The Oakland Zoo, founded in 1922 by naturalist Henry Snow, is neatly tucked away on 100 hilly acres filled with nearly 1,000 animals and at least that many scenic views.
The legendary zoological park has a proud history of providing sanctuary for animals that have been abused or misused, as well as aiding in the care of wildlife injured or sickened, often as a result of human error.
Two of its tigers were rescued from an abandoned roadside attraction where they were once part of the lucrative but unethical cub-petting industry. They were left on their own as adults, trapped inside cages, because they were no longer safe for tourists looking for a cute photo op. Others, such as the zoo’s Fennec foxes, Aldabra tortoises, and Amazon macaws, were part of the illegal wild animal pet trade, living as people’s pets until they became too large for their owners.
The zoo provides opportunities to participate and appreciate its serious side, but there are other ways to enjoy its spectacular sights. Here are five must-see and must-do activities for your next outing.
Soar aboard the gondolas
These ever-moving aerial transports debuted in 2018, providing a leisurely and effortless climb from the zoo’s lower level to the California Trail. The free trip lasts about four minutes and provides views of six Bay Area counties as well as a bird’s-eye view of the zoo’s camels, elephants, and bison.
The 24 Swiss-made cars, each of which seats up to eight people, travel in a continuous loop. Although the cabins are enclosed, open windows allow the Bay breeze to enter. Tip: Visit the sun bears, tigers, chimps, and squirrel monkeys in the Tropical Rainforest first, and save the gondola for later in the morning, when the lines are much shorter..
View the bison
The Dr. Joel Parrot Bison Overlook also offers spectacular views of San Francisco and the Bay, as well as a glimpse of the zoo’s bison, which have one of the most heartwarming, feel-good back stories at the zoo.
Thousands of American bison once roamed the plains, but overhunting and diseases spread by domesticated cattle drove populations to extinction. The Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty, the first cross-border indigenous treaty, was signed in 2014, establishing a partnership of 13 nations from eight reservations to restore wild bison.
Now, the Oakland Zoo is collaborating with the Iinnii Initiative in Montana to reintroduce a wild herd of bison to their natural habitat. In 2018, 14 female bison from Yellowstone National Park were brought to the zoo to breed with two bulls from the park. When their children are old enough, they are returned to Montana to be cared for by the Blackfeet Nation. The program ensures the herd’s health and survival by providing genetic diversity.
Marvel at the grizzly bears
Few people have had the opportunity to get up close and personal with grizzly bears. Oakland Zoo currently has four, all of which were born in 2017 and were rescued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Although all four are grizzly bears, brothers Rubicon and Kenai are classified as coastal brown bears, a distinction among grizzlies based on size and territory. Tulare and Truckee are the other set of brothers.
Watching these powerful youngsters playing in sprinklers or diving into the pool will take your breath away.
Lunch at the Landing
The zoo’s Landing Cafe serves burgers, sandwiches, salads, and drinks, but the main attraction is the view. Platforms protrude from the landscape, revealing views of the zoo, the Bay, and the surrounding areas in a nearly 360-degree panorama.
It’s an added bonus that those views come with a side of bacon cheeseburger or Southwest black bean burger and fries.
Ride the Express
A ride ($5) on this miniature 65-passenger train is a great way — and the only way — to get a good look at emus, wallabies, and wallaroos. The charming little engine chugs right into the Wild Australia exhibit, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is watching who. Unbothered by the noise and gawking riders, the animals frequently sit and stare back at the tourists.
The Adventure Landing amusement park houses the train station. Make sure you have your camera ready.
The zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 9777 Golf Links Road in
Oakland. Tickets must be reserved ($20-$24). Parking costs $15 per day ($12 if paid in advance). www.oaklandzoo.org