If you’re anything like me you probably remember the zoos of your youth with fondness. The problem is, that fondness probably turned to sadness when you realized that most zoos are just cement cages for animals to while away their lives in.
The zoos in the PNW are from a different mold. I remember the breath of fresh air it was when my wife and I took our kids to the Woodland Park Zoo for the first time. It was a beautiful mix of “let the animals roam free” while still providing a place for us to see them.
There actually seems to be care for the animals and we very much enjoyed seeing them in something more akin to their natural habitat.
However, that zoo wasn’t a rarity in Washington or the PNW in general.
Whether it’s greater care for the environment, more funding, or just the fact that the area is lusher, the zoos in the Pacific Northwest are some of the best and most diverse in the world.
So if you’re looking for a fun way to pass a few hours or a day, check out some of our favorite zoos in the area!
Now, if you live in the PNW with kids you’ll probably want to start your own checklist and visit each one of these zoos in turn. Each one of them offers something special against the backdrop of its part of the Northwest.
We’ll start with my family’s favorite.
Woodland Park Zoo
When we first visited the Woodland Park Zoo I was expecting just another ho-hum walk-through with a handful of sad animals.
I didn’t expect to feel like I’d stepped into a rainforest full of animals that actually didn’t seem depressed. Even as an adult I legitimately enjoyed the day we spent here and my kids were over the moon.
Woodland Park Zoo is Seattle’s hat-in-the-ring when it comes to zoos in the PNW and it’s a serious contender. Not only is it a welcome break from the craziness of Seattle but it’s considered to be among the world’s premier zoos.
The crowning jewel (in my opinion) is the gorilla exhibit. The huge recessed jungle enclosure is considered by many to be the best gorilla exhibit in the world and we stood above for almost an hour to watch the gorillas hang out and play with one another. There was a baby gorilla there in 2022 and he and my daughter seemed to get along well through the glass. Birds of a feather I guess.
Apart from just being a peaceful and enjoyable place, the Woodland Park Zoo is highly regarded for its animal care, rehabilitation programs, and conservation efforts.
While the zoo has facilities that allow the animals’ privacy when needed, we’ve always been happy with the number of animals we’ve seen on visits. We have visited on sunny summer days, in the rain, and on chilly winter afternoons. We’ve never left disappointed.
The zoo has many animal experiences available in addition to normal admission (such as feeding the giraffes). No matter what level of experience you choose you’re sure to have a great time!
2. Northwest Trek
Northwest Trek might not technically be a zoo but it’s such a great experience that I had to include it on this list.
Northwest Trek is easily the most well-known wildlife park in Washington State and possibly the entire Pacific Northwest
Located near Tacoma, it offers 715 protected acres in the foothills of Mount Rainier.
You can find more than 200 kinds of animals within the park. What’s especially fun is that they harbor animals entirely from North America so there is a chance that you’ll be learning about animals that you could see in the wild.
Some of their viewing areas showcase wolves, bears, forest animals, and big cats (such as cougars and bobcats).
The best way to experience the park is via the tram, a 45-minute ride that will take you to all of the highlights.
3. Olympic Game Farm
I know, I know, another one on the list that is more akin to a farm than a traditional zoo. However, if the point is seeing animals in an environment as close as possible to their natural habitat, The Olympic Game Farm is a winner.
The Olympic Game Farm (located near Sequim Washington) has two types of tours: a walking tour and a driving tour.
For most families, I would suggest the driving tour as it, surprisingly, allows you a much closer animal experience. We had elk come right up to our car and try to push their noses inside.
We also saw wolverines, bison, donkeys, lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!).
With obvious exceptions, the animals here are quite docile. In fact, the farm worked with Walt Disney Studios for many years to train and provide animals for movies.
While you probably won’t spend as long here as you would at somewhere like the Woodland Park Zoo it’s still a fun way to kill a couple of hours while letting your kids geek out over some animals not on their tablets.
4. Point Defiance Zoo
If you’ve ever been to Point Defiance you were probably so enraptured by the natural beauty that you totally missed the fact that there is an excellent zoo by the same name nearby.
A zoo so good, in fact, that it has won a global award for having what is considered to be the best polar bear exhibit in any current zoo.
Aren’t they so majestic?
Despite the horrendous picture, the exhibit is quite astounding. My daughters particularly loved the underwater viewing area which lets you see what’s going on inside the bears’ 11′ deep pool.
The rest of the zoo features animals from throughout the world but with a specific focus on animals native to the Pacific Rim.
The zoo is one of the oldest in the area having been founded in 1905.
The zoo itself covers a massive 29 acres (within the 700 acres of Point Defiance Park) and is the only zoo in the area that is combined with an aquarium.
So when you’re done with the reptiles, birds, and redwood sanctuary you can head on over to see the sharks, penguins, and even walruses.
In fact, the aquarium is the only one in the Pacific Northwest to house sea animals such as beluga whales, a pacific walrus, and large sharks.
Point Defiance is a full day of walking and sightseeing so be sure to bring a stroller if you have little ones!
5. Greater Vancouver Zoo
While we’re on the subject of large zoos, let’s talk about the Greater Vancouver Zoo which covers 120 acres and houses 800 animals from all around the world.
This zoo, located in Aldergrove, British Columbia is home to leopards, jaguars, lions, elephants, and tigers, so the usual lineup.
There are a number of things that differentiate it, however. There are daily tiger and hippo feedings as well as a narrated bus tour that will actually take you inside the North American animals’ enclosure. Just be sure to keep your arms and legs inside the car at all times as you watch the animals roam around in their habitat!
You can also hitch a ride on the Safari Express train around the perimeter of the zoo to get an idea of what you’ll be up against when you decide to start walking from exhibit to exhibit.
If there’s an unusual animal that your kids have really been wanting to see, this zoo is probably your best bet!
6. Oregon Zoo
If elephants are your thing you’ll be ecstatic to hear that there have been more Asian Elephants born at the Oregon Zoo in Portland that any other zoo in the world.
Not that there has been a huge number but it’s still impressive.
Their first Asian Elephant calf, Packy, became the first one born in the entire Western Hemisphere when she joined the zoo in 1962.
While it was obviously nothing near its current form, the Oregon Zoo traces its roots back to 1887 to when it was started in the back of a Pharmacy in downtown Portland. Since then it has grown into one of the top paid attractions in the entire Portland area.
Due to its size, the park has three different train excursions or you can tour the park on food. We chose to start off with the train and then walk until we dropped so we wouldn’t be overly sad if there were things we didn’t get to.
7. Wolf Haven
Wolf Haven is one of the most unique and hope-inducing wildlife parks in the Northwest. Since its founding in 1982 it has taken in more than 300 wolves and wolf-dogs that have been displaced, injured, or abandoned.
Many of the wolves that they save come from inept private ownership, roadside attractions, zoos, circuses, etc.
Started as a non-profit with the sole intent to save wild animals, Wolf Haven now allows visits (by reservation only) on Saturdays and Sundays to introduce what they do to the public.
Located just south of Olympia (the state capitol) in Tenino Washington, Tenino is more of an experience than a zoo but it’s a great opportunity to give a little back and introduce your kids to a team that is trying their hardest to do some good in the world.
8. British Columbia Wildlife Park
The British Columbia Wildlife Park is fighting the good fight in their province and currently houses more than half of the area’s animals which on the endangered species list. This gives visitors the unique opportunity to view animals that they will almost certainly never view in the wild.
The park staff are extremely knowledgeable and willing to tell visitors (even my question-filled children) everything they know about the local wildlife and ecosystems.
Everyone in your group will enjoy the Wildlife Express, a miniature train ride, as well as the petting/grooming of pygmy goats on the Cactus Coral Family Farm.
9. Zoo Boise
While many of the zoos on this list have been smashing successes from the very beginning, Zoo Boise has struggled for life.
The zoo started in 1916 with a handful of rare birds and a chimpanzee that escaped a traveling circus that passed through the town.
From that point on the zoo struggled to grow until it was nearly closed in 1961. It has, however, made an amazing recovery in recent years and now boasts more than 200,000 visitors per year.
The zoo, located in Julia Davis Park, now harbors more than 185 animals from 75 different species as well as a living science education facility.
Visiting here really helps to keep the zoo growing and its doors open. Not to mention that it’s just a super cool little city zoo.
Located in Boise, Idaho’s beautiful Julia Davis Park, the zoo went through some difficult times and was in danger of being closed in 1961, but has made a remarkable recovery and is now home to over 185 animals from 75 various species.
The zoo is a popular attraction that boasts a living science education facility with more than 200,000 visitors annually.
Believe it or not, narrowing this list down to only 9 options was quite difficult. There are so many great zoos in the PNW (as well as other animal encounters) that I do feel remiss about leaving some out.
However, the destination here will give you a great start on seeing a diverse group of animals and supporting great causes at the same time. Have fun!