics trail, or turn left and go down the Africa trail. You can see the whole Africa trail or just see a few of the (best) exhibits while you make your way to the exit.

If you only have a little bit of time left:

giraffe at the Phoenix zoo

start heading toward the exit by turning left. You'll pass a play place and some picnic tables and a concession stand. You'll see camel rides on your right. The good news about this is you get to see some more exhibits on your way out because you are in the heart of the zoo. Might as well see some new ones!

When you get to the camel rides you'll turn left again and follow the trail until the giraffe exhibit. There's otters, flamingos, zebras, stork, and finally the giraffe exhibit. This trail also has the best view of the lake, and we've seen pelicans and other big birds from the lake actually on the trail. They are harmless and it's neat. There are also some monkeys on the islands on the lake. You'll see them swinging around if you look but you'll definitely hear them because they are louuuud.

I think the giraffe exhibit is the best part of the Africa trail and really, really impressive. If you totally skip the rest of the Africa trail, be sure to at least see this. I've never been to Africa but I have watched the Planet Earth series and the giraffe exhibit is what I picture Africa looking like. There's a neat observation tower that is really just fun for kids to climb up and down. There's some telescopes and some other animals besides giraffes too-- watusi cattle, some big birds, and a few other smaller mammals that I am spacing on. We've seen giraffes running across the exhibit and also eating from the trees at the very edge of the exhibit. We've also gone to the back of the exhibit several times and fed the giraffes, which is awesome. If you want more info on that, check the additional activities section.

To leave, just turn left once again when the trail forks in front of the giraffe exhibit. The exit is through the gift shop (I know. ughhh). So you'll walk past the vendors and more concessions on your way out.

If you have a medium amount of time:

I'd recommend the whole Africa trail. Turn left at Monkey Village and just keep going straight. You can see the otters on the corner by the camel rides before continuing straight but they are basically always sleeping in their log, so you're not missing much, and if you really want to see the flamingos they are just a few steps past the otters (my two year old loves the flamingos, so we usually stop and see them). Easy enough to turn around and head past the camels to see the rest of the Africa trail after those two stops. 

There are too many animals for me to tell you all about on this trail, but our favorite is definitely the baboons. A lot of the exhibits on the Africa trail feel a little bit older (bars instead of glass, animals that are kind of hard to see) but the baboon and mandrill exhibits have glass and many times the primates are right up close to the glass. I think the baboons "interact" with humans in a way none of the other animals do, except maybe the orangoutangs. And there are always some moving around.

Unfortunately the rhino that lived at the Phoenix Zoo died a few months ago, which is so unfortunate. I believe the rhino was just really old, so died of natural causes, but still sad since rhinos are so endangered and who knows if we'll be able to get another one. The zebras have also been off exhibit for forever. They are building a new barn for them, and have been since July, so hopefully they will be back on exhibit soon. They are just past the giraffes if you're interested in checking them out. 

cheetahs at the phoenix zoo

I recommend this trail second because although it does have some awesome animals (lions! cheetahs!) many of the animals are often asleep (think nocturnal hunters like lions) or are just hard to see (think more old school exhibits like bars and deep pits lions can't jump out of). The earlier in the morning I make it to this trail, the better luck I have on it.

If you have a lot of time:

go see the rest of the tropics trail after the Africa trail! The giant tortoises are one of my favorite parts of this. The jaguars are cool and easy to spot. There's another vantage spot for the elephants which is great. The alligators are cool but honestly, a little creepy. They are just before the giant tortoises and are kind of easy to miss. The Andean Bear is sometimes hard to find, but if you're lucky it will be sleeping under a glass window. This is where we've usually seen it, if we've been able to find it. You have to take the path around the exhibit and look for the rock wall. There will be a few very shallow "caves" and one of those has a glass window that the bear sleeps under a lot. I recommend this trail last because it has a lot of walking and fewer animals, and many of the animals it does have are hard to see, or are birds, or just in general have a little less "wow" factor than the other exhibits, in my opinion. But really...the whole zoo is awesome. Keep up the great work, Phoenix Zoo!

If you mainly came to pet a goat:

you're in luck! Head to the Farm (off the tropics trail near the elephants) and there is a great goat petting zoo. This is actually one of our favorite spots because there are a few other zoo animals and really fun play places. Including....wait for it....tractors! I know. 

If you're really interested in native desert animals:

you're in luck again! The Arizona trail is the first one you'll come to after entering the zoo. Turn left as soon as you can. The reptile house is also off of this trail and there are a LOT of poisonous snakes if you're in to that type of thing. There is another trail off the Africa trail where you can see big horned sheep.


Cave playground at the Phoenix Zoo

There are four main play areas. The first, to the right after you enter the zoo, is something we call in our family, "the tree house". It's a fort among trees. It's really big and really fun. If your child is pretty young you might want to go in there with them because the fort actually has a second story so sometimes younger kids get stuck/scared/pushed on the stairs. There is also a little creek that runs beneath that kids love to play in. It's on a slight incline so when my son was one he ran down the incline to the water and totally miffed it. Cute and funny and sad and not his most favorite moment at the zoo.

The splash pad for little kids (age 2-5) is across from the carousel, just down the trail from the tree house. I can't remember when exactly they turn it on, I think it might be April 1. But it will be on during all the hottest months. This is my favorite splash pad for the kids to play on because the visibility is the best .There is also a ship with a slide to play on. The gangplank to get up on the ship is actually really steep, so again if your kids is pretty small you might want to be aware of this. This is also right by the picnic tables where the kids eat on field trips so just know there are always lots of field trip kids playing here in the spring months (they usually aren't very observant of tiny toddlers so I've had to make sure my one year old didn't get pushed/cut in line/ smashed on the slide a few times).

The splash pad for older kids (5 and up, I believe is what the sign says) is  just past Monkey Village. My kid loves this play place and I sort of do but it also stresses me out. The water is turned off in the cooler months but it is still open and really fun to play on. It's literally a (man made) cave so visibility isn't great. There are some steps and a slide which get pretty slippery when the water is turned on, and the steps are kind of steep even when the water isn't, so if your child hasn't mastered stairs yet you might want to go in there with them. They'll want to play inside the cave most of the time, and while this is genius for keeping kids out of the sun in the summertime, most of the time I am waiting outside the cave just listening for my two year old to start crying (He's been fine every time, so it's just me. But still). The other thing to be aware of is that there are 4 entrances/exits: one up the steps, one down the slide, one just to the left of the steps, and one waaaaaay at the other side of the cave. So no matter how old your child is, but especially if they are little and wander off, you have to be pretty vigilant watching all the exits. Right before our second son was born, we took our first to the zoo and let him play here. Both my husband and I were there but it was a Saturday and pretty busy, and there were people walking in front of our view of the other exit several times, and our son wandered out of the exhibit and down to Monkey Village before we realized it. He was okay, but he was on his own for a few minutes before we found him, and there's a lot that can happen to a two year old in a few minutes. There's a lake right there, there's strangers, there's tons of dangerous animals... Just be aware of that if your child plays here.

Cave Playground at the Phoenix Zoo

Do I sound like the most paranoid mom ever? I am a bit of a worrier. Maybe I worry more (or less!) than some of you, these are just some worries I have had.

The final playground is in the Farm. It's great. There's a playground but also some tractors available to play on as well as a fake cow you can "milk". I mentioned this above but this is one of my sons favorite spots.

Extra Activities

carousel at phoenix zoo

So there are extra activities scattered throughout the zoo that you pay a little extra to do. They are $1 off if you're a member. 2 and under are free for all of the activities, just like the zoo admission. We have tried all of them except the movies and the paddle boat rides. If you want to do all (or most) of the activities you can pay a little more for a ticket that will save you in the long run. 

Giraffe Feeding: This is our FAVORITE activity and the one we have done the most. It's $5-6 and have you ever seen a giraffe's tongue before? I hadn't before this. It's SO COOL. The workers will also take pictures for you if you hand them your phone/camera. This happens only at specific times. 10:30-11:30 is the one I know off the top of my head. There is a later "lunch" feeding. The times move up an hour in the summer. 

giraffe feeding at the phoenix zoo
giraffe feeding at the phoenix zoo

Carousel: I have to draggggg my son past the carousel every time. The animals are all exotic and awesome. It's the cheapest extra activity at $2-3 and always a good time.

Camel Ride: I believe this is open only on Fridays and weekends. It's $5-6 and though the ride is not super long, my child totally loved it. 

Stingray Bay: You can do this anytime, but there are specific times when they feed the stingray's that you can do it at (I don't know those times at the top of my head but I believe they are the same as the giraffe feeding times). My husband and I thought this was really neat. You get to pet the stingrays while they swim around the tank. My two year old was a little freaked out and we could only get him to touch one stingray but he talked about it for a while afterward. So I think he would like it more if we did it again and he got used to it. 

Train Ride/Tour: This isn't really a train, it's more like a...glorified golf cart with lots of other carts attached. I believe it's $5-6 a person. This was something my son looked forward to doing all year. Literally. We only took him once and he loved it. We learned some fun facts about the zoo on the tour as well. You have to get a ticket for the ticket booth across from where the train leaves from (by the giraffe exhibit) and on busy days the earliest train available may be in a few hours. So if you really want to do this make the ticket booth your first stop so you have your pick of times. I think they leave every half hour but don't quote me on that.

Movies: They show animal related movies (think, Happy Feed). I'm not sure how much a ticket costs but my guess would be $5-6. Like the train, you need to get a ticket in advance so head to the same ticket booth you get train tickets from (across from the giraffe exhibit. The actual theater is right there as well).

Paddle Boats: Never done this one. It seems to be closed every time we go to the zoo, so if you're interested in doing it I would go on a weekend. It's down by the Farm and, yea, probably best for kids who are big enough to paddle. I would recommend NOT doing this in the summer. It just seems like it would get really hot for kids.

camel ride at the Phoenix Zoo
camel ride at the Phoenix Zoo

Special Events

The Zoo does special events like Zoo Lights (around the holidays), birthday parties, school trip sleepovers, Father's and Mother's Day breakfasts, family educational actives, things like that. We did Zoo Lights about 3 years ago and I can't remember much about it but I liked it! Besides that I haven't done any of the other special events. If you have, I'd love to hear how you liked them! 

You made it! You could have read a whole novel but you read this instead! Thank you and I hope you're able to use some of the info to make the most of your zoo trip. 

Do you have any tips for the Phoenix zoo? (Or any other zoo?) I'd love to hear them! Leave them in the comments. 

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