If your family hasn’t visited the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park in a while, consider a day or weekend trip to the zoo’s latest expansion: the Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, a 3.2-acre oasis ripe for exploring and learning.
Built on the site of the historic children’s zoo, the basecamp encompasses four habitats — rainforest, desert dunes, wild woods and marsh meadows — that offer innovative ways for kids of all ages to interact with fauna and flora. There are play, climbing and crawling structures for children to let loose like their favorite animals and splash areas set up for hot days under the sun.
The nearby Safari Park, located just 31 miles away in Escondido, is surrounded by Asian and African savanna habitats. You can take an adventure in a balloon safari ride for dramatic aerial views, soar over the San Pasqual Valley on the Flightline Safari zipline and eat a delicious meal at the Watering Hole at Kijamii Overlook while gazing out at the sunbathing rhinos and giraffes.
For extended summer fun, the zoo and safari park are open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. through early September. Pack your sunscreen, bottled water and safari hats and drive down for infinite possibilities, or dodge the high gas prices and hop on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.
When you walk into the basecamp, you’ll see a rotating seven-foot-high stone globe surrounded by sculptures of human-sized dung beetles — symbolic of the interconnectedness of all species and the cycle of life.
Kids (and adults) can climb onto the creatures, take photos and let their imaginations run wild in this experiential setting. The tanks and enclosures where the animals live were constructed thoughtfully, with viewing possible from vantage points. While viewing turtles or fish or the crocodile in the marsh meadows area, guests can observe wildlife below the water line and above. This allows viewers to watch movements as the caiman navigate their semi-aquatic lifestyles.
The signage is also playful and educational, with questions that inspire children to reflect on and even relate to the animals.
Little creatures, big impact
“Basecamp is designed to give guests that exposure to some of the smaller species, the prairie dogs, the burrowing owl, the fennec fox,” says Paul Baribault, president and CEO of San Diego Wildlife Alliance. “There are so many places here in basecamp that are about parallel play, where we’re trying to engage the visitor in wildlife in a similar manner as wildlife is engaging next to them.”
Over in the desert dunes region, the cohabitating prairie dogs are particularly fun to observe as they live with the Western burrowing owl. They share a symbiotic relationship with the owls, who provide insect control for the prairie dogs while the vocal prairie dogs warn off predators and excavate burrows where the owls roost.
Bugs for days
Beyond the four primary habitats, the spectacular Spineless Marvels building showcases the best in insects, illustrating a way for us to feel connected to the tiniest of critters.
Your family will get lost in the stunning, multi-colored immersive butterfly display. Let your eyes bug out at the giant beehive and play an insect survival video game with multiple players to navigate everything from an insect’s search for food to avoiding predators. One fun fact in the bee section states that half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables eaten in the U.S. come from California farms.
Empathy for animals
At the basecamp’s grand opening, actress, model and mom Brooke Shields and three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White interacted with ambassador animals, including a sloth named Tornero and an umbrella cockatoo named Mickey. Both Shields and White are animal advocates. Shields has a long history with the zoo — she interned there when she was 17. “Man, I worked really hard here. It was amazing,” Shields recalls.
White, who grew up near the zoo, loves basecamp’s bug exhibit. “I loved the bug area because it’s just such a trip,” he says. “You know they’re around, but you never really hone in on them. The reptile area really reminded me of ‘Jurassic Park.’ [W]hen I used to come [to the zoo], I’d maybe touch a pony or something, but now to see what it’s become is really incredible. I love how they mixed in technology with learning to make it more enjoyable and to bring people into that world.”
Totally wild experiences not to be missed
- Spineless Marvels at Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp for an insect haven
- Prairie dogs and burrowing owls at the basecamp
- Elephants, koalas and orangutans at the San Diego Zoo
- Walkabout Australia’s newest habitat for the only two platypuses in the world outside of Australia, located in the Safari Park
- Antelope, gazelle, giraffes and rhinos at Safari Park
- Kangaroos and wallabies, Australian waterfowl, cassowaries, blue-tongued skinks and sugar gliders at Safari Park
- The Watering Hole at Kijamii Overlook for dining among the savanna wildlife
Michael Menachem is an entertainment and lifestyle writer who has been published in national and regional publications for 20 years. He lives with his wife and their five succulents in L.A.