The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is found near Escondido, California, about a half hour’s drive northeast of San Diego and its world famous San Diego Zoo.
I’ve visited the San Diego Zoo Safari Park about a half dozen times in the past 35 years and really enjoyed every visit. When we first came to the park decades ago the place was known as San Diego Wild Animal Park, but in 2010 the name was changed because some people were apparently getting it and the zoo confused. This is not the zoo — it’s where you can go on a (sort-of) safari. But at either place you’ll have the chance to see a large quantity and variety of animals.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is massive, covering 1,800 acre (730 ha). It was developed by the San Diego Zoo as a breeding facility — largely to help facilitate conservation of endangered species and for zoo repopulation. It’s because of all this space that many of the animals have huge open enclosures, allowing them acres in which to live and free-range, and their relative freedom is what makes the park special. I’ve always thought the animals here seemed “happier” than those at a regular zoo, and think their spacious home is the reason why.
The Safari Park is home to a large variety of endangered animals from all continents (except Antarctica), and it’s had many successful breeding programs. Perhaps the most famous is that of the California Condor. Beginning in 1987, the few remaining wild condors (22 of them) were all captured and an intensive breeding program was developed at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos. Captive-bred condors were reintroduced into the wild beginning in 1992 and today their population is 369, with 191 in the wild. The natural range of the condor is vast so it’s greatly threatened by the development in Southern California; there’s hope those condors introduced into the Grand Canyon might develop a self-sustaining population. You can see California Condors at their spacious enclosure on Condor Ridge. They are rather homely birds, but huge and impressive when flying. Condor Ridge also has other North American desert wildlife, like desert bighorn sheep and desert tortoises.
Very popular are the Sumatran tigers. The Tull Tiger trail opened in 2014 creating a jungle-like environment, where through a glass viewing area you have the opportunity to observe tigers fairly close up.
By far the most popular activity in the park is to go on a safari. The park has a tram that takes you around the spacious exhibits, focusing on African and Asian species. The ride takes about 30 minutes and like a real safari, the driver will stop when he’s in a good position for you to see and study the wildlife. Animals you might see include giraffes, rhinos, elephants, and a wide assortment of antelope and ungulates.
There are many more animals living at the Safari Park, far too many to illustrate in this blog.
Predators obviously must be kept in separate enclosures or there would be no antelope or other prey animals left. There’s nice opportunities to see and photograph cheetahs and lions.
After you’ve done the safari drive, you’ll use your feet a lot to explore the park, which is home to more than 300 species (numbering about 2600 animals). Birds are represented in large diversity in aviaries, shows and in special exhibits. Some of these birds will be familiar to you. Other bird species might look as if they just walked off a spaceship and be quite unfamiliar.
The park has some fun rides, including a carousel, zip-line, and a rather interesting looking tethered hot-air balloon ride. There are a large variety of special activities available which vary with the season, including the option of camping in the Safari Park. As you’d expect there are many places you can buy food and refreshments, and a large gift shop.
Besides seeing all the animals — and there are M-A-N-Y animals to see — the gardening and plants along the trails are also magnificent. Take some time as you move about to enjoy them around the park’s walkways.
The park is popular, visited by 2 million people every year. You will pay to park your vehicle and pay for admission, but the money all goes back into the place to pay for salaries and food and care for the animals. I always felt that I’ve gotten my money’s worth.
Please go the Safari Park’s website for much more information on this terrific destination, which I highly recommend to anyone who loves animals, but especially to those traveling with children. Be sure to come early and plan on spending the whole day here.
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