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We visited the Smithsonian National Zoo quite frequently when we lived in Northern VA. The Smithsonian National Zoo is unique in that there is no admission fee. Parking is a bit steep at $22, but we were FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo) members so we never paid for parking.
It was a wonderful place to explore when the weather was too nice to be stuck inside doing schoolwork.
We have a wonderful zoo in Seattle that we enjoy visiting, but the two zoos do not have all of the same animals.
We really missed seeing the elephants and pandas, so I knew that we needed to squeeze a visit to the National Zoo into our most recent trip back East.
I DO consider this to be a field trip because it has educational value, but it was the most laid-back field trip ever. I didn’t do any advance planning or bring any printables. Our goal was simply to observe and enjoy the animals. Sometimes the most learning happens organically by exposure to new things.
National Zoo Field Trip
The weather was gorgeous and warm when we visited the National Zoo. Parking was no trouble at all, likely due to it being a Monday morning. If you go on a nice weekend, definitely plan to arrive as soon as the zoo opens in order to find a parking space.
Our very first stop inside the zoo was to see the elephants.
The elephants were outside enjoying the sunshine too. The elephant lookout on the Asia Trail gave us a great view of one of the elephants drinking a bit of water.
Next we saw the pandas.
One panda was outside napping in the warm sun. Out of all the times we have visited the zoo, this was the only time I remember seeing a panda outside! The two other pandas were inside napping. Apparently noon is panda nap time.
The pandas are very popular animals at the National Zoo so there is usually quite the crowd trying to get a peek. Shockingly, there was no crowd this time and we were able to take our time watching these cute bears!
We took a quick peek at the map board and decided to make a big loop around the zoo. This meant that we didn’t see a few exhibits, but those exhibits contain animals we have in our Seattle zoo.
Washington, DC traffic can be a nightmare so our goal was to leave the zoo by 3pm. That meant that we needed to keep moving at a pretty decent pace and needed to be somewhat selective about which animals we checked out.
Walking along Olmsted Walk, we came to the ape house next.
We love observing the ape house because the animals are so inquisitive.
One thing I really like about the National Zoo ape house is that the animals have the choice to be off display. They are free to access private areas, hidden from public eye, anytime they want.
If the orangutans are in the outdoor area and need a break from loud observers, they can walk along an overhead rope (the O-line) back to their home. We observed three orangutans going back inside while we were there!
We walked around the great cat area, but only a few lions were outside.
It must have been nap time for lions too.
We ate lunch at the Mane Grill.
Everyone in our group was able to find something to eat – burgers, chicken strips, and a baked potato.
There are salads, fruit, and cookies available too. Be warned though, it is a tourist spot so the prices are a bit high.
There was a bit of construction going on near the Mane Grill, so we walked the long way around to check out the farm animal area. If you have young children, plan to spend a lot of time in this area. Hannah and Ben absolutely LOVED this exhibit when they were toddlers. Goats are usually available to pet on weekends.
Our final portion of this National Zoo field trip was spent exploring the American Trail.
The highlight of this area are the seals. There are a few seals in the tank, but one in particular is incredibly friendly and curious. He (she?) kept swimming by and looking at every single child standing near the glass. It was obvious that the seal enjoyed the attention.
We saw a zoo volunteer feeding the badgers on the American Trail. The badgers are rarely seen for some reason, so this was a real treat. The zoo volunteer told us that feeding the badgers is a lot like feeding toddlers. They often get bored with eating before they are actually full, so it is his job to entice them to eat a little more by alternating treats (apple and sweet potato slices) and badger food.
Take a picture of the map with your smartphone. Paper maps cost $5.00, which seems like a lot of money for something that will end up in the recycling bin.
Bring a picnic lunch. The only picnic tables available are at the Mane Grill so you might not be able to use those if it is busy, but there is a huge grassy, somewhat shady area near the big cat exhibit to spread out a blanket. We have had picnics on that hill many many times.
Bring bottled water. Bottled water is available at the National Zoo, but it is $3/bottle. That adds up quickly on a warm day.
Park in the lower parking lot near the Kids Farm area. This will mean that you walk uphill at the beginning of the day and downhill at the end of the trip, when your legs are tired.
Bring your GPS. It is not unusual for roads to close suddenly in DC, depending on which dignitaries are in town and where they are going. I have gotten turned around more than once and DC drivers are not the friendliest. You WILL get honked at if you don’t know exactly where to go.
If you live in the area, consider joining FONZ. It is really nice to wake up on a beautiful spring day and have somewhere to go where you can spend the day outside.
Discuss limits before arriving at the zoo. There are plenty of ways to spend money at this free zoo – ice cream, gift shops, carousel rides, etc. Avoid melt downs by setting the limits and expectations before the kids see any of these treats.