A trip to the zoo combines fun in the sun with interactive learning about exotic animals, native species, and environmental conservation. Whether you're a wildlife enthusiast, hobby ecologist, or just an animal lover, a day at the zoo belongs on your itinerary this summer. Cheapism.com found 12 zoos with free admission that win rave reviews on budget and family travel sites for their well-designed exhibits and amazing array of animals; all are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
LINCOLN PARK ZOO (CHICAGO)
Listening to tropical bird calls and watching prowling lions, you might forget that you're just steps away from the skyscrapers of Chicago and the shores of Lake Michigan. Ideally located, the free Lincoln Park Zoo holds more than 200 species, including gorillas, black bears, penguins, big cats, and a lone polar bear. There's a brand-new snow monkey exhibit and one of the zoo's oldest attractions, the sea lions, remains among the most popular. The Pritzker Family Children's Zoo offers interactive educational exhibits and a play area, while a "farm" with petting goats and milking cows gives city-dwellers a glimpse of agricultural life. The Nature Boardwalk, a pond habitat with native plants and wildlife, affords welcome peace and quiet.
PANA'EWA RAINFOREST ZOO AND GARDENS (HILO, HAWAII)
Located inside a tropical rainforest, this free 12-acre zoo features more than 60 animal species. The focus here is on fauna found in rainforests around the world, such as Capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, giant anteaters, lemurs, two-toed sloths, colorful frogs (some poisonous, many endangered), and even monarch butterflies. Tropical birds are always a treat for the eyes and the ears, and this zoo contains a wide variety of parrots, macaws, toucans, pheasants, peacocks, cranes, and more. Native Hawaiian animals, such as green and black poison arrow frogs, feral goats, and feral pigs, are on display, and the endangered Hawaiian state bird, the nene, is a truly special sight. The zoo's well-landscaped gardens are filled with more than 40 plant species, including native and non-native orchids. Check out the petting zoo on Saturday afternoons.
HENRY VILAS ZOO (MADISON, WISCONSIN)
If you've never walked through a verdant jungle with tropical birds flying freely around you, then take a stroll through the Tropical Rainforest Aviary in the Henry Vilas Zoo. Here you'll also find an astounding array of animals, including white rhinos, giraffes, camels, red pandas, kangaroos, alligators, a tiger, flamingos, and several types of primates. The indoor Herpetarium is a visitor favorite, with a variety of reptiles that includes the world's largest snake species, the green anaconda, and the world's largest tortoise species, the Aldabra tortoise. Another must-see is the North American Prairie exhibit, with animals native to the area, such as bison and prairie dogs. The free zoo's newest exhibit is the Arctic Passage, which offers underwater viewing of polar bears and sightings of grizzly bears and the ever-popular harbor seals.
COMO PARK ZOO AND CONSERVATORY (ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA)
The Como Park Zoo was the first zoo established in Minnesota and houses a wide variety of species from around the globe. Highlights include the large cats (Siberian tigers, snow leopards, lions, and cougars), the Polar Bear Odyssey with underwater viewing of the bears, the Primate House (gorillas, orangutans, spider monkeys, tamarins, lemurs, two-toed sloths, and more), and the Aquatic Building (penguins, seahorses, puffins, and more). Also not to be missed are the gray wolves and the reindeer. The free Como Park Zoo is known for both flora and fauna, as it also contains the Como Park Conservatory, with nine gardens including a butterfly garden, bonsai and orchid collections, and a noteworthy Japanese garden. The zoo and conservatory are open 365 days a year.
SALISBURY ZOO (MARYLAND)
Just over 100 animals inhabit this small and well-maintained zoo, located in a city park. The animals, mostly native to North and South America and Australia, are the usual zoo fare, with crowd-pleasers such as river otters, prairie dogs, spider monkeys, jaguars, and two-toed sloths, plus American alligators, llamas, turtles, wallabies, beavers, bison, deer, a spectacled bear, and a variety of tropical birds, waterfowl, and birds of prey, including owls and raptors. A favorite day activity for locals, the free zoo is small enough that young children won't get too tired; there is also a playground in the park.
ST. LOUIS ZOO (MISSOURI)
The tens of thousands (literally) of amazing creatures that call the St. Louis Zoo home are far too numerous to list, but your favorite zoo animal is probably here. Recognized as a leading zoo in education, research, and conservation, the St. Louis Zoo is so good that it's hard to believe admission is free. The zoo covers 90 acres with about 19,000 animals representing 655 species. Visitors flock to the penguin exhibit, the underwater tunnel for watching the sea lions, and the naturalistic outdoor habitat for gorillas, chimps, and orangutans. Other must-see attractions include Polar Bear Point, the Bear Pits, Big Cat Country, and Asian elephants. You'll encounter a number of critically endangered species, as well, including the Guam kingfisher, which is now extinct in the wild. The Flight Cage is one of the world's largest free-flight aviaries. A unique feature is the Monsanto Insectarium, full of bizarre and colorful invertebrates, such as scorpions, tarantulas, venomous spiders, and beetles. The zoo charges a small fee ($2-$5) for a few exhibits and special activities, such as the train ride and the sea lion show. Tip: most paid exhibits are free for the first hour the zoo is open, including the Children's Zoo (otherwise $4/person), which has a touch-pool with small sharks, stingrays, and crabs.
CABRILLO MARINE AQUARIUM (SAN PEDRO, CALIFORNIA)
Although not technically a zoo, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium offers plenty of free opportunities to see (and sometimes touch) live animals, such as octopuses, stingrays, jellyfish, sharks, crustaceans, and an eel, while learning about the rich marine life of Southern California. The Frank Gehry-designed aquarium is divided into three themed areas -- rock shores, sand and mud, and open ocean ecosystems -- and the kid-friendly Exploration Center has a crawl-in aquarium, "touch tanks" for feeling sea creatures up-close, and plenty of other interactive ways to learn about coastal habitats and the Los Angeles watershed. The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is also an active scientific research facility, which means you can visit the Aquatic Nursery, a working lab with more than 40 species of young sea animals where scientists study everything from species conservation to growing seafood for human consumption. Access is free (to the surrounding park, as well), but consider making the suggested donation of $5 for adults and $1 for children to support the facility's ongoing efforts in research, education, and conservation.
LEE RICHARDSON ZOO (GARDEN CITY, KANSAS)
This is the only zoo in this collection with African elephants, and for its small-town location, Lee Richardson Zoo offers an unexpectedly diverse assortment of animals: more than 300 representing100 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. While many small zoos focus on native creatures, this 47-acre zoo boasts a number of exotic animals, including red pandas, camels, snow leopards, sloth bears, jaguars, emus, and a breeding herd of red kangaroo. Representing North America are river otters, foxes, elk, and bison, among others. The African elephants and the giraffes are the zoo's main headliners, but the free zoo is small enough that you can see most of it in a day. During cold winter months you may elect to drive through in your car for $10; there are also bicycles for rent and a small train to ride.
COHANZICK ZOO (BRIDGETON, NEW JERSEY)
According to locals, New Jersey's oldest zoo is a hidden gem tucked away in the forest. Although it houses less than 100 animals representing 45 species, it displays some big stars -- namely, a white tiger. White tigers haven't been spotted in the wild for more than 50 years, so seeing one is a real treat. There's also an Asiatic black bear, a black swan, gibbons, lemurs, llamas, African porcupines, and a number of lizards and birds. Peacocks and ducks roam freely throughout the park. Hurricane Sandy took a toll on the zoo and the attraction is still recovering. Nonetheless, Cohanzick Zoo is worth a visit if you're in the area.
SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL ZOO (WASHINGTON, D.C.)
Once home to the famous wildfire-fighting Smokey the Bear, the National Zoo is one of the largest and most comprehensive free zoos anywhere, with more than 300 species housed on 163 acres. The most beloved and well-known residents are the giant pandas. Only 13 zoos in the United States have giant pandas, and the chance to see them for free is a special treat. Other popular exhibits include the Elephant Trails, housing Asian elephants; the Cheetah Conservation Station, which simulates an African savannah with cheetahs, gazelles, vultures, and more; and Amazonia, a lush rainforest exhibit with two-toed sloths, piranhas, rainbow boas, river stingrays, poison dart frogs, and other animals native to the Amazon River. At any given time, the zoo holds between 30 and 40 endangered species as part of its efforts in conservation, breeding, and education. The notable animals to see are too numerous to list, but among them are clouded leopards, orangutans, bald eagles, gray wolves, Burmese pythons, and Przewalski's horses. Past visitors recommend going in the morning to avoid crowds (especially the long lines at the panda exhibit), and suggest taking the metro as parking can be expensive and hard to find.
CAPE MAY COUNTY ZOO (NEW JERSEY)
Cape May County Zoo is a small, free, well-kept zoo with a decent collection of animals. Probably the most striking are the big cats -- African lions, cheetahs, snow leopards, tigers, and ocelots. Other furry and feathered friends include red pandas, black howler monkeys, giraffes, river otters, bald eagles, snowy owls, and zebras. Visitors remark that the zoo is very clean, uncrowded, and easy to navigate, making for a stress-free experience, especially if you're visiting with children. Outside the zoo, the wildlife sanctuary in the Cape May County Park may offer some wild bird sightings of herons, osprey, egrets, eagles, ducks, songbirds, and the like. Fuzzy baby Canadian goslings are easy to spot in the spring, as are sunbathing turtles.
DAVID TRAYLOR ZOO (EMPORIA, KANSAS)
One of the smallest accredited zoos in the United States, the David Traylor Zoo is known not only for its native animal exhibits but for the horticultural details of its extensive landscaping. More than 400 animals from about 80 species inhabit attractive naturalistic exhibits, which focus on species native to North and South America, such as cougars, bison, red foxes, bobcats, llamas, chinchillas, prairie dogs, armadillos, opossums, badgers, and cotton-top tamarins, all shown in simulations of their natural habitats. The bird exhibit is worth a visit, with a surprisingly large collection of species such as bald eagles, emus, kookaburras, green-winged macaws, ibis, wild turkeys, blue-crowned conures, cattle egrets, ducks, Sandhill cranes, vultures, and five types of owls including Great Horned Owls. Another fun attraction is the large bull elk, which sometimes puts on a show by loudly bugling toward the nearby bison. The free zoo is located in Soden's Grove Park.