How to Make Your Day at the National Zoo Awesome

Text: "How to Make Your Day at the National Zoo Awesome / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So" Photo: Zebra eating grass

Washington D.C. has never felt hotter than when sitting on a bench at the National Zoo, holding a baby who won’t sleep and wondering when the hell your spouse will show up with some water. This was me two years ago at our first trip with the kid to the zoo. Despite grandparental support, it was a disaster.

But since then, we’ve had many successful, fun trips to the zoo, both to see the animals and ZooLights, their annual December extravaganza. Thankfully, we learned from our experience. I’m going to share those lessons learned so you have a better first (or second or third) experience!

Skip the Asia trail and its pandas (if you can)
This is semi-sacrilegious, as a lot of people visit the National Zoo just to see the pandas. I won’t exactly say they’re overrated – but yeah, I will. They’re overrated. They’re really adorable, but often sleeping or otherwise hard to see. Pandas aren’t social like some of the other animals, so they have zero interest in interacting with you or anyone else.

Perhaps more importantly, the Asia Trail is a magnet for the crowds. Besides the pandas, it’s the first trail off the main pathway, so everyone just follows it. Also, unless you’re willing to do some backtracking, following the Asia Trail means that you’ll most likely miss the America trail and everything at the end of it.

Don’t miss the exhibits at the end
Some of the best exhibits are at the far end of the Zoo. If you have little kids, the farm section offers a fun twist, with goats and cows of species unlike any you’re likely to see at the county fair. The Amazon exhibit is a multi-level immersive rainforest, complete with birds and monkeys. I’ve been to the real Amazon and still enjoy it! Because they’re a bit tucked-away, these sections are also less crowded than more obvious areas.

Tiger at National Zoo.jpg

Don’t drive there
I have never driven to the National Zoo. In addition to the horror show that is driving in D.C., it has a small parking lot and almost no street parking. As a result, the lot is often full within an hour of the Zoo opening. This is despite the fact that parking is $25 a car. Between my green credentials and inherent cheapness, there’s no way in hell.

If you take the Metro, the best bet is not to get off at the Woodley Park-Zoo stop despite the name. Instead, disembark at the Cleveland Park stop. It’s slightly further from the Zoo, but completely downhill instead of the slog uphill from the Woodley Park stop. When you leave, walk downhill to the Woodley Park stop, saving you time and your leg muscles.

If you’re really ambitious, you can also bike to the Zoo. The “end” of the Zoo actually has a back entrance that you can access via the Rock Creek Trail run by the National Parks Service. The route is way too far for us to take with the kids in the trailer, but I hope to bike it with them one day when they’re older.

Be prepared for a lot of walking
Unfortunately, the Zoo has not made taking public transportation terribly easy. As we were getting on the Metro elevator the other day, a woman asked us, “Is this the elevator to the Zoo?” We sadly informed her that the Zoo was a full half-mile away. On top of the walk from the Metro, the Zoo itself is enormous and oddly shaped. Instead of a convenient circle, it’s a long walkway with side paths off it. As a result, you end up walking a minimum of a mile and a half if you cover most of the Zoo. Wear really comfortable shoes, know how much walking you and your kids can handle, take breaks, and turn around when needed. Sprout is a trouper when it comes to walking long distances, but I still hauled him up on my shoulders a couple of times.

Elephant at the National Zoo

Bring your own food and drinks
It’s a pain in the ass to lug around a bunch of crap, but it’s worth it. Within the Zoo, the food is horrifyingly expensive and there are very long lines on busy days. I’ve found the best bet is to eat lunch first and bring some snacks and refillable water bottles. If you’re willing to make the uphill trek from Woodley Park, there’s a Chipotle. (And a McDonalds if necessary.) For sit-down places, I’m partial to Open City, which has a fun vibe, great kids menu and amazing mushroom reuben.

Know that you’ll be nickel and dimed
The National Zoo is free. Considering that similar zoos charge more than $30 a person, that’s a pretty amazing deal. But they upcharge for everything else. Including maps ($3). Access the map on your phone, be strategic about food, and know that your kid will beg to go on at least one of the rides. We had always managed to avoid the dinky little train until now, but with the leaves still missing on most of the trees, Sprout spotted it right away.

Avoid the summer if possible
This is universal advice for Washington D.C., but especially true for the Zoo. There’s not much shade, lots of blacktop, and very few places that are air-conditioned. It’s super easy to get dehydrated like I did on that first unfortunate day. The animals don’t want to be out and you shouldn’t be either.

Bison lying down at the National Zoo

Bison bison bison

Know your kid’s sensitivities
Sprout is a little nervous around large animals. The cows freaked him out at first and even sleeping, the bison were slightly threatening. So when we went to look at those animals, we made sure he knew that we could leave at any time and not get very close. This time, he declared the bison were actually his favorite because “I’m not scared of them anymore.” Awesome.

Loud noises can also be an issue. The bathrooms are extremely loud due to lots of hand driers and automatic toilets. Sprout hated them; he was holding his hands over his ears a lot.

I hope your next trip to the Zoo is a touch easier with these tips!

For more about our favorite family places in Washington D.C., check out A Preschooler’s Guide to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Wegman’s Wonderplace at the National Museum of American History. To follow our adventures, be sure to like the blog’s page on Facebook!

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