SAN FRANCISCO — The City has a wild side that is far from the birthday place of the Summer of Love in the Haight-Asbury District, SoMa or the Castro District.
Among the great attributes of having San Francisco in the 209’s backyard is the San Francisco Zoo. Not only is it a 90-minute drive from Manteca to the 100 acres where everything from antelope to zebras roam but you can combine it with some time at adjacent Ocean Beach or the beaches at nearby Fort Funston. It’s also an excuse to patronize one of The City’s 4,400 restaurants.
The zoo is arguably San Francisco’s most overlooked attraction. Nestled along the Pacific Ocean in the southwest portion of The City is off the well-worn tourist tracks. That’s part of its charm as you can do a drive-by window tour of the adjacent Sunset District that was once a traditional San Francisco working class neighborhood.
While it isn’t the San Diego Zoo, over the past 40 years it has been transformed into a zoo that is more attuned to the more than 250 species that includes over 2,000 exotic, endangered, and rescued animals surrounded by an abundance of majestic gardens filled with native and foreign plants.
My favorite attraction hands down is the African Savanna component of the African Region.
It allows the intermingling of zebras, kudus, giraffes, and ostriches in a decent enough area that you almost forget you are in a city zoo. While it’s definitely not the San Diego Zoo or on scale with the 400-acre Safari West near Santa Rosa that costs $90 for an African Safari and is worth every penny, the African Savanna is spell-binding compared to what is offered at other Northern California big city zoos in Sacramento and Oakland.
You enter the three-acre exhibit via a covered passageway where you will also find other African bird species such as the Marabou stork and crowned crane.
The intermixing of the species is almost spell-binding. If you’re lucky you’ll see the zebras pass by in a full gallop — something you really wouldn’t see in smaller spaces.
It is also designed to provide you a view of how the animals are cared for — activities that are typically walled off from the public.
The African Region also includes the African Aviary that houses endangered species such as the Waldrop, Ibis, and Hamerkop. There are also gorillas.
The Insect Zoo is also a bit unique. The ability to examine specimens under microscopes adds a dimension that goes beyond just looking at things such as hissing cockroaches, scorpions, tarantulas, termites and more behind glass enclosures.
Kids tend to be fascinated with the Insect Zoo. I’ll admit it was a kind of a blah experience for me until after a few years during a visit to Death Valley where I had to rapidly move to stomp on one that had reared up and was charging at me with its stinger. The person I was with asked me whether it was a scorpion. I had replied no given it was too late in the year at the elevation we were at. As I started to bend down to get a closer look — it was around sunset — the scorpion made a hissing noise, the friend jumped about five feet and my hiking boot came down so fast I almost got whiplash. The smartphone photo I took of the scorpion next to car keys that I showed a park ranger provided the information that it was a medium sized scorpion. I’ve been fascinated with scorpions ever since driven at first to get as much information about their habits so I could avoid a future encounter.
The Insect Zoo helps feed that fascination.
Getting to the zoo for the 209 is fairly straightforward. You take the Bay Bridge then follow 101 south to the 280 interchange that you will take south to the Westlake District where you exit on John Daly Boulevard. Take a right on John Daly Boulevard and continue to Highway 35 (Skyline Boulevard). You will turn left at the Skyline/Great Highway junction. Get into the lane so you can make a right turn into the zoo entrance off the Great Highway.
The biggest change due to the pandemic is you need to reserve and purchase in advance online.
You purchase your parking ticket needed to exit at the ticket counter at the main gate prior to leaving the zoo. The cost is $10 on weekdays and $12 on weekends and holidays.
Zoo hours in the spring and summer are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $20 for ages 15 to 64, $17 for those 65 and older, and $14 for ages 4 to 14, and free for those 3 and under.
It takes an effort not to learn and have fun while visiting the zoo.
There are scheduled keeper talks daily. There are keepsake zoo keys to use in talking storybooks throughout the zoo. There are impressive docents in uniform throughout the zoo that can answer your questions and tell stories about the various exhibits and animals. There are bio-fact carts throughout the zoo filled with bio-facts of many different animals allowing you to see and touch fur, bones and teeth with well-versed docents and youth volunteers to fill you in on the fascinating physiology of the various animals. And there are Wild Walks — guide tours of the zoo on weekends at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Registration is required.
There is also a children’s play area complete with a carousel and the Little Puffer miniature steam train.
There are three dining options at the zoo — the Leaping Lemur Café that offers grill-style items, pizza, sandwiches, soup and salad; The Station Pizza Parlor; and the Café Playfield with a kid friendly menu.
For more information, go to sfzoo.org.