From Apes to Zebras: The Ultimate Guide to a Day at the National Zoo

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With most of its 163 acres exposed to D.C. sky, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo might seem like a fair-weather only destination. But there’s actually plenty of free entertainment available for cabin-fevered kids on cloudy, overcast days, too. From the indoor rain forest to the outdoor lion lair, here are the must-see zoo exhibits your brood will love…rain or shine.


Photo: Paul Lewis via flickr

Great Cats
Three outdoor habitats are home to the Zoo’s big cats, including African lions and Sumatran tigers. While watching these beauties patrolling the edge of the moat, you’ll learn about their unique characteristics, social structure, and hunting style. On hot days, the cats—and Sumatran tigers, in particular—may choose to take a swim so have your Insta-stories cued up.

Photo: Heather Sheets via flickr 

Tide Pool
It’s no secret…during the summer the Zoo can get rather toasty. When the heat is on, keep cool by strolling through the many mist stations sprinkled throughout the park. Even better, dip your feet in the flowing waters of the American Trail Tide Pool (May 30-Sep. 30), a shallow wave pool open for tiptoe-ing through with replica model sea stars, barnacles and mussels.

Photo: Roy and Dolores Kelley via flickr

Kids’ Farm
Here is where animal lovers have the opportunity to get up close and personal with cows, alpacas, hogs, donkeys, goats, chickens and fish. You’ll find daily demos where keepers share interesting facts about the animals’ personalities, skills and knowledge. Keepers also emphasize the importance of animal enrichment (social encounters, toys, sounds, smells). It’s why things like mini donkey grooming and cow head patting are strongly encouraged.


zoo-amazoniaPhotos courtesy of brian.gratwicke via Flickr

Visitors are led past tanks of Amazonian fish, through educational exhibits that include terrariums of poisonous frogs, and into a replica rainforest featuring hundreds of species and a waterfall. Your kids will love searching for the titi monkeys that jump through the branches and the two-toed sloths that hide among the leaves.

national-zooraznken via Flickr

The Great Ape House
It might be a bit stinky, but that probably won’t bother younger visitors. And, rainy days are ideal for ape-viewing, since the wet weather drives these primates in from their yard. Kids could spend hours watching the gorillas and orangutans swing, eat, scratch, cuddle, and rough house. Keep an eye out for the six western lowland gorillas, including a female baby named Kibibi, and six orangutans.

elephant-zooSmithsonian’s National Zoo via Flickr

Elephant Community Center
The newly renovated Elephant Community Center is part of Elephant Trails, a capacious elephant environment that opened in March 2013. Here you’ll find an elephant exercise track, a large sand pit, a wading pool, and a shower that the gentle giants can operate on their own.


kid-zootheqspeaks via Flickr

Small Mammal House
Get ready—your kids will be ohhing and ahhing over the cuteness of these mini-mammals for days. Golden lion tamarins, slender-tailed meerkat, three-banded armadillos, and four-inch-long naked mole-rats hang out in the small mammal house alongside black-tailed prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets that pass through tunnels built against the glass.

3001 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, Dc

What is your favorite part of the zoo? Tell us in the comments.

—Ayren Jackson-Cannady and Katherine Gustafson